As espoused by its most ardent practitioners, improvisational theater is most pure when executed as a meandering long-form odyssey—a rare variety of comedic entertainment that is neither funny nor entertaining.
Improv is to comedy as Scientology is to religion: it suckers white people into paying ever more expensive fees to the organization to gain higher levels of achievement. Like any cult, its hierarchies are of endless fascination to those within it and deadly boring to those without. And like Scientology, improv is centered around a messianic leader, though the example of the late Del Close suggests that L. Ron Hubbard would have been even more toxic if he’d had a smack habit.
Improv has as one of its core tenets the notion of “Yes, and . . . ,” which directs young initiates never to say no to anything suggested to them onstage. This makes improv the only art form in which lack of consent is inherent. Since improv sounds like something designed by a sexual predator, it’s perhaps no surprise that predators are both attracted to it and shielded by its institutions. It creates a form of Stockholm syndrome so severe that improv performers can go on to work for Lorne Michaels and still claim to be feminists.
Second City is considered one of our great artistic institutions, like Lyric Opera or Chicago Shakespeare Theater, all places where the form on display was considered groundbreaking a very long time ago. Second City seems content these days to be a mecca for corporate outings and tourists, making it the Navy Pier of comedy: people go there, but it’s no one you know. Last year, some performers on the theater’s E.T.C. stage were outraged at racist comments shouted by the audience, which is a little like working at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and being shocked by customers’ poor table manners. Second City’s Up Comedy Club once booked shows headlined by national stand-ups. It now hosts improv shows about dating and hashtags, staffed by interchangeable performers.
Improv is why Judd Apatow comedies are a half hour too long and contain an additional hour of outtakes in which performer dudes vaguely grope for a punch line. Vague groping being the hallmark of improv performer dudes both on- and offstage.
Improv’s greatest sin is encouraging the mediocre. It values the indulgence of the performer over the satisfaction of the audience. It reassures its low-achieving college-buddy teams that half-assed winging it is as valuable as careful preparation. Improv is the artistic equivalent of grade inflation; it treats a B-minus like an A. It celebrates fuzziness instead of precision, first drafts over revision, glibness over contemplation, disposability over permanence. There will never be a profound improv set. v