R.I.P. Dudley Riggs: Clown and Improv Pioneer

Just learned of the passing of improv innovator Duddley Riggs (1932-2020).

Riggs is very interesting to me, as he is rare bridge between fairly separate worlds — variety entertainment and improv. Riggs came from a circus family. He began performing at age five as comedy acrobat, clown, juggler and aerialist with the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus. He developed his own brand of improvisational comedy completely separately from the Second City universe, although later his own theatres and Second City would cross-pollenate. Riggs called what he did “Instant Theatre”, From 1954 through 1958, he operated the Instant Theater Company in NYC. Walter Kerr was a big fan.

In ’58 he moved his company to Minneapolis, initially calling his venue the Cafe Espresso (as it had the only espresson machine in town). In 1961 the name was changed to the Brave New Workshop. Thus Minneapolis, much like Chicago and Madison, WI is a major midwestern improv capital. Famous alum of the Brave New Workshop include Al Franken and Tom Davis, Pat Proft, Louie Anderson, and Lizz Winstead (co-creator of The Daily Show). Riggs sold BNW in 1997. For a number of years he also operated a second company in Minneapolis, the Experimental Theater Company. In 2017, his memoir was published, entitled Flying Funny: My Life Without a Net.

To learn more about vaudeville and circus, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.