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Whose improv is it, anyway?

By Ben Winters

JANUARY 25, 1999:  When the new version of "Whose Line is it Anyway?", a half-hour show hosted by lovable, corn-fed doofus Drew Carey, made its debut as a mid-season replacement on ABC last year, improvisational comedy re-entered the limelight of network primetime. And for the first time in a long time, improv found a welcomed home in the living rooms of America's sitcom junkies.

For Chicago, long the bastion of this brand of comedy, the renewed interest in improv has brought back the memories of hometown comedians who made the jump to TV. The late seventies saw "SCTV" a televised experiment and collaboration between the Chicago and Toronto Second City casts. In the early nineties came "Quick Witz," which featured Chicago stalwarts like Kevin Dorff. Even ImprovOlympic co-founder Charna Halpern tells of going to Hollywood in the mid-eighties to launch an improv show, which ultimately floundered in the hands of controlling TV execs.

And of course there's "Saturday Night Live," a show that has long featured grads from the Chicago improv scene, from Aykroyd to Farley to Horatio Sanz, who this year made the jump from the Second City e.t.c. stage to "SNL" featured performer. (Of course "Saturday Night Live," though performed live, has never been an improvised show, unless you count the time Charles Rocket accidentally said "fuck" during Weekend Update.)

So it's a bit surprising that "Whose Line is it Anyway?" doesn't have more of a Chi-town pedigree. Particularly since, as Second City producer Kelly Leonard points out, "Whose Line" producer Dan Patterson is a Northwestern grad and long-time Second City fan.

Which isn't to say that the creators of the show didn't come sniffing around. According to Dorff, one of their producers had a six-hour Chicago layover en route to L.A. to meet a dozen local top dogs from the improv community assembled at the Annoyance Theater on Clark Street. "He zipped down from the airport, and we auditioned for him for three hours. Exercises, games, scenic ideas, music, we improvised, we did everything. And they did not end up taking any of us. No one." Halpern notes that "some of the best improvisers in the world... have auditioned for that show, and they aren't getting on it."

The lack of Chicago representation begs a question: If the best performers from the acknowledged improv capitol aren't getting the nod, just what are these jokers looking for? The answer may be in the nature of the show itself, which features a very different type of improv from that featured at Second City, ImprovOlympic, or the Annoyance. "Whose Line," uses short form, similar to the local Comedy Sportz or Gorilla Theater, a quick, premise-heavy improv, in which wacky structures - Bob has to talk backwards, Mary thinks she's a baboon - drive short, punchy scenes.

ImprovOlympic and Co. practice a long-form improvisation technique called the Harold: a half-hour scene spun from a single audience suggestion, which, when done right, incorporates a handful of themes that develop organically, recur spontaneously, and tie up neatly. (The mainstage shows at Second City, though mainly scripted, are created using similar techniques).

To the uninitiated, the difference may be a fine hair, but to disciples of the two forms it's one worth splitting. With "Whose Line" and most TV improv shows, short form has been the name of the game. But in the real world, short form does not receive as many accolades or command as much respect. For long-formers, who believe their craft is truly art, critical acclaim is easier to come by, but severly limited the TV exposure that has bene such a boon to short form. There is a continuing, albeit friendly, tension between two camps who don't necessarily respect each other's styles, regardless of successful shows like "Whose Line."

Aaron Haber is the ringleader of Low Sodium Entertainment, who produces Gorilla Theater, a short-form show performed weekly at ImprovOlympic. He describes the two types of improv as being subsets of the same basic concept. "It's kind of like religion," he says. "Every major Western religion came out of the same place."

But where Haber sees two sides of the same coin, many practitioners of long form tend to see one great art form - their own - and its unsophisticated bastard cousin. Peter Grosz, an ImprovOlympic performer and member of the Second City touring company, says "short form is impressive, but to me the sustainability, the concentration, all those adjectives," make long form a more demanding performance style. In long form, "what you need is the human element of a believable character that the audience can attach themselves to," he says.

"I don't want to come across like I'm saying long form is good and short form is bad because they're both equally viable performance methods," says Jed Resnick, one of Grosz's teammates at ImprovOlympic. "But when you go out to do a forty-five-minute show that revolves around one suggestion and that deals with five different stories that will hopefully converge at the end, you have to listen to everything that everyone says on stage."

Finally Sarah Gee, another ImprovOlympic cast member, drops the tactful front. "I respect long form better. Can I say it? I just said it. I've said it. I respect long form better. It's more impressive."

Grosz agrees. "I see someone do short form, and I think, 'Yeah, I can do that.' I watch someone do something in long form, and there's a lot of shit where I think 'I cannot do that.' "

Halpern simply says, "The ImprovOlympic does not do that stuff anymore. It something that was done thirty years ago." Del Close, one of improv's inventors and currently the resident wizened sage of ImprovOlympic, agrees with this chronological depiction, saying that the two forms are "different stages in the same art form." That's only when Close is being diplomatic: Noting Halpern's reluctance to associate ImprovOlympic too closely with Gorilla Theater, which rents space there, he breaks in: "If it were any good, we'd be happy to take credit for it."

Haber is not ignorant of such attitudes; he was barely able to contain his frustration after a recent ImprovOlympic show in which the emcee failed to announce that his show was about to begin upstairs. Since Gorilla Theater began in Chicago, Haber says he's drawn consistent numbers, but little media coverage or support from the improv community - although he was quick to point out that ImprovOlympic has been an accomodating host.

"In the fifty-four weeks we've been doing it, we've only had three ImprovOlympic players come see our show," he says, annoyed by the "overwhelming sense that long form is a little more valuable and harder to do. But there's no difference between long and short except scenes in short form aren't episodic sometimes."

And then there's the idea that short form has no history, no following and no clout. But, Haber reminds everyone, short form is the way most people first experience improv. The improv groups, staples of the college experience, are almost always short form. And while a small operation like Gorilla Theater can sometimes be dismissed as an upstart in long-form town, there's no denying the success of Comedy Sportz."

With venues in twenty-four cities across the country, Comedy Sportz says it celebrates "the creative imagination of the human spirit in four minutes or less." Their teams use short form and a competitive style that bears strong resemblance to "Whose Line." They've managed to rack up positive reviews from the Trib and NBC, and after twelve years now bill themselves as one of "the longest running shows in Chicago." And the short-form offerings of "Whose Line" are increasingly popular, as the show's ratings have placed it regularly in the weekly top 30.

Dorff, one of the most successful practitioners of long form, agrees that both forms, when done correctly, employ the same skills. More important than learning a particular style, he says, is finding a personal touch.

"Bringing your voice to it, bringing your point of view to it, while not knocking the legs out from anyone else's position or choice," says Dorff, "Is the… standing order for every game and scene and song and everything that goes on."

Although the end results of the two forms are distinct, each is funny in its own way. Consider, for example, the hilarious but disturbing scene in Second City's new review, "The Psychopath Not Taken," in which a woman's best friends confront her about her abusive husband, becoming so frustrated with her denial that they end up beating the crap out of her. A recent scene from Gorilla Theater featured a bit where one actor could only use three-word sentences, another only fourteen-word sentences, while both portraying Puerto Rican drag queens.

These are two distinct brands of improv, and, according to Halpern, it's the shorter, goofier stuff that the TV people are banking on. "What they are really looking for are stand-up people who can do some quick one-liners, and then, buzz, the time is up. [The producers] are even saying, 'Look, we know we're not purists here with improvisation, and we don't mean to be killing your art form, but this is what we really need. We need stand-ups who can do quick one-liners.' So really top-notch improvisers are getting turned away."

Which isn't to say, says Halpern, that long form couldn't work on TV. "There are things that I could do to make long form work in a TV program," she says. "Audiences are smarter than those in power give the people credit for. I've always been told, 'Oh, you can't do this. People won't follow that.' " Close points to the cult success of shows like "Upright Citizens Brigade," (another group with a Chicago heritage) which use techniques born out of long-form improv. Indeed, says Halpern, even the multiple, intertwining plot lines of a show like "Seinfeld" prove that audiences can grasp the kind of complex stories to which long-form improv aspires.

But don't look for anyone jumping ship anytime soon. Most long-formers are unlikely to abandon what they see as a more artisically satisfying medium for the mainstream temptations of short form.

Gee says the TV version will simply "never be as funny." Dorff agrees, adding that improv is less suited than stand-up to the passivity of television. "People can watch [stand-up] or not watch it, get baked or not get baked, go to sleep in the middle of it, or whatever. But improv is such a moment-to-moment thing that if you're not engaged in it from the beginning, and you're not keyed into the proceedings on stage, then there's no reason to watch."

With similar styles, short-form performers at Comedy Sportz or Gorilla Theater stand to gain the most from any surge in improv's popularity on TV. But there is a major concern for long-formers who wonder whether the viewing public will somehow associate what they're doing at Second City or ImprovOlympic with what Drew Carey and company do on TV.

"I don't see anything wrong [with the show]," says Close. "I think it's fine. Just so long as it doesn't get confused with what we're doing." Halpern breaks in: "But it might."

Andy Lurie, a stand-up comic who also trained in improv at Second City, feels other dangers from the continuing success of comedy on TV. "I think that with any artistic medium, if you have enough of it on television, completely homogenized, there's less need to go see it," he says.

Leonard says the success of "Whose Line" can only be positive because it's exposing the art form to people who might be a little scared by the word improv. "Now they're seeing that these guys know what they're doing, and even when they fail it's funny."

Regardless of other effects, there's at least one benefit to be gained from any exposure that improv has on TV. As Resnick puts it, "Those of us who have office jobs will never have to worry about our co-workers coming to see a show and then asking us, 'How long did it take you to write that?"

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