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Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art

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From the best-selling author of Fosse, a sweeping yet intimate—and often hilarious—history of a uniquely American art form that has never been more popular. At the height of the McCarthy era, an experimental theater troupe set up shop in a bar near the University of Chicago. Via word-of-mouth, astonished crowds packed the ad-hoc venue to see its unscripted, interactive, co From the best-selling author of Fosse, a sweeping yet intimate—and often hilarious—history of a uniquely American art form that has never been more popular. At the height of the McCarthy era, an experimental theater troupe set up shop in a bar near the University of Chicago. Via word-of-mouth, astonished crowds packed the ad-hoc venue to see its unscripted, interactive, consciousness-raising style. From this unlikely seed grew the Second City, the massively influential comedy theater troupe, and its offshoots—the Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade, SNL, and a slew of others.    Sam Wasson charts the meteoric rise of improv in this richly reported, scene-driven narrative that, like its subject, moves fast and digs deep. He shows us the chance meeting at a train station between Mike Nichols and Elaine May. We hang out at the after-hours bar Dan Aykroyd opened so that friends like John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner would always have a home. We go behind the scenes of landmark entertainments from The Graduate to Caddyshack, The Forty-Year Old Virgin to The Colbert Report. Along the way, we commune with a host of pioneers—Mike Nichols and Harold Ramis, Dustin Hoffman, Chevy Chase, Steve Carell, Amy Poehler, Alan Arkin, Tina Fey, Judd Apatow, and many more. With signature verve and nuance, Wasson shows why improv deserves to be considered the great American art form of the last half-century—and the most influential one today.     


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From the best-selling author of Fosse, a sweeping yet intimate—and often hilarious—history of a uniquely American art form that has never been more popular. At the height of the McCarthy era, an experimental theater troupe set up shop in a bar near the University of Chicago. Via word-of-mouth, astonished crowds packed the ad-hoc venue to see its unscripted, interactive, co From the best-selling author of Fosse, a sweeping yet intimate—and often hilarious—history of a uniquely American art form that has never been more popular. At the height of the McCarthy era, an experimental theater troupe set up shop in a bar near the University of Chicago. Via word-of-mouth, astonished crowds packed the ad-hoc venue to see its unscripted, interactive, consciousness-raising style. From this unlikely seed grew the Second City, the massively influential comedy theater troupe, and its offshoots—the Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade, SNL, and a slew of others.    Sam Wasson charts the meteoric rise of improv in this richly reported, scene-driven narrative that, like its subject, moves fast and digs deep. He shows us the chance meeting at a train station between Mike Nichols and Elaine May. We hang out at the after-hours bar Dan Aykroyd opened so that friends like John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner would always have a home. We go behind the scenes of landmark entertainments from The Graduate to Caddyshack, The Forty-Year Old Virgin to The Colbert Report. Along the way, we commune with a host of pioneers—Mike Nichols and Harold Ramis, Dustin Hoffman, Chevy Chase, Steve Carell, Amy Poehler, Alan Arkin, Tina Fey, Judd Apatow, and many more. With signature verve and nuance, Wasson shows why improv deserves to be considered the great American art form of the last half-century—and the most influential one today.     

30 review for Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art

  1. 4 out of 5

    Hannah Petosa

    I can’t even begin to describe how much this book means to me. When I first started reading it, I assumed it would be the history of improv. However, this was way more than just a history book. This is the story (or should I say, stories) of artists we have come to know and love and their passion for improvisation. As an improviser myself, I can say that yes I did know a lot of the information already written in my book. But, this book made me feel like I personally knew the legends I read so mu I can’t even begin to describe how much this book means to me. When I first started reading it, I assumed it would be the history of improv. However, this was way more than just a history book. This is the story (or should I say, stories) of artists we have come to know and love and their passion for improvisation. As an improviser myself, I can say that yes I did know a lot of the information already written in my book. But, this book made me feel like I personally knew the legends I read so much about. Along with Wasson’s writing style, he is exceptionally talented at intertwining the everyday lives of my improv gurus. Anyone with a passion for improv comedy should read this. I know that I have big dreams and this book makes my dreams seem like a reality. Every improv success story becomes so much more relatable through Wasson’s words.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Stewart Tame

    Full disclosure: I won a free ARC of this book in a Goodreads giveaway. As you’d surmise, this is a history of the improv movement in the USA. Wasson presents it as an American artform--yes, there are antecedents in European traditions, but nothing quite like improv as the term is commonly understood. Anyway, he makes a persuasive case, but whether you accept it as American or not, the history--Nichols & May, Second City, the Groundlings, Saturday Night Live, SCTV, This is Spinal Tap, Stephen Co Full disclosure: I won a free ARC of this book in a Goodreads giveaway. As you’d surmise, this is a history of the improv movement in the USA. Wasson presents it as an American artform--yes, there are antecedents in European traditions, but nothing quite like improv as the term is commonly understood. Anyway, he makes a persuasive case, but whether you accept it as American or not, the history--Nichols & May, Second City, the Groundlings, Saturday Night Live, SCTV, This is Spinal Tap, Stephen Colbert, and more--is fascinating. The book is a bit on the fragmentary side, a necessity when dealing with events unfolding in several parts of the country at more or less the same time. But that made the book more interesting for me. I enjoyed seeing the flow, how different people and events fit together. And I enjoyed getting to know legendary teachers like Del Close and Viola Spolin. I’ve long been a student of the history of comedy, so this book was right up my alley. Recommended!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Dave

    Wasson's Improv Nation traces the American art of improvisational theater from its workshop beginnings in the Fifties through its influences on such movies as the Graduate and to the great Improv theaters of Second City in Chicago and Toronto and the Groundlings in Los Angeles. In the Seventies under the direction of Lorne Michaels, the amazing talents of John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and Jane Curtin became the foundation for a new kind of television: Saturday Night Live, Wasson's Improv Nation traces the American art of improvisational theater from its workshop beginnings in the Fifties through its influences on such movies as the Graduate and to the great Improv theaters of Second City in Chicago and Toronto and the Groundlings in Los Angeles. In the Seventies under the direction of Lorne Michaels, the amazing talents of John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and Jane Curtin became the foundation for a new kind of television: Saturday Night Live, the one tv show that was worth staying up for. And, then with he success of Animal House, Meatballs, and Jake and Elwood, the Blues Brothers, the counterculture comedy went mainstream. Watson traces the lineage through Chris Farley, Tina Fey, and other modern day players. Today, many of theater games that make up Improv are well known, but at one time it was not so. Wasson dies an absolutely amazing job of painstakingly chronicling this history. In fact, there are times when you feel fact-overload as a reader, particularly at times when what's being chronicled are actors and producers you have only a passing familiarity with. There are many different actors discussed in different generations. Overall, What a fantastic work, despite the fact that it sometimes seemed to be too thorough.

  4. 5 out of 5

    James

    From the birth to the current status of the art of improvisation which Sam Wasson believes is a true American art form like jazz. He goes from the inception created by a mix of European acting ethics and abstract realism that comes from the inner self ... no rules, just feel. It morphs under the tutelage of different innovators and stylists and has become what we basically see 'comedy' as today. Reading this is a bit of a chore. I'm a big fan of Wasson's previous bios on directors Blake Edwards, From the birth to the current status of the art of improvisation which Sam Wasson believes is a true American art form like jazz. He goes from the inception created by a mix of European acting ethics and abstract realism that comes from the inner self ... no rules, just feel. It morphs under the tutelage of different innovators and stylists and has become what we basically see 'comedy' as today. Reading this is a bit of a chore. I'm a big fan of Wasson's previous bios on directors Blake Edwards, Bob Fosse, and Paul Mazursky, but this meanders all about and is written in an abstract manner with seemingly awkward sentences and thought. Some of this analysis, too, is hard to comprehend and this may be basically because I'm a bit too thick for this cerebral digging of improv philosophy. Some of these people seems out of their minds, too, and not so funny. It feels a bit like it is written as an improv. The best parts are about Mike Nichols and Elaine May and I hope one day a book can be created that is exclusively about these two brilliant innovators of a comedy style that seems lost today. They were sophisticated and smart and had a perfect look at character mixed with sadness and humor.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Andrei Alupului

    really solid and entertaining history - the notes section alone is a trove of cool stuff to follow through on, videos to check out, interviews to read, etc. the writing gets a lil clumsy i think, proportionate to the author's enthusiasm. like based on how he described some of the sctv crew's parties i could tell they were his favs cause it got a little cringey reading it - and then in the afterword it's like yep, they were his favs. but honestly there's also something kind of lovely about that, really solid and entertaining history - the notes section alone is a trove of cool stuff to follow through on, videos to check out, interviews to read, etc. the writing gets a lil clumsy i think, proportionate to the author's enthusiasm. like based on how he described some of the sctv crew's parties i could tell they were his favs cause it got a little cringey reading it - and then in the afterword it's like yep, they were his favs. but honestly there's also something kind of lovely about that, i appreciate revealing earnestness more than detached cynicism and lord knows the latter is easier and my escape hatch through life. anyway! this is really a wonderful history, i'm sure there are the usual complaints to be had about omissions or generalizations or etc in certain points but for me it filled a lot of gaps and was also a total pleasure. additionally it reminded me why i love doing and seeing improv so much, how it became an obsession for me as it has for so many. i think this is a good book for improvisers to give to their loved ones in the hopes of creating a better understanding in that way. i'm glad it exists!

  6. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    Unlike the quirky creators of the art of improv and the many improvisors about whom the author so beautifully and lovingly writes, all of whom seem to know just what to say on the spur of the moment, I find myself at a loss for words to describe just how much I enjoyed this extraordinarily good book. So let me just say that, f I could give it more than five stars, I would gladly do so.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Evan Kostelka

    I didn't have a large knowledge of older improv comedians going into this book, but after reading the book I see the progression from Mike & Elaine to Will Ferrell. The author presented the material energetically and in some cases, dramatically, leaving me hanging to read how the story ended. I thought the beginning was a little slow, but once he gets into the Second City era, the names and movies started to become familiar to me and I enjoyed the book a lot more. I didn't have a large knowledge of older improv comedians going into this book, but after reading the book I see the progression from Mike & Elaine to Will Ferrell. The author presented the material energetically and in some cases, dramatically, leaving me hanging to read how the story ended. I thought the beginning was a little slow, but once he gets into the Second City era, the names and movies started to become familiar to me and I enjoyed the book a lot more.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Gregory Butera

    This is the hilarious story of America’s largest dysfunctional family, since it seems everyone really has worked with nearly everyone else in the improv comedy world. If you have any interest in improv comedy or comedians or the process of creating humor this is a must read. I just love the work of so many of the folks included in this volume. These men and women have made me laugh and have made the world a more bearable place. I’ve read other books about SNL and comedians and this tied so much This is the hilarious story of America’s largest dysfunctional family, since it seems everyone really has worked with nearly everyone else in the improv comedy world. If you have any interest in improv comedy or comedians or the process of creating humor this is a must read. I just love the work of so many of the folks included in this volume. These men and women have made me laugh and have made the world a more bearable place. I’ve read other books about SNL and comedians and this tied so much together for me. It is a fascinating history of improvisation and its many mothers and fathers and crazy stepchildren. From the early beginnings of theater games in LA, the Chicago improv scene and the successes of Nichols and May, through Second City, SNL, SCTV, the Committee, ImprovOlympics, the Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade, and many lesser known offshoots and troops across the country, right up through the Colbert Report. I’ve enjoyed watching these folks as they succeed and fail, as they come into our homes via TV or the local movie theater, and imagining all the fun they must have been having, how they all seemed to know each other. Because they did. They were roommates and in touring companies and taking improv classes before they themselves became great. They were all in this troop or another, doing their Yes, ands and their Harold’s and bombing and killing and then starring in the next Christopher Guest mockumentary. The author did lengthy amounts of research and had a great deal of access to the right people. Well written and the stories are a lot of fun. My only beef is sometimes there would be a single paragraph that was chronologically in the right section of the book but was clearly written in connection with a previous story in a different year band/chapter. It felt disjointed coming on those bits of anecdotes without context. But a minor quibble. I really want to give this five stars but I’m stingy with that kind of praise about a book. But this is a solid 4/4.5 at minimum. Because Wow.

  9. 5 out of 5

    FittenTrim

    NOTE: I know/knew a few of the people in this book; improvised at some of these theaters. Bringing the unruly history of improvisation into one book was always going to be difficult. IMPROV NATION does as well as one book could; though a tighter focus on the original Compass players would've provided more a cohesive tale. Pulling in Del so early (because you can't tell the story of improv without Del) destroys any momentum in the first 100 pages of Spolin, Sills, Nichols and May. But then the las NOTE: I know/knew a few of the people in this book; improvised at some of these theaters. Bringing the unruly history of improvisation into one book was always going to be difficult. IMPROV NATION does as well as one book could; though a tighter focus on the original Compass players would've provided more a cohesive tale. Pulling in Del so early (because you can't tell the story of improv without Del) destroys any momentum in the first 100 pages of Spolin, Sills, Nichols and May. But then the last section keeps returning to Mike Nichols and Elaine May for diminishing returns. While he may have feared adding 'dry' text, Wesson should've included much more of the process into his book. Type out the actual games Viola taught, breakdown the method which Second City turned improvised scenes into written scenes, the rules and exercises that improv teachers use, etc. Final thought: Del use to say (brag?) that his past performing failures were the inspiration for May's movie Ishtar. Doesn't make Ishtar better, nor the telling of the making any more interesting.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Craig Leimkuehler

    This book is a must read for anyone who performs improv, enjoys improv or for that matter is alive and breathing. (Zombies will not enjoy it.) It gives a very detailed history about this aspect of comedy that is often overlooked. The one fault is that it fails to explain why Del Close is regarded as some great comic genius. The ability to consume large amount of drugs and alcohol does not strike me as something to be admired, but maybe that's just me. This book is a must read for anyone who performs improv, enjoys improv or for that matter is alive and breathing. (Zombies will not enjoy it.) It gives a very detailed history about this aspect of comedy that is often overlooked. The one fault is that it fails to explain why Del Close is regarded as some great comic genius. The ability to consume large amount of drugs and alcohol does not strike me as something to be admired, but maybe that's just me.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    A fascinating and endlessly readable look into improvisation and how this American art form has changed throughout the years. With a journalistic eye on detail and a fiction writer's ability to render a scene, Wasson draws you into the life of improvisational geniuses and traces the art form's origination as educational games all the way up to Stephen Colbert's real-time manipulation of politics and news. A must read for anyone interested in improvisation on any level. A fascinating and endlessly readable look into improvisation and how this American art form has changed throughout the years. With a journalistic eye on detail and a fiction writer's ability to render a scene, Wasson draws you into the life of improvisational geniuses and traces the art form's origination as educational games all the way up to Stephen Colbert's real-time manipulation of politics and news. A must read for anyone interested in improvisation on any level.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Katherine Loyacano

    Improv Nation is a terrific read for anyone who wants to learn more about the history of improv. It starts back to 1940 and runs through to 2008. It is interesting to learn how comic legends like John Belushi, Chris Farley, Bill Murray, and so many more got there start rooted in improv.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Lyndsay West

    Here's an excerpt from my review of this book on my blog. You can check out the rest of the review here: http://humpdayhardbacks.blogspot.com/... Stepping on my soapbox for a sec! Improv has significantly improved my life, and if you’re on the fence about taking a class, DO IT. It puts you back in touch with the imaginative, vulnerable, and curious parts of yourself that shone more readily as a child. It improves your quick-thinking skills, teaches you how to communicate better, and allows you t Here's an excerpt from my review of this book on my blog. You can check out the rest of the review here: http://humpdayhardbacks.blogspot.com/... Stepping on my soapbox for a sec! Improv has significantly improved my life, and if you’re on the fence about taking a class, DO IT. It puts you back in touch with the imaginative, vulnerable, and curious parts of yourself that shone more readily as a child. It improves your quick-thinking skills, teaches you how to communicate better, and allows you to comfortably trust your impulses. Above all, it’s a blast, and you’re usually surrounded by very funny, kind, supportive people. Alright, stepping off. My interest in improv led me to Improv Nation: How We Made A Great American Art by Sam Wasson. Wasson brings us back to the roots of improvisation before its practitioners even knew what "it" was or what to call “it”. I use these terms loosely because the beauty of improv is that it’s a hotbed of experimentation. It’s a uniquely nebulous form because the possibilities are endless. Over the years, various improvisers have taken their interpretation of the form and founded theaters. Improv Nation focuses mainly on the evolution of Second City in Chicago. Wasson’s biggest asset and biggest downfall is the number of players he’s dealing with. There have been so many talented and pivotal performers, writers, and instructors over the course of improv’s history, forcing the book to explode in a million different directions simultaneously. Try talking about SCTV (Second City TV) in depth while you talk about Harold Ramis’ relationship with Bill Murray in Caddyshack, a film largely reliant on Murray’s improvisations. Try talking about Del Close teaching Wiccan-inspired improv classes while the UCB troupe comes together elsewhere. It’s a lot. The vastness of the material can come across as frantic or recycled. Sometimes I want to hear more details on a particularly interesting offshoot; sometimes I feel like I’ve grasped the gist and I don’t need to hear it again packaged in a different person. But who can blame a guy for trying? Wasson aggregated so much information and kept the reader up to date with how media, cultural events, and the political climate influenced the styles of the players and the theaters every step of the way. I’m a sucker for inside scoop, and Improv Nation presents hot gossip on a platter. Steve Carell brought Judd Apatow The Forty-Year Old Virgin based on a character he gravitated towards in improv scenes. Del Closes’ infamous drug use made Second City’s whipped cream bills outrageously high because of the nitrous oxide. Stephen Colbert was ten when his father and two brothers died, and his resulting insecurities helped fuel his interest in The Colbert Report. Several movies that we know and love were created primarily through improvisational techniques. Etc. Do any of the following people interest you: John Belushi, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Sedaris, Matt Walsh, Adam McKay, Chris Farley? The name-dropping goes on and on. I learned plenty about people whose names I recognized and expanded my theatrical palette by tuning into new names I should have known all along, like Mike Nichols and Elaine May.

  14. 5 out of 5

    David

    "They were creating constantly, and without the help of lighting, costumes, sets, script, or even story. In or out of the theater, Shepherd had never seen such interconnection. These people were all working together, like a family, to alchemize empty space into art." Rating: 5/5 Quotes: "Every kid assumes he has a secret identity," Close would say, "and if you could just find the magic word, the godlike powers would indeed burst forth." "There are two worlds. Even as a boy, he knew that. In one, you "They were creating constantly, and without the help of lighting, costumes, sets, script, or even story. In or out of the theater, Shepherd had never seen such interconnection. These people were all working together, like a family, to alchemize empty space into art." Rating: 5/5 Quotes: "Every kid assumes he has a secret identity," Close would say, "and if you could just find the magic word, the godlike powers would indeed burst forth." "There are two worlds. Even as a boy, he knew that. In one, you have to wake up early and go to school. You must do your homework. You must do what they tell you to do. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you want; you have to follow the rules. In the other, you can be a cloud." "Comedy's an art. Satire's propaganda. It's an attempt to have an intellectual effect on the audience instead of a cellular effect." "Spontaneity was a counterattack, the artistic Left's minefield under the battleships of prepackaged mass communication, the cultural equivalent of the military industrial complex, which, since the end of World War II, had metastasized." "Death is not important. Life is important. And life is eternal, and life is now." "There is no failure in result; there is only failure in process." "Even if it's exaggerated," he said, "comedy has to represent truthful human behavior. We have to see you. We have to see ourselves." "I look at improvising as a prolonged game of chess," he said. "There's an opening gambit with your pawn in a complex game I have with one character, and lots of side games with other characters, and another game with myself—and in each game you make all these tiny, tiny moves that get you to the endgame." "My book ends there, but its story is still a work in progress. I leave it to someone else—to you, to everyone, really—to write the next installment. And I do mean you, whoever you are. Because as any experienced improviser will tell you, every audience member watching the show is improvising too."

  15. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    Until I read Improv Nation, I had not realized how many comedians/actors I was familiar with had connections to Chicago's Second City. Sam Wasson starts in the 1940s with the birth of improvisational comedy and Viola Spolin and Del Close who taught classes in what was later to be called improv. We later meet Mike Nichols and Elaine May, who remain central to the story through the decades, but also many more comedians and others who flitted in and out of Chicago's improv troupes. While I was famil Until I read Improv Nation, I had not realized how many comedians/actors I was familiar with had connections to Chicago's Second City. Sam Wasson starts in the 1940s with the birth of improvisational comedy and Viola Spolin and Del Close who taught classes in what was later to be called improv. We later meet Mike Nichols and Elaine May, who remain central to the story through the decades, but also many more comedians and others who flitted in and out of Chicago's improv troupes. While I was familiar with Nichols and May as comics, I had forgotten that they were also movie directors and screenwriters. Nichols had great success as a director ("The Graduate" and many more), May did not (cf. "Ishtar"). But behind the scenes, May's screenwriting talents saved movies for which she did not get credit, including "The Graduate". What fascinated me about Improv Nation was seeing the comics as people, often destitute and begging for any job. Some became successful (for example, Stephen Colbert), some a bit too successful and flamed out (John Belushi). The early deaths of several prominent comics (Belushi, John Candy, Gilda Radner) weighed heavily on those who survived. I had never before heard of Spolin and Close, but that's because they were always backstage, guiding the comics we came to know and love. Del Close was himself a fascinating character, and I understand there's another book about him which I may seek out. Overall I enjoyed Wasson's tale immensely, more so than I expected, but I noted that in his telling everyone was brilliant and I began to wonder if it was really true. The book is arranged chronologically, and towards the end it becomes somewhat spotty with very short paragraphs and jumping around. It's a very dense book with a huge story to tell. The actual comedy is a relatively small part of the story - the personal relationships are out front. I loved it.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jeffrey D Thomakos

    I haven't enjoyed reading a non-fiction book like this in quite awhile. This book is dense. Packed with great little stories about the greats of American Comedy (and particularly Improv/Sketch Comedy) of the latter half of the 20th century and beyond. I had no idea, for instance, that a regional production of Godspell in Toronto would lead to some of the greatest comedy of my lifetime. The Bill Murray stories were all amazing. So were the tales of John Belushi, Del Close, Elaine May, Mike Nichol I haven't enjoyed reading a non-fiction book like this in quite awhile. This book is dense. Packed with great little stories about the greats of American Comedy (and particularly Improv/Sketch Comedy) of the latter half of the 20th century and beyond. I had no idea, for instance, that a regional production of Godspell in Toronto would lead to some of the greatest comedy of my lifetime. The Bill Murray stories were all amazing. So were the tales of John Belushi, Del Close, Elaine May, Mike Nichols, et al. If it fails in its ambition to detail the entire history of Improv and Sketch, it needs to be respected for the attempt at the very least. Yes, there is no mention whatsoever of ComedySportz or The State or Kids in the Hall or Who's Line is it Anyway? or any of a multitude of great groups that have set the standard for innovation and increase of popularity of this amazing art form. But even he admits that it's kind of like catching a tiger by the toe. Not recommended and really, really hard. Still, I recommend this book to anyone, not just aspiring improvisors, but anyone who is interested how all of the delicious Improv Sausage gets made. It's still reverberating and changing and forming and reforming on different mediums from full-length shows to 6 second Tik Toks. Having been an improvisor and teacher of improv for many years, I can attest to the fact that it's not just an art form, but a way of looking at life, a way of living your life. I highly recommend it...and the book.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Michael Brown

    The author tried real hard to cover everything. Each section covered a group of years. In each section were various chapters that covered either groups, players, events or all of them. Too much time was spent at times on trivial points that seemed to not be continued later or part of further treatments of improv. Lots of personal data was provided and again often over and over again. The main theme was the growth of improve in the US following the Korean War and we learn about the small starts i The author tried real hard to cover everything. Each section covered a group of years. In each section were various chapters that covered either groups, players, events or all of them. Too much time was spent at times on trivial points that seemed to not be continued later or part of further treatments of improv. Lots of personal data was provided and again often over and over again. The main theme was the growth of improve in the US following the Korean War and we learn about the small starts in St. Louis MO, LA and San Francisco, Cleveland, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, DC, New York, Toronto, Edmundton and other places. Each gets some coverage but the most important action centers are Chicago and New York/LA. Second City and SNL become the big draws for improve style theater with SCTV adding in. We meet the greats and the basically unknowns. So many names meant nothing to me as I could not place a face with the person described. And the picture section was so small and mainly group shots without a context to shows or movies that so many of those listed are just names without acknowledgement. The efforts of movies to use improve augmented the small screen shows as many players moved from one to the other and back. Overall and long and detailed read that had too much crammed into one volume.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Aden Date

    The first quarter to a third of this book is utterly thrilling - improvisation at its most bohemian, inchoate and punk. The days when the closest thing to the UCB Manual or Truth In Comedy were the Westminster Palace kitchen rules, when nobody had a clue what they were doing and improv was pursued out of sheer love and possibility. The beginning of the end of the book occurs about a fifth of the way through, where a now-successful Mike Nicholls dines with the his less successful ex-partner, Paul The first quarter to a third of this book is utterly thrilling - improvisation at its most bohemian, inchoate and punk. The days when the closest thing to the UCB Manual or Truth In Comedy were the Westminster Palace kitchen rules, when nobody had a clue what they were doing and improv was pursued out of sheer love and possibility. The beginning of the end of the book occurs about a fifth of the way through, where a now-successful Mike Nicholls dines with the his less successful ex-partner, Paul Sills, and reflects on how his success had estranged him from his humble origins. The book follows the same fate, and ultimately the establishment of a theatre here-or-there or the meteoric rise of a comedic personality feels unsatisfying. The enormous, revolutionary promise of the theatre eventually delivered us feel-good comedies and cynical liberal satire. The last three-quarters of the book left me wondering how we got from the idea of "improv as democracy," to Caddyshack, or how we got from Elaine May's "addiction to the secret truths beneath the surface of people," to Tina Fey's impersonations of Sarah Palin. I tried, but I just couldn't share Wasson's enthusiasm for the extended genealogy of improvisation, and everything beyond Sills' reunion with Nicholls read like a colossal disappointment.

  19. 5 out of 5

    David Canfield

    American comedy remains a subject of endless fascination — for proof, look no further than the books of this year. Jeremy Dauber situated the topic in a complex cultural context in October’s Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, while a month earlier, Budd Friedman’s The Improv featured titans like Jerry Seinfeld and Lily Tomlin giving first-person accounts of the early days at the legendary stand-up club. For decades, books like these have followed celebrities and underground icons as they confront American comedy remains a subject of endless fascination — for proof, look no further than the books of this year. Jeremy Dauber situated the topic in a complex cultural context in October’s Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, while a month earlier, Budd Friedman’s The Improv featured titans like Jerry Seinfeld and Lily Tomlin giving first-person accounts of the early days at the legendary stand-up club. For decades, books like these have followed celebrities and underground icons as they confront American life with punch lines and pratfalls. There’s a reason their stories resonate: Jokes have a way of revealing who we are. Sam Wasson’s Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art reminds us that the best is often saved for last. The social historian, whose 2013 biography Fosse provided a thrilling portrait of the famed choreog­rapher, traces the rise of improv comedy over nearly a century, zeroing in (at least initially) on a few key players — famous and not — with vital intimacy. You probably know more about Mike Nichols than Viola Spolin, or Tina Fey than Paul Simms, but in Improv Nation their stories are entwined and given equal weight. Read the rest of the review at Entertainment Weekly: https://ew.com/books/2017/12/01/sam-w...

  20. 5 out of 5

    Neil

    This is the story of how improv comedy developed, through Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Second City in Chicago and Toronto, and a dozen or so other troupes and individuals who built this kind of interactive, in the moment comedy from a minor tributary of performance into arguably the most important source of comic talent, especially in the United States. So many of the great names of American comedy are featured here, in most cases before they became really famous, and some who never really becam This is the story of how improv comedy developed, through Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Second City in Chicago and Toronto, and a dozen or so other troupes and individuals who built this kind of interactive, in the moment comedy from a minor tributary of performance into arguably the most important source of comic talent, especially in the United States. So many of the great names of American comedy are featured here, in most cases before they became really famous, and some who never really became well known to the majority, even though we reaped the benefits of what they did. This is a very readable account, enjoyable for someone like me who has worked in an improv troupe, but I think also to the general reader who just wants to learn about the roots of their favorite comedians and how they worked their way to fame. Besides Nichols and May (I'm excited to see Mark Harris, one of my favorite writers on film, give his take on Mike Nichols in a book due soon) you'll also see folks like Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Chris Farley, and Steve Carell featured, alongside some very important people who aren't well known by contemporary comedy fans.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Rachel Reynolds

    Things I loved about this book: learning the early history of Improv and gaining an understanding of how influential improv has been in the history of theater and art. I really loved the analogy of improv as the "jazz" of theater, in terms of both its explorational qualities and its roots as an American art form. I learned a lot more about actors and artists that I only knew little bits about before (Del Close, Nichols and May, etc.). Things I wished this book had done better: It just struggled Things I loved about this book: learning the early history of Improv and gaining an understanding of how influential improv has been in the history of theater and art. I really loved the analogy of improv as the "jazz" of theater, in terms of both its explorational qualities and its roots as an American art form. I learned a lot more about actors and artists that I only knew little bits about before (Del Close, Nichols and May, etc.). Things I wished this book had done better: It just struggled to keep my attention. There were parts of the book that seemed a little disjointed and I found it hard to read. I also found some of the writing style to be almost too casual and actually offensive or dismissive. Example: when talking about a theater setup in chapter 4, Wasson describes it as "the tables...looked like they had been conceived by schizophrenics and assembled by paraplegics." (!!!) If this had been a dated direct quote from someone, I would have found it presented in poor taste, but at least there would have been context. For this to be in a book written in 2017 was ridiculous. I basically lost my interest in the book after this and just didn't pick it back up. Maybe I'll decide to finish it one of these days.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Phil

    "The democratic spirit channeled through art," Sam Wasson sums up improv theater. He's not the first to express this, but for a survey, he may have explored its history more exhaustively than any other writer, particularly the early years of Viola Spolin and Paul Sills, on to Charna Halpern and Del Close. Dozens of their disciples and the troupes they formed such as The Second City, ImprovOlympic, the Groundlings, SNL, and Upright Citizens Brigade are covered in detail, with Second City garnerin "The democratic spirit channeled through art," Sam Wasson sums up improv theater. He's not the first to express this, but for a survey, he may have explored its history more exhaustively than any other writer, particularly the early years of Viola Spolin and Paul Sills, on to Charna Halpern and Del Close. Dozens of their disciples and the troupes they formed such as The Second City, ImprovOlympic, the Groundlings, SNL, and Upright Citizens Brigade are covered in detail, with Second City garnering the largest share of research. You will enjoy many insights on Ramis, Murray, Belushi, Candy, Farley, Fey, Colbert, and many others. Mike Nichols and Elaine May make a fascinating thread carried through the full narrative. The number of dialog-level scenes he recounts as the art form was hatched is astonishing. This work reminded me how drawn I am (we all are?) to these figures that were trained in the improv arts—theater games, longform, shortform—then rise to fame making us laugh, with all the unscripted daring that it takes to pull it off.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Carrie

    I love improv, so I was elated to learn about the artform's history. This book delivered! I appreciated how in depth it covered the beginnings, but it didn't seem to dive as deep into the more recent history or point out some of the ways organizing around an artform can be detrimental to it. It centered much on Chicago, and a lot of names we do know. I was going to say that I thought it glossed over the awfulness of some of the "characters," but it's not advertised as an "investigative report." I love improv, so I was elated to learn about the artform's history. This book delivered! I appreciated how in depth it covered the beginnings, but it didn't seem to dive as deep into the more recent history or point out some of the ways organizing around an artform can be detrimental to it. It centered much on Chicago, and a lot of names we do know. I was going to say that I thought it glossed over the awfulness of some of the "characters," but it's not advertised as an "investigative report." It's celebratory, certainly. So, I suppose I expected it to not dive that deep into personal lives or behaviors. Because of the audiobook, I didn't find it disjointed as many people have indicated. But, I'm also not normally bothered by jumps in time and plots in the way that Wasson does by going back and for to cover the individual stories. Just be mindful that happens, so you'll be moving around in time and space a bit. This book delivered information I didn't have in an enjoyable way and gave me lots of ideas on how to explore the history of improv further.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Clark

    As an improvisor and a long-time fan of most of the folks whose history with the form is chronicled in this book, I found it amazingly engaging. The recounting of the evolution of the form as it has passed through the minds and artistic souls of so many adherents and participants is nothing short of a revelation. There's many of the names who you'll instantly recognize, and not a few who you might not, but should. I've been inspired by what I've read here to put together a show with my troupe wh As an improvisor and a long-time fan of most of the folks whose history with the form is chronicled in this book, I found it amazingly engaging. The recounting of the evolution of the form as it has passed through the minds and artistic souls of so many adherents and participants is nothing short of a revelation. There's many of the names who you'll instantly recognize, and not a few who you might not, but should. I've been inspired by what I've read here to put together a show with my troupe which will strive to recreate the earliest iterations of long-form styles which eventually evolved to be known by names like "The Armando" and "The Harold". The earlier forms seem not to be antiquated and outdated, but challenging attempts to bring maximum creativity out of each moment. If you're an improvisor and you want to know your roots, and also how the originators came to find their own unique modes of expression, then you shouldn't pass this book by.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Anne Downes

    I won a copy of this book from a Goodreads giveaway. I received this book during the same month that I signed up for an improv class, so the timing could’t have been better. Wasson writes with exhaustive detail in this book, giving us a microscopic view of each phase of improv. On the one hand, I like that because I have learned about people and places unfamiliar to me, but on the other hand, it feels like a bit too much. Wasson writes about Elaine May as if she were a goddess in the improv commu I won a copy of this book from a Goodreads giveaway. I received this book during the same month that I signed up for an improv class, so the timing could’t have been better. Wasson writes with exhaustive detail in this book, giving us a microscopic view of each phase of improv. On the one hand, I like that because I have learned about people and places unfamiliar to me, but on the other hand, it feels like a bit too much. Wasson writes about Elaine May as if she were a goddess in the improv community. I don’t doubt that she is, but his over exuberant praise of her in almost every chapter is a bit much. At the same time he tells us how difficult and angry she was at her fellow actors. One of the main ‘rules’ of improv seems to be working and collaborating with others, and she certainly doesn’t seem to have done that very well. A little less goddess worship of May would be fine with me.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Adrian Valencia

    The beginning of the book, I have a hard to reading. I felt like I had to sludge through it because I really wanted to get to the 1970's to read about John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd and all the early Saturday Night Live people. I did appreciate reading about McNichols and May and the early groundwork of improvisation. Towards the middle is when, I really started to realize how influential improvisation is since I myself haven't done this before, not in front an audience. This was heady and thick b The beginning of the book, I have a hard to reading. I felt like I had to sludge through it because I really wanted to get to the 1970's to read about John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd and all the early Saturday Night Live people. I did appreciate reading about McNichols and May and the early groundwork of improvisation. Towards the middle is when, I really started to realize how influential improvisation is since I myself haven't done this before, not in front an audience. This was heady and thick book but did spotlight people at the time like Close, Arkin, Bill Murray, and Chris Farley and among others. This book did show what improvisation had done with movies, television, and shown it is an art form.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Dan Lalande

    Sam Wasson takes on what is, by his own humble admission, a formidable task: an inventory of the development and influence of American-style improv, from its proletariat origins in 1950's Chicago to its imprint on today's ubiquitous political satire. In the spirit of the brave ad-libbers he so worships, Wasson dives right in - but his showy sang froid isn't rewarded by much. Like a long, rambling improv, there are worthy moments - brushing acquaintances with colourful characters, odd displays of Sam Wasson takes on what is, by his own humble admission, a formidable task: an inventory of the development and influence of American-style improv, from its proletariat origins in 1950's Chicago to its imprint on today's ubiquitous political satire. In the spirit of the brave ad-libbers he so worships, Wasson dives right in - but his showy sang froid isn't rewarded by much. Like a long, rambling improv, there are worthy moments - brushing acquaintances with colourful characters, odd displays of deft analogies, recreations of jokes that hit the mark - but no focus or shape serendipitously takes hold. A semi-fun mess.

  28. 5 out of 5

    JBP

    Exhaustive and comprehensive history of improvisational comedy--from its earliest beginnings to now. It focuses mostly on Chicago/Second City connections but it does go into Toronto, NYC, a little bit of L.A. I go to the Groundlings all the time [it's a 15 minute walk from my apartment] so was kind of disappointed there was very little coverage of that group's history but aside from that slight, all the heavy hitters of comedy are included. The sheer amount of people involved with some of the ke Exhaustive and comprehensive history of improvisational comedy--from its earliest beginnings to now. It focuses mostly on Chicago/Second City connections but it does go into Toronto, NYC, a little bit of L.A. I go to the Groundlings all the time [it's a 15 minute walk from my apartment] so was kind of disappointed there was very little coverage of that group's history but aside from that slight, all the heavy hitters of comedy are included. The sheer amount of people involved with some of the key groups of improv performers is kind of staggering and this book by Sam Wasson is the definitive history. It's funny too as it has a lot of recreations of famous sketches or comedic shenanigans.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Dunn

    Best book I have read this year! A comprehensive journey through the history of American improvisation with in-depth perspectives from our greatest artists of this form. Wasson connects the dots of the varying schools of improvisational philosophy from the joy of Viola Spolin’s workshop games created to connect strangers and create family within a fleeting moment, to the metaphysics of Del Close, and the cerebral satire of Nichols, May, and Colbert. A must-read for all fans of American popular c Best book I have read this year! A comprehensive journey through the history of American improvisation with in-depth perspectives from our greatest artists of this form. Wasson connects the dots of the varying schools of improvisational philosophy from the joy of Viola Spolin’s workshop games created to connect strangers and create family within a fleeting moment, to the metaphysics of Del Close, and the cerebral satire of Nichols, May, and Colbert. A must-read for all fans of American popular culture.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jordan Parker

    I was really excited for this one and it was kind of a letdown. For starters, it's a book about improv comedy that really isn't all that funny. With that being said, it does have moments that were really interesting but there are so many stretches(especially towards the beginning of the book) that are very dry and hard to get through. It picked up for me towards the middle and end mostly because I started really recognizing the people. Great detail on how Bill Murray, John Belushi,Chris Farley, I was really excited for this one and it was kind of a letdown. For starters, it's a book about improv comedy that really isn't all that funny. With that being said, it does have moments that were really interesting but there are so many stretches(especially towards the beginning of the book) that are very dry and hard to get through. It picked up for me towards the middle and end mostly because I started really recognizing the people. Great detail on how Bill Murray, John Belushi,Chris Farley, Stephen Colbert, and many others got started. I enjoyed learning about how Second City got started and it how it has made it and thrived through all of these years. I just wish there was a way to separate some of the history from some of the stories of these people, I was much more interested in the people than the history.

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