How funny and smart are improv comics? After the photo shoot for this feature, Second City alum Naomi Snieckus comes up to me and says, “It was a topless picture, right?” “Uh, yeah, sure,” I stammer, trying to go along and be – as they say – in the moment. “Good, because I thought it was weird I was the only one who took off my shirt.”
Welcome to the high-stakes, split-second world of laughs on the fly. It’s a place where if you’re not sharp you won’t cut it.
“There are no stupid improvisers,” says David Shore, host of the monthly Monkey Toast show of improv inspired by a series of guest interviews. “And there are very few great 19-year-old improvisers. You need a lot of life experience.”
Everyone in this picture – and there are others, like Sandy Jobin-Bevans, Jack Mosshammer, Peter Oldring, Doug Morency, Paul Bates and Aurora Browne – turns that experience into funny whenever they step onto a stage.
It’s no surprise that most of these people are mainstage alumni of Second City, which creates sketches from nightly post-show improv sets.
“Doing improv regularly forces you to be better almost without trying,” says SC alum Lauren Ash, who’s donning her Manolo knockoffs, along with Jan Caruana, Rica Eckersley and Sarah Buski, for the hit show Sass And The City, the improv-?based takeoff on Sex And The City that coincides with the release of the SATC movie.
Improv shows based on TV series or movies – Stars Warz and Dreadwood, for example – are a common sight at Bad Dog Theatre (where Kerry Griffin is artistic director and a regular performer). Bad Dog began the trend a few years ago with the phenomenally successful Hairy Patter And The Improvisor’s Stone.
But you can apply improv to pretty much any genre.
A few years ago, Pat Kelly and Oldring started up Good Morning, World, an online, fully improvised spoof on idiotic morning talk shows. It’s since been picked up by the Comedy Network and broadcast each weekday on its website.
TV and film regularly use improv techniques. Train 48 (which Lisa Merchant rode for a while, proving she’s one of the best in the country) came out of improv. So does Curb Your Enthusiasm and Reno 911.
Shore, who just shot a TV pilot for his Monkey Toast show, points out that every time you see a Judd Apatow movie, you’re watching a script based on improvised material. No wonder. Steve Carell came through Second City. Will Ferrell cut his teeth with legendary L.A. improv troupe the Groundlings.
And think of this. Improv won’t just further your career; it will also make you more assertive and creative when it comes to handling the nuisances of daily life.
“Fido recently turned off my phone,” says Ash. “I called them – on another phone – to ask why, and they told me my bill was too high. $400. I said, ‘I was in L.A.! And what business is it of yours what I was doing? Are you my mother?’”
Ash got her service returned, plus a $75 credit.
“That wasn’t nearly enough, but because of my improv skills it took me three minutes to talk to them instead of the usual half-hour.”