Sense and Nonsense

I came upon improv by accident. It was February 1981, and my ex-girlfriend and writing partner Sari Bodi and I were starting a cable TV show on public access. (We had written some pretty bad sketches for the appropriately titled Public Abcess.) We wanted to improve our writing so we went to some stand-up comedy classes. They were okay, but I never took to the "me-ism" and hackneyed comic material that was common in these classes. (I encountered one guy who was attempting to write the perfect routine; he had been working on it for  years, but had never tried it out on an audience. He wanted to get it perfect, he said. He's probably still working on it somewhere.)

Things changed – big-time – when we went to see Chicago City Limits performing at their little theater near 11th Avenue (or was it 10th?) It was a Saturday night and we walked from Seventh Avenue in a blinding blizzard. God only knows why we went out on that night. But I'm glad we did. The show we saw was marvelous; a revelation to me. How did they come up with such witty and outrageous things so fast? I was intrigued. 

Sari and I went to class soon after that. It was taught by the late, great George Todisco (who died in 1982 at age 30). George was cynical, sarcastic, insightful – and oh so supportive. He would always find the good in a scene, even if it was something as negligible as  "You had good energy" (his comment to me after my first terrible scene; I survived the scene, thinking "I can do this stuff" – although if he had been more critical I may have shut down and never returned).

I later learned that support is what improv is all about, the kind of support that says, "I make you look good and you make me look good," and "Yes and" and all the other improv standards ("The Codes of the Improviser" is what one of my teachers called them). It has been a support, a joy, a passion, and an obsession of mine, as I went through seven years of classes at CCL, one-and-a-half years with the N.Y. Improv Squad, a brief turn winning an award with Improv Da-Da, over 30 years as a teacher (which I love doing), and 26 years as the host of Sunday Night Improv (and before that a guest with Ian Prior's All-Star Improv Jam).

That obsession led to the documentary I released in 2013. It's called Sense and Nonsense, is about (what else?) improv. I talked to about a dozen improvisers, who were generous with their time and insights, and I'm thankful that they shared their thoughts with me. It was also fun going through 30 years of clips (mostly from Sunday Night Improv) that best exemplified what people were discussing. I have just completed an upgrade of the flm, adding 30 minutes of material that had been cut when the film was first released five years ago, and I hope to release that soon (the old version is currently available from Amazon).

You may also be interested in  A Doctor and a Plumber in a Rowboat: The Essential Guide to Improvisation, which Kirkus reviews called "A colorful, inspired gem for aspiring actors or groups looking to improv teamwork. Carol Schindler, a founder of Chicago City Limit, and I wrote the book about three years ago offering learned during 30 years of performing and teaching improvisation. The response has been positive. "This is a great teaching tool," said Master Teacher Rob McCaskill. "It will remain a document of our time and will be read by actors and improvisers for decades to come!" Screen star Mark Ruffalo (currently in new Avengers movie), said: "I highly recommend this book to anyone who is starting out or who is still on the path to knowledge!" Finally, Hal Linden (Broadway star and also on TV's Barney Miller): "I wish I had this book when I was first starting out!" Don't miss it! You'll understand why Chicago City Limits founding member Paul Zuckerman wrote: "Carol and Tom really understand improv!"

I enjoyed creating these projects. Whether you're an aspiring or veteran improviser, or you're just someone who wonders how it's done, buy the DVD and the book, come to class, and see a show. I think you'll laugh – and maybe learn something, too.

April 30, 2018

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