at the Papa Milano Restaurant

Viola Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theater begins with the words: “Everyone can improvise.” Since 1984, the ImprovOlympic has pitted teams of improvisers against each other in a game known as the “Harold,” and proven the truth of that statement. Invented by Del Close, one of the first performers and teachers at Second City, the Harold resembles what Second City actors do after every performance–they ask the audience to suggest a place, a person, or an activity, and then they improvise a scene based on that suggestion. The Harold adds a few ground rules that enable teams to compete against each other to create the most ingenious improv.

Though ImprovOlympic has grown steadily in popularity, the game has bounced from one location to another. Now, Close and producer Charna Halpern seem to have found a permanent home: the cabaret at Papa Milano, a restaurant on Lincoln near Armitage. There, four times a week, the Harold happens. Each improvisation is unique, and each includes its fair share of failures and flubs. But most contain a flash or two of brilliance–enough, at least, to elevate the Harold from a mere game to a form of entertainment that justifies charging admission.

In this new location, the emphasis is on entertainment, not competition. Instead of pitting teams against each other and asking the audience to pick a winner, teams merely take turns displaying their wit. Since each show is entirely different, what I saw opening night won’t resemble what you see, but it might give you an idea of what to expect.

In “Musical Option,” when the house team, Blue Velveeta, asked the audience to suggest a place, someone yelled out “a restaurant.” Obviously the audience doesn’t have to be very creative, for the actors proceeded to develop an ingenious skit featuring psychic waiters. Occasionally an audience member shouted “Freeze!” and named a musical style. Then the actors, as though performing in a musical, instantly created a song in that style. When someone in the audience shouted “reggae,” for example, Jay Leggett burst into a song that began, “This is the only place in town where you don’t have to order at all . . . we know just what you want . . . .” As the skit went along, a man arrived late and ended up apologizing profusely to his date–in Gregorian chant. Later, one of the psychic waiters ripped into a screaming heavy-metal number commenting on the argument that had ensued between the two.

A team called Bouquet of Flesh also demonstrated the Harold. When Halpern asked the audience to name a common object, she got “bubble gum.”

“We try to take something trivial and find the meaning of life in it, instead of taking the meaning of life and trivializing it,” she explained.

With that suggestion, the players went to work. Ambling about the stage, they took turns free-associating about bubble gum. One recounted how his sister used to take the piece of gum out of the wrapper, fold up the wrapper again, and then offer it to her friends. Another recalled how she was nicknamed Bubble Yum lips. A third observed that one of the most intimate things two people can do is share saliva.

Once all the players had offered their thoughts on the subject, they began to create little scenes. A boy walks his gum-smacking date to the door; members of a tribe discover “Indian gum” when they chew the bark of a tree; a gum-chewing teenager enrolls in Jack Kerouac High School, where he discovers that deviance is encouraged.

Like jazz musicians, the players strive for wild, exuberant improvisations that never depart entirely from the line of the melody. But improvisation is also like roulette–the players are bound to fail once in a while. During the bubble-gum improvisation, when the boy was walking his girlfriend to the door, their conversation was going nowhere and the scene was floundering. In response to one of the boy’s remarks, his partner blurted out: “What the hell kind of comment is that?” I had the feeling she was giving voice to the common but unspoken thought of many improvisers.

Part of the pleasure of watching improvisation comes from wondering what you would say and do at any moment. Often a skit will wander down to a hopeless dead end, only to be turned around by a clever idea. During another failing scene in the bubble-gum set, Jenna Jalowitz was portraying a disgruntled wife cooking oatmeal for her husband. When she served it, she made him pay, and that became the clever premise of the skit: she made her husband pay for everything, including the baby she was carrying. “This is really gonna cost ya!” she chortled.

Clever players are essential to consistently amusing improvisation, but some of the games themselves are inherently funny. “The Dream,” for example, is based on Freud’s idea that the raw material of dreams comes from the mundane experiences of the preceding day. So Blue Velveeta invited an audience member up to recount her experiences that day: skipping a test she was supposed to take at hotel- management school, meeting an Australian parking-lot attendant, and taking Wimpy, her cat, to the vet to get neutered. Blue Velveeta proceeded to create a nightmare full of hopping kangaroos, tough math problems (“If Billy had two pancakes and you gave him one more . . .”), and a very pissed-off cat. The dream was so brilliant that a woman sitting with me was convinced that the audience member who had provided the material was a plant.

But I think that bit of ingenuity demonstrated what Del Close has long believed: that the Harold can help anyone be brilliant–once in a while.