FEATURE CHICAGO IMPROVISATION
There must have been awesome toga parties at Chicago’s improvisational
comedy school Second City while John Belushi and Mike Myers were
students. Now, as a younger generation of Second City alumni hit town,
Cait Hurley them if you can learn funny and talks to some of their British improv comedy counterparts.
t’s the invasion of the improvisers! Quite
apart from homegrown make-it-up-as—
you-go-along merchants like Phil Kay.
and Eddie lzzard’s lmprov MD. a sizeable
contingent has arrived from the spiritual
home of improvisational comedy. Chicago. a performer-friendly city that boasts around 150 theatres and three drama schools devoted solely to improv.
The most famous of these is Second City, a 35-year-old institution responsible for nurturing comedy talents from Alan Arkin. John Belushi. Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray to Mike Myers of Wayne ’s World notoriety. All of the above graduated from Second City and headed straight for seminal US television comedy show Saturday Night Live. before hitting the big time in Hollywood movies. in fact. it was a depleted touring group that arrived in Edinburgh after two performers Nancy Wallace and David Kecknor (remember these names). along with two Second City writers. were poached by SNL shortly before they were due to leave for the Festival. After a season of lacklustre ratings and appalling reviews, the show’s producers conducted a house-cleaning exercise and rehired an almost entirely new team. And so another generation begins to form.
Over 1000 students pass through Second City every year. working their way through five levels oftraining before performing intensively in clubs around the city. ‘We call it a comedic bootcamp — if you’re doing eight shows a week, improvising that much — you get good.’ says Kelly Leonard, the touring group’s
20 The List 25 Aug-7 Sept 1995
It’s not quite what we’re used to with the messing about that goes on in Whose Line Is It Anyway, these guys take improv very seriously. The likelihood of finding a stand-up doing improv in the States is minimal: this bunch are trained actors and refer to their art as theatre. ‘I don’t want to colour it too negatively.’ says Don Hall. the man behind C(mtt’d-YA‘pU)‘l: (a madcap but highly organised games show). ‘ But I’ve worked with stand-ups who’ll come in. haven’t had any training and just think they can improvise. but it’s a hell of a lot harder than it looksf
The Chicago system lends itself to change simply because there are so bloody many of them — over here. you’d be lucky if you could find more than two regular improv nights in the whole country. Eddie Izzard and Phil Kay have both tried their hands at collective improv. but lzzard found the only way to get going was to start up his own group. For Kay it was never a conscious decision to improvise — the ideas just kept tumbling out when he got up on stage. ‘When I started I’d never seen a gig before so I wasn’t quite sure what people did.’ he says. ‘I just presumed you got all these jokes and did them in a row but l remember within a minute of being on stage adding something because it’s impossible not to.’
Kay’s sponteneity is obvious. but the general feeling is that a lot of what passes for improvisation is simply the reworking of old ideas. Add to that the ‘John Sessions’ factor and haven’t you got a load of smart arses doing Reservoir Dogs in the style of a restoration
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comedy? Not surprisingly. Eddie lzzard takes issue with this suggestion. ‘If the image was put over right it would be “aren’t we sharp and open" rather than ‘aren’t we sharp and closed”.’ he says.
The Chicago learning and moving on idea has taken improv far from the short sketches of Whose Line. Harold at the Holyrood is based on an extended improvisational technique which uses just one audience suggestion as its starting point. Surely keeping the comedy balls in the air for half an hour must be a nerve-wracking business? ‘You screw up once during Harold then they know you’re making it up for sure,’ laughs Kevin Kelly of the Frank Booth Group
‘I’ve worked with stand-ups who’ll come in, haven’t had any training and just think they can improvise, but it’s a hell of a lot harder than it looks.’
who have brought over this extraordinary enterprise.
Magic sparkles from the chemistry within a group. and it seems that in Chicago, improv marriages are breaking and reforming all the time. Most seem to grow from learning together. night after night in a scenario so fraught with pitfalls that trust is paramount. As Kelly points out. you may work with people who are better or worse than you. but your best work comes from within your own group. Group improvisation seems to be a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
The importance of group bonding means that just about any performer you ask has developed some kind of analogy for the way they work. ‘lt’s the spinning of five plates all balanced and it works because it’s balanced and everything’s working cohesively.’ says lzzard. Or, to put it another way. he reckons improv is a bit like driving a tractor with five people (live again; what is it with lives?) taking the controls. Del Close. inventor of Harold. said that it’s like driving but only looking in the rear view mirror, while Phil Kay say it’s like being on autopilot and hanging on to the back of the plane to see where it goes. ‘Everything in the world that everybody has said or done has been improvised.‘ says Kay. ‘The moment it exists. it’s spontaneous.’
I Phil Kay (Fringe) Gilded Balloon (Venue 38) 226 2151. 27 Aug—2 Sept. 11.30pm. £6.50 (£5.50).
I lmprov MD with Eddie lzzard. Steve Frost and Neil Mullarkey. Gilded Balloon (Venue 38) 226 2151, 27 Aug—2 Sept. 4pm. £6.50 (£5.50). I Harold M The Holyrood (Fringe) Chicago lmprov Syndicate. Moray House Union (Venue I68) 556 ()102. until 2 Sept. 9.50pm, £5 (£4). I From The Second City (Fringe) Second City. Fringe Club (Venue 2) 226 5138. until 2 Sept (not 29). £7 (£6).
I Comedy Sportz (Fringe) What Now? Entertainment Productions. Moray House Union (Venue 168) 556 0102, until 2 Sept, £5 (£3).