by Jason Zinoman)
Is there anything improv can’t do?
Besides helping produce stars like Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey, improv theaters now run business workshops and train the kind of actors who once would have gone to Juilliard or Yale. For the first time, the hosts of both “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night” have an improv background.
The origins of the current improv boom can be traced to 1999, when the Upright Citizens Brigade opened its first theater. Back then, there were no permanent stages devoted to improvisational comedy in New York. Now there are three. With a bustling school (2,500 students enrolled) helping to underwrite its prolific productions, the Brigade, whose alumni include the stars of Comedy Central’s new sketch show “Broad City” and Sasheer Zamata, the newest cast member of “Saturday Night Live,” has become the most influential name in improv today.
At the start, you needed to take a class to learn the method. No longer. After seven years of work, the troupe has codified its aesthetic and released “The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual.” Far from the first improv guide, it is, however, the most practical, concrete and unapologetically prescriptive. The manual offers insights and helps aspiring comedians, but its authoritative approach has also drawn criticism.
“We wanted this to be the clearest book,” said Ian Roberts, one of three authors, along with his fellow founding Upright Citizens Brigade members Matt Besser and Matt Walsh. (The fourth founder, Amy Poehler, didn’t write, Mr. Roberts said with a hearty laugh over the phone, “because Amy’s incredibly more successful than we are.”)
While improv manuals don’t have as long a history as those about acting, many such books have been important, including Viola Spolin’s trailblazing “Improvisation for the Theater,” which influenced the original members of the Second City troupe in Chicago. The classic text for modern long-form improv was written by Del Close, a legend in the field, along with Charna Halpern and Kim Johnson.
That book, “Truth in Comedy” (1994), mixes jargon-filled teaching, anecdotes and celebrities waxing poetic about the magic of improv. In the foreword, Mike Myers calls the book “the Zen approach to comedy.” Close argued that long-form improvisation was not only a means to develop material but also an end in itself, an art form deserving its own respect.
It’s part of the reason that the Upright Citizens Brigade venerates Close. But while the troupe adopted many of his ideas, the new manual has a style that fits today’s increasingly professionalized comedy scene. Instead of talk of magic or Zen, it favors a dry, down-to-earth tone.
“There is a common misconception that improv is a whimsical or lazy art form,” the authors write in the introduction. “In reality, no matter how much fun they are having onstage, great improvisers are working together while adhering to a clear set of guidelines.” With that emphasis, the manual implicitly argues that the gulf between improvisation and scripted comedy is not as vast as the audience imagines. All long-form improvisation shares conventions and structures that limit choices.
The manual also has many prohibitions: Don’t talk about the past or the future, for instance, and don’t talk about people who aren’t there. While it says that sometimes you can break rules, the manual’s ethos, telegraphed on almost every page, encourages otherwise.
“You have to teach people technique and principles and rules that they can practice and that allow inspiration to come out,” said Mr. Roberts, who is also a show runner for the Comedy Central sketch series “Key & Peele.” He added that while the Upright Citizens Brigade trains performers, it’s even better for writers. “We are diametrically opposed to those who say you just need to stop thinking so much, just let it go and be free.”
Mr. Roberts added with emphasis: “We’re not making up something. We’re explaining something that’s there. It’s like principles of physics.”
One of the surprising aspects of the book may be the limited role of “yes, and,” the one improv rule that has gone mainstream: the idea that a performer should agree with the information provided by a scene partner and add to it. It’s positive advice that could be applicable to dates and business meetings. But the manual clarifies and circumscribes this often misunderstood concept, pointing out that it’s only important at a scene’s beginning to establish a “base reality”: who the characters are, what they’re doing and where.
After quickly setting up these elements (a couple in bed after a one-night stand is an example used often in the book), improvisers move to the core of the Brigade aesthetic: the game of the scene, which creates the central comic pattern. The game begins after the improviser says something unusual, then the partner asks himself if that unusual thing is true. If the character says the one-night stand took a long time, for instance, the partner might then wonder if the character fears commitment.
If “yes, and” sets up the real engine of the comedy, “if then” should escalate as the scene progresses, becoming increasingly more absurd and heightening the comedy. Mr. Roberts said this structure is central not just to improv but also to movie comedy and sketch television. “In ‘Liar Liar,’ there’s a guy who lies a lot,” he said. “If he can no longer lie, what would happen? That’s a game.”
The game is now as associated with the Upright Citizens Brigade as method acting was with the Group Theater. The result is propulsive, quick comedy. “It’s joke heavy, fast and funny,” said TJ Jagodowski, half of the improv team behind the show “TJ and Dave,” which specializes in a slower, more idiosyncratic comedy. (They have also just written a book about improv, which Mr. Jagodowski said is not instructional.) The Brigade approach is “also more product oriented,” he said. “It’s that this new line has a purpose, and it’s to get a laugh.”
This hints at a broader criticism that the rules of a game limit its creative scope, making for rigid, homogeneous comedy. One of the most forceful critics of improvisation rules is Mick Napier, the founder of the Annoyance Theater, which offers classes in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and has plans to open a New York theater.
If the Upright Citizens Brigade interpretation of Close is like the Group Theater translating the acting theories of Stanislavski, then Mr. Napier plays the role of David Mamet, a provocateur who dismissed most acting teachers (including Stanislavski) as frauds. Mr. Napier, in his 2004 book, “Improvise,” unleashes a broadside against rules, arguing that they don’t make for good scenes. “They are destructive,” he writes, adding later, “They help people think in a particular way, and that way of thinking is often death to good improvisation.”
Mr. Roberts, though, disagreed: “That’s preposterous. It shows a disrespect for improvisation. Would you tell someone to drive a car that way? To approach ballet that way?”
Mr. Napier argues that great improvisation derives from a more childlike part of the psyche, not the muscle memory needed for ballet or driving. “You have to tap into the part of you that plays,” he said, “and the part of you that’s always thinking and adhering to rules and hierarchy and constructs and order and logic is not the part that an audience enjoys".
The debate over rules matters little to one segment of the readership that the Upright Citizens Brigade manual hopes to reach: those who don’t have access to comedy classes.
The first experiment was Michael Stanford, a 27-year-old app designer from Poplar Bluff, Mo., a town of less than 18,000 people near the Ozarks. After seeing Upright Citizens Brigade members performing on Netflix early last year, he emailed Mr. Besser asking for advice. Mr. Besser responded with an advance copy of the book and a deal: If Mr. Stanford practiced twice a week based on the methods in the book, the Brigade would let him perform at its annual Del Close Marathon.
Mr. Stanford promptly recruited five friends, including a married couple and a guy in sales, and got to work. They improvised in his living room, tackling one chapter per rehearsal. Three months later, Mr. Stanford was getting laughs at a Sunday afternoon show at the Brigade’s stage in Chelsea. Mr. Roberts said Mr. Stanford was “as good as anyone would have been” after two introductory courses.
Plenty of Brigade alumni say that its approach is freeing and perhaps more flexible than it looks. “The U.C.B. taught me all the rules,” said Rob Cordrry, the former “Daily Show” correspondent who created Adult Swim’s Emmy-winning “Childrens Hospital. “And when I had them down, they taught me how to break them.”
For some, like Mr. Stanford, the manual is about more than rules. It’s an inspiration. Once he returned to Poplar Bluff, the troupe he created broke up, but now he’s writing a screenplay and driving three hours to Springfield, Ill., every weekend for an improv class that he said focuses less on the game.
“I like to exist in a silly place for a few hours every week and not be myself,” he said, adding that he wants to join the many trying to make a career out of making people laugh. “This book changed my life.”