History of Improvisational Comedy

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Improvisational Comedy, or Improv for short, has increasingly gained a following over the past few decades. This style embraces spontaneity and can bring about roaring laughs. However, improv is quite distinct from many of the other genres of stand-up. Let’s look a bit more at this art form and the history of improvisational comedy.

What Is Improv Comedy?

If improv does not seem like stand-up comedy, there is a good reason for that. It is more of a blend between stand-up and traditional theatre. It can perhaps be best described as spontaneous ensemble theatre. The key here is spontaneity. There is no script, story, or material. It is all made up in real-time.

Improv typically has at least two performers sharing the stage at once, but generally several more. While there are types of improv theatre that are not comedic in nature, comedy is by far and away the most common type. Performers will typically ask the audience for recommendations such as people to portray, situations, or settings.

History of Improvisational Comedy: Initial Beginnings

Comedy is not in any way a modern invention. In fact, people have always loved to laugh. Thus, it is not surprising to find that the history of improv takes us a long way back in time. The very first recorded evidence of people performing improv comes from the Roman Empire around 400 BC. Improvisational performances were often given that typically featured people portraying popular stock characters.

However, the historic example that likely most closely resembled modern improv is that of the Commedia Dell’Arte. This originated in Italy but was incredibly popular throughout much of Europe from the 1500s to the 1700s. It typically featured performances of both planned sketch comedy as well as improvised. Again, there were typically stock types of characters portrayed while actors would pantomime different actions.

After the period of the Commedia Dell’Arte, improv largely went away. It was later “invented” yet again in two different locations around the same time.

The Re-Invention of Improv

The re-invention of improv occurred largely simultaneously in two different places: Canada and the United States. In Calgary, British-born Keith Johnstone desired to bring theatre to the “common man,” feeling that modern performing arts were too pretentious to connect with this population.

He decided to develop theatre into a competitive bout in order to better appeal to the types of people who attended sporting events such as boxing. He dubbed this new type of theatre “TheatreSports.” In this conception, two teams of comedic actors would square off in different improvised scenes. Judges would then award points based on performances. If you’ve ever watched Whose Line Is It Anyway, you’ve watched an adaptation of TheatreSports.

While TheatreSports was helping more people access theatre in Calgary, in the United States, Paul Sills was also working to develop comedic theatre that would appeal to the masses. He based his ideas on his mother’s work, who felt that instructing acting in a way that felt like a game would increase its appeal for children.

At the University of Chicago, Sills assembled a team of actors who worked to pioneer a modern adaptation of the Commedia Dell’Arte model with the goal of bringing comedic theatre to a more modern audience. They were originally known as the Compass Players (from their meetings at Hyde Park’s Compass bar); this movement led to the development of the Second City improv company.

The Dawning of Modern Improv

The foundation of Second City is largely considered by most people to be the beginning of the modern improv genre. In fact, both TheatreSports and Second City have heavily influenced today’s conception of improv comedy. In fact, a number of common situations used in improv comedy come from these origins such as audience member shouting suggestions, performers following instructions of a narrator, and performers interjecting changes into scenes with one performer having no knowledge of the change.

While modern improv often focuses on silliness or zany situations, the improv comedy of the 1960s often took on taboo topics. Popular ones at the time were motherhood and teenage sex. The Second City cast performed a stint on Broadway and rapidly gained popularity.

The 1970s

By 1970, Chicago’s Second City had two rotating comedy troupes for their venue in addition to three different touring troupes. The next year, they expanded to Toronto. The success of the Toronto location led to the creation of SCTV, a sketch show that ran in Canada from 1976 to 1984.

Second City became a big recruiting ground for writers and performers for Saturday Night Live, with the company sending people like bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Chris Farley, Mike Myers, Amy Poehler and more to the show. In fact, today SNL and Second City partner on a scholarship for growing new talent.

Most people’s introductions to improv comedy can be traced to Whose Line Is It Anyway, a British radio and television show that was later adapted in the United States and Australia as well. The show mirrored TheatreSports with the change that the points and winner were arbitrary and largely meaningless.

Today, improv troupes can be found in cities and college towns around the world. Meanwhile, improv is incredibly popular in many areas such as the United Kingdom where it often takes center stage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Improv has succeeded in its initial mission of bringing comedy to the masses. Check out Comedyville’s other blogs to learn more about the history of comedy and consider stopping by to see one of our English shows in Montreal. We are happy to welcome you to the Montreal club scene and hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about the history of improvisational comedy.


Post by Eddie Case, exclusively for, All rights reserved.

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