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Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  362 ratings  ·  73 reviews
From the best-selling author of Fosse, a sweeping yet intimateand often hilarioushistory of a uniquely American art form that has never been more popular.

At the height of the McCarthy era, an experimental theater troupe set up shop in a bar near the University of Chicago. Via word-of-mouth, astonished crowds packed the ad-hoc venue to see its unscripted, interactive,
Hardcover, 464 pages
Published December 5th 2017 by Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Stewart Tame
Nov 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
Full disclosure: I won a free ARC of this book in a Goodreads giveaway.

As youd surmise, this is a history of the improv movement in the USA. Wasson presents it as an American artform--yes, there are antecedents in European traditions, but nothing quite like improv as the term is commonly understood. Anyway, he makes a persuasive case, but whether you accept it as American or not, the history--Nichols & May, Second City, the Groundlings, Saturday Night Live, SCTV, This is Spinal Tap, Stephen
Hannah Petosa
Dec 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I cant even begin to describe how much this book means to me. When I first started reading it, I assumed it would be the history of improv. However, this was way more than just a history book. This is the story (or should I say, stories) of artists we have come to know and love and their passion for improvisation.

As an improviser myself, I can say that yes I did know a lot of the information already written in my book. But, this book made me feel like I personally knew the legends I read so
Wasson's Improv Nation traces the American art of improvisational theater from its workshop beginnings in the Fifties through its influences on such movies as the Graduate and to the great Improv theaters of Second City in Chicago and Toronto and the Groundlings in Los Angeles. In the Seventies under the direction of Lorne Michaels, the amazing talents of John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and Jane Curtin became the foundation for a new kind of television: Saturday Night Live, ...more
Jul 27, 2018 rated it it was ok
From the birth to the current status of the art of improvisation which Sam Wasson believes is a true American art form like jazz. He goes from the inception created by a mix of European acting ethics and abstract realism that comes from the inner self ... no rules, just feel. It morphs under the tutelage of different innovators and stylists and has become what we basically see 'comedy' as today.

Reading this is a bit of a chore. I'm a big fan of Wasson's previous bios on directors Blake Edwards,
Andrei Alupului
Dec 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
really solid and entertaining history - the notes section alone is a trove of cool stuff to follow through on, videos to check out, interviews to read, etc. the writing gets a lil clumsy i think, proportionate to the author's enthusiasm. like based on how he described some of the sctv crew's parties i could tell they were his favs cause it got a little cringey reading it - and then in the afterword it's like yep, they were his favs. but honestly there's also something kind of lovely about that, ...more
Dec 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Unlike the quirky creators of the art of improv and the many improvisors about whom the author so beautifully and lovingly writes, all of whom seem to know just what to say on the spur of the moment, I find myself at a loss for words to describe just how much I enjoyed this extraordinarily good book. So let me just say that, f I could give it more than five stars, I would gladly do so.
Evan Kostelka
Jun 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018
I didn't have a large knowledge of older improv comedians going into this book, but after reading the book I see the progression from Mike & Elaine to Will Ferrell. The author presented the material energetically and in some cases, dramatically, leaving me hanging to read how the story ended. I thought the beginning was a little slow, but once he gets into the Second City era, the names and movies started to become familiar to me and I enjoyed the book a lot more.
Gregory Butera
Jan 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is the hilarious story of Americas largest dysfunctional family, since it seems everyone really has worked with nearly everyone else in the improv comedy world. If you have any interest in improv comedy or comedians or the process of creating humor this is a must read. I just love the work of so many of the folks included in this volume. These men and women have made me laugh and have made the world a more bearable place. Ive read other books about SNL and comedians and this tied so much ...more
Craig Leimkuehler
Apr 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book is a must read for anyone who performs improv, enjoys improv or for that matter is alive and breathing. (Zombies will not enjoy it.) It gives a very detailed history about this aspect of comedy that is often overlooked. The one fault is that it fails to explain why Del Close is regarded as some great comic genius. The ability to consume large amount of drugs and alcohol does not strike me as something to be admired, but maybe that's just me.
Lyndsay West
Apr 05, 2018 rated it liked it
Here's an excerpt from my review of this book on my blog. You can check out the rest of the review here:

Stepping on my soapbox for a sec! Improv has significantly improved my life, and if youre on the fence about taking a class, DO IT. It puts you back in touch with the imaginative, vulnerable, and curious parts of yourself that shone more readily as a child. It improves your quick-thinking skills, teaches you how to communicate better, and allows you to
Jan 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
"They were creating constantly, and without the help of lighting, costumes, sets, script, or even story. In or out of the theater, Shepherd had never seen such interconnection. These people were all working together, like a family, to alchemize empty space into art."

Rating: 5/5


"Every kid assumes he has a secret identity," Close would say, "and if you could just find the magic word, the godlike powers would indeed burst forth."

"There are two worlds. Even as a boy, he knew that. In one, you
Dec 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Until I read Improv Nation, I had not realized how many comedians/actors I was familiar with had connections to Chicago's Second City. Sam Wasson starts in the 1940s with the birth of improvisational comedy and Viola Spolin and Del Close who taught classes in what was later to be called improv. We later meet Mike Nichols and Elaine May, who remain central to the story through the decades, but also many more comedians and others who flitted in and out of Chicago's improv troupes.

While I was
Michael Brown
Mar 09, 2018 rated it liked it
The author tried real hard to cover everything. Each section covered a group of years. In each section were various chapters that covered either groups, players, events or all of them. Too much time was spent at times on trivial points that seemed to not be continued later or part of further treatments of improv. Lots of personal data was provided and again often over and over again. The main theme was the growth of improve in the US following the Korean War and we learn about the small starts ...more
Aden Date
The first quarter to a third of this book is utterly thrilling - improvisation at its most bohemian, inchoate and punk. The days when the closest thing to the UCB Manual or Truth In Comedy were the Westminster Palace kitchen rules, when nobody had a clue what they were doing and improv was pursued out of sheer love and possibility.

The beginning of the end of the book occurs about a fifth of the way through, where a now-successful Mike Nicholls dines with the his less successful ex-partner, Paul
David Canfield
Dec 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
American comedy remains a subject of endless fascination for proof, look no further than the books of this year. Jeremy Dauber situated the topic in a complex cultural context in Octobers Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, while a month earlier, Budd Friedmans The Improv featured titans like Jerry Seinfeld and Lily Tomlin giving first-person accounts of the early days at the legendary stand-up club. For decades, books like these have followed celebrities and underground icons as they confront ...more
Jul 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is the story of how improv comedy developed, through Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Second City in Chicago and Toronto, and a dozen or so other troupes and individuals who built this kind of interactive, in the moment comedy from a minor tributary of performance into arguably the most important source of comic talent, especially in the United States. So many of the great names of American comedy are featured here, in most cases before they became really famous, and some who never really ...more
Feb 11, 2018 rated it liked it
NOTE: I know/knew a few of the people in this book; improvised at some of these theaters.
Bringing the unruly history of improvisation into one book was always going to be difficult. IMPROV NATION does as well as one book could; though a tighter focus on the original Compass players would've provided more a cohesive tale. Pulling in Del so early (because you can't tell the story of improv without Del) destroys any momentum in the first 100 pages of Spolin, Sills, Nichols and May. But then the
Nov 30, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"The democratic spirit channeled through art," Sam Wasson sums up improv theater. He's not the first to express this, but for a survey, he may have explored its history more exhaustively than any other writer, particularly the early years of Viola Spolin and Paul Sills, on to Charna Halpern and Del Close. Dozens of their disciples and the troupes they formed such as The Second City, ImprovOlympic, the Groundlings, SNL, and Upright Citizens Brigade are covered in detail, with Second City ...more
Jan 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
I love improv, so I was elated to learn about the artform's history. This book delivered! I appreciated how in depth it covered the beginnings, but it didn't seem to dive as deep into the more recent history or point out some of the ways organizing around an artform can be detrimental to it. It centered much on Chicago, and a lot of names we do know. I was going to say that I thought it glossed over the awfulness of some of the "characters," but it's not advertised as an "investigative report." ...more
Jun 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
As an improvisor and a long-time fan of most of the folks whose history with the form is chronicled in this book, I found it amazingly engaging. The recounting of the evolution of the form as it has passed through the minds and artistic souls of so many adherents and participants is nothing short of a revelation. There's many of the names who you'll instantly recognize, and not a few who you might not, but should.

I've been inspired by what I've read here to put together a show with my troupe
Anne Downes
Nov 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I won a copy of this book from a Goodreads giveaway.

I received this book during the same month that I signed up for an improv class, so the timing couldt have been better. Wasson writes with exhaustive detail in this book, giving us a microscopic view of each phase of improv. On the one hand, I like that because I have learned about people and places unfamiliar to me, but on the other hand, it feels like a bit too much. Wasson writes about Elaine May as if she were a goddess in the improv
Nick Scott
Aug 09, 2018 rated it liked it
This was an interesting book to listen to, but as a history of how modern improv started and how it became this dominant American art form I think it's just alright. The focus here is on the big celebrity names that came from improv, which I think only tells part of the story. And I understand why the author chose to focus on those names, to get a mainstream audience to be interested in this book it helps to put those people at the center. It was interesting to see an overview of improv's ...more
Adrian Valencia
Feb 21, 2019 rated it liked it
The beginning of the book, I have a hard to reading. I felt like I had to sludge through it because I really wanted to get to the 1970's to read about John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd and all the early Saturday Night Live people. I did appreciate reading about McNichols and May and the early groundwork of improvisation. Towards the middle is when, I really started to realize how influential improvisation is since I myself haven't done this before, not in front an audience. This was heady and thick ...more
Dan Lalande
Jan 02, 2018 rated it liked it
Sam Wasson takes on what is, by his own humble admission, a formidable task: an inventory of the development and influence of American-style improv, from its proletariat origins in 1950's Chicago to its imprint on today's ubiquitous political satire. In the spirit of the brave ad-libbers he so worships, Wasson dives right in - but his showy sang froid isn't rewarded by much. Like a long, rambling improv, there are worthy moments - brushing acquaintances with colourful characters, odd displays of ...more
Feb 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2018
Exhaustive and comprehensive history of improvisational comedy--from its earliest beginnings to now. It focuses mostly on Chicago/Second City connections but it does go into Toronto, NYC, a little bit of L.A. I go to the Groundlings all the time [it's a 15 minute walk from my apartment] so was kind of disappointed there was very little coverage of that group's history but aside from that slight, all the heavy hitters of comedy are included. The sheer amount of people involved with some of the ...more
Donna Hines
Sam charts the rise of the improv with many well known in the business of making people laugh.
Fitting this all together was a bit pieced but that is to be expected based on the time constraints and locations.
The discussions about well known improvs and the interactions with them was unique and awe inspiring for those who love the work they do.
Many I've not heard of with many I loved all combine to create one magical moment that you can tell has been enriched through this read.
Thank you to Sam
Sarah Crisman
Oct 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Best book I have read this year! A comprehensive journey through the history of American improvisation with in-depth perspectives from our greatest artists of this form. Wasson connects the dots of the varying schools of improvisational philosophy from the joy of Viola Spolins workshop games created to connect strangers and create family within a fleeting moment, to the metaphysics of Del Close, and the cerebral satire of Nichols, May, and Colbert. A must-read for all fans of American popular ...more
Jordan Parker
Jan 20, 2018 rated it liked it
I was really excited for this one and it was kind of a letdown. For starters, it's a book about improv comedy that really isn't all that funny. With that being said, it does have moments that were really interesting but there are so many stretches(especially towards the beginning of the book) that are very dry and hard to get through. It picked up for me towards the middle and end mostly because I started really recognizing the people. Great detail on how Bill Murray, John Belushi,Chris Farley, ...more
Jan 29, 2018 rated it liked it
Informative look at the history of improv, and how many well-known comedians/actors passed through Second City and other troupes. Bill Murray and Tina Fey come across particularly vividly in the recollections of fellow improvisers. I wished there had been more about the actual formats, though; on the page, it's a little abstract, and it's not always clear exactly how the form was evolving at various times.
Melinda M
Jan 31, 2018 rated it liked it
Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art by Sam Wasson is a history of Improv in American. It has wonderful notes filled with videos to watch as well as articles and books to read. It was interesting to find out how connect to each other that the performers all seemed to have worked with one another at some point. It is well researched and written.

I received a copy thru a Goodreads Giveaway
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SAM WASSON is the author of the New York Times bestseller Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M .: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman and two works of film criticism. He is a visiting professor of film at Wesleyan University.

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“Improvisors connect for the same basic reason you and your friends connect. Say you meet someone. You like something about them and they like something about you. Your mutual interest begets mutual play. Play begets cooperation and mutual understanding, which, trampolined by fun, becomes love. Love is the highest form of play.” 0 likes
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