Paul Sills and the Limitations of Improv

His name is not exactly a household word but Paul Sills (1927-2008) was one of the most influential figures in American comedy history, the principal founder of Second City and the key guru of the cult of improvisation.

Sills was a pivot point, but the seeds of the revolution originate far deeper, dating believe it or not all the way back to the Romantic philosopher Rousseau (1712-1778). Rousseau’s theories of education influenced Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827), who in turn taught Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852), the father of early childhood education and the coiner of the word “kindergarten”. The kindergarten movement came to America with the waves of German immigration that began in 1848. Influenced by these circulating ideas, Alice Putnam (1841-1919) started the first kindergartens and kindergarten training classes in Chicago, and worked with social reformers like Jane Addams and John Dewey. Putnam’s disciple was Elizabeth Harrison (1849-1927), who founded the National Kindergarten Institute, now known as National Louis University. The Institute trained Neva Boyd (1876-1963) who integrated movement, dance, gymnastics, and dramatics into her education programs, and Boyd taught Viola Spolin (1906-1994), inventor of Theater Games and author of the book Improvisation for the Theater. And Spolin taught Theater Games to her son — Paul Sills. It was Sills who brought practical application to these techniques for use in the theatre. This is a gross simplification of this chain of events, and believe me I intend to follow up on it it in far more depth, and perhaps you’ll chafe at that notion. But in the interest of completion I think it is important, and hardly irrelevant. There are ideas at work here. “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains,” wrote Rousseau. Surely that is not irrelevant to improv.

Starting in 1948 Sills attended the University of Chicago, where he worked with Ed Asner, Zohra Lampert and others and co-founded the Playwright’s Theater Club. In 1955 he and David Shepherd co-founded the legendary Compass Players, whose members included Nichols and May, and Shelley Berman. In 1959 he co-founded Second City with Howard Alk and Bernie Sahlins. Its first crop of performers included Alan Arkin, Paul Sand, and Barbara Harris, whom Sills would marry. The company developed and performed improvised, satirical sketch revues, and they made it all the way to Broadway. In 1965, the influential Sills left Second City, and moved on to something he called Game Theater and Story Theater and other projects. But Second City blossomed under new leadership and in 1972 Second City Toronto was formed. Alum from these two institutions would form the core of the casts of Saturday Night Live and SCTV. After the success of SNL and SCTV in the ’70s and ’80s the movement exploded.

But there was something in the air — there were other improv groups and clubs in other cities as well (like The Groundlings in L.A. and the Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis). And it’s very important to note, improvisational performance does not begin even with this movement. It is in fact the OLDEST performance method — just think about it for a second. Surely improvisational performance predates writing or even memorized scripts. It is certainly part of the ancient commedia dell’arte. It had been employed in minstrel shows, vaudeville, burlesque, circus clowning, and slapstick silent film. What is new about Sills & Second City & Company is a certain method, the use of particular exercises and theatre games to midwife the creativity. These games aid the performer in being spontaneous and in ridding themselves of counterproductive blocks and inhibitions. They are extremely useful. I was first exposed to them when I was about ten years old, as I’m sure many of our readers were.

And there is something very inspirational about it, very American. It is analogous to jazz, and to the action painting of Jackson Pollock. I love that you can trace it to Rousseau, father of revolutions. Freedom! Unshackled by the tyranny of the script!


Yeah, no, that’s where we part ways. There are naturally some geniuses of improv, as there are geniuses of anything (I was extolling the brilliance of Fred Willard just the other day). But if you’ve been alive in any city of any size on this planet you’ve been subjected to hour after hour of shit improv shows, the self-indulgence of performers floundering around with no script, no inspiration, no nothing, spreading nothing but general misery and pain. My personal takeaway from years of being exposed to this stuff is that improv is an indispensable technique for the ACTOR. But as a tool for the generation of MATERIAL, no, not so much. Utopian educational technique notwithstanding, not everyone is a brilliant creator, let alone in the moment.  Great acting moments, sure. Great things coming out of their mouths, not so much. You may sneer at ‘text” and “words” and “scripts”, as many do, but I’m afraid I am going to have to fight you to the existential death on that.

One absolutely sees the historic appeal of the improv revolution, especially at the time of its arrival. The ossified comedy of film and television long about the early 1970s was enough to produce coronary thrombosis. It was just hackneyed and exhausted. So there was a reaction against that, against “jokes” and slapstick.

And the improv movement brought in fresh air. For a time. But I feel that it also really hurt screen comedy. It seems to me that new generations of screen comedians have largely proceeded to replace jokes and slapstick with…NOTHING. With posing, acting kind of cool or whatever. I feel like recent generations of comedians are terrified of being thought “corny” and they let this dogmatic terror control them, and prevent them from doing much of ANYTHING in their movies. The characters and situations are shackled to realism, and plausibility, and logic, and recognition, and so forth. There may be something slightly outre about their character or something, but they move through quotidian worlds saying tedious things. I say: clock the laughs, man! You doubt me? Clock the laughs. A joke comedy, a slapstick comedy, a screwball comedy, a CLOWN comedy from the first half of the 20th century, densely packed with lines and moments and quips and events…vs. any SNL alum comedy. You wanna talk about kindergarten? Let the idea that comedies actually need to be funny from time to time be your ABC.

For related rants, please read my books  No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.