The Current

From Second City to Stephen Colbert: author Sam Wasson tracks history of improv comedy

Author Sam Wasson shares the colourful history of improv theatre with some of the biggest names in comedy in his book, Improv Nation.
Improv is where plenty of comedy's brightest stars have mastered their craft for generations. Now improv is having its own story told in Sam Wasson's book, Improv Nation. (Gary Copeland/Raincoast Books)

Story transcript

President Donald Trump would not be good at performing improv comedy.

That's the opinion of Sam Wasson, the author of the new book Improv Nation: How We Made Great American Art.

"No, because saying 'Fake News' is not saying 'Yes, And,'" Wasson tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"It is a perfect example of destroying the reality of the other person. It's not merely saying I disagree, which Trump has every right to do. It is saying that does not exist which is destroying the scene."
Stephen Colbert (L) and Steve Carell perform a skit as part of celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of improv theatre, The Second City, in Chicago, Dec. 12, 2009. (Frank Polich/Reuters)

'Yes, And'

In improv, saying, "Yes, And" is a rule that allows the improvisers to move the scene forward. By saying no, the scene is blocked.

Wasson sees a direct connection between freedom and improv.

"If we can be free then we will be OK," says Wasson. "You can't be free on your own, because you get caught up in your own thoughts. You can only really be free with another person."

Viola Spolin's improv games 

He traces the emergence of improv games and theatre back to the 1940s when a Jewish Socialist social worker in Chicago named Viola Spolin used improv games as a way to break down class and race barriers for children.

Joe Flaherty (L), Eugenie Ross-Leming (2nd L), Harold Ramis (2nd R), Jim Belushi (R) and Judy Morgan perform a skit to mark the 50th anniversary of improv theatre, The Second City, in Chicago, Dec. 12, 2009. (Frank Polich/Reuters)

Second City's launch

Then, in 1959, Second City opened its doors in Chicago, ushering in a new era of comedy.

Some of the alumni from Chicago Second City were John Belushi, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Tina Fey, Chris Farley and Stephen Colbert. 

When Second City moved to Toronto in the early 1970s, it hit the jackpot, discovering an incredible number of talented young comedians including John Candy, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Dan Aykroyd, Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short.

The Toronto comedian talks about leaving the Second City comedy troupe to seek out a career in the TV biz. 9:37

Wasson points out that the closeness of the troupe often led to romance — something he said worked very well for them.

"It was a different time, it was the '70s. Sex was a little lighter, a little easier. It happens so much, especially in this work because when you are doing it right, you create a connection, and sex can flow so naturally out of that," he says.

"I can only imagine really how beautiful it was to be a part of this community."

From the SCTV vault, here's The Dusty Towne Sexy Holiday Specialwith Canadian comedy great, Catherine O'Hara:

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.