Since the late 1950s, a comedy club has been spreading the gospel of making things up as you go along. Here’s a lesson in taking risks.
It’s a Saturday night in Toronto and I’m standing in a circle of 11 strangers in a spot-lit basement. To be clear, it’s the basement of a comedy club; I’ve come to an improvisation class at the underground training centre of The Second City comedy theatre. For someone whose attempts at comedy are usually more “funny funny” than “funny, ha ha”, it’s an unnerving prospect.
“The thing about improvisation is that it’s play,” says our tutor for the evening, a rapper-turned-comedian who goes by the stage name Phatt Al. “When we’re children, we’re allowed to be silly. Then you grow up and playtime stops.” He assures us that tonight’s class will rectify this.
The Second City opened its doors in Chicago in 1959 and was founded on improvisation techniques pioneered by actress Viola Spolin, whose games and routines remain part of the comedy curriculum. “The difference between improv and stand-up is that the latter is very adversarial,” Al says. “You walk into a room and the audience says, ‘Make me laugh!’ With improv everybody knows that you’re making it up. They’re rooting for you. That energy is wonderful and it can become addictive.”
After a few vocal warm-ups, our games begin. First we are tasked with telling a story while going around the circle, one person at a time, one word at a time. By the end of our first tale, someone called Stacey has devoured a bowl of haunted chicken soup and has misplaced her eyeballs, a pizza and her grandmother.
“When we perform we’re just telling stories,” says Al, commending us for how absurd we were willing to be on our first attempt. “It will never be the same story twice. We’re making up scenes as we go. We do that in our lives anyway so we’re just going with the flow.”
The Second City’s alumni are a who’s who of US comedy: Joan Rivers, Bill Murray, Alan Arkin, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris were all full-time troupe members. Its outpost in Toronto opened in 1973 and has honed the comedy chops of some of Canada’s great comics, including Catherine O’Hara, Mike Myers, John Candy, Eugene Levy and Dan Aykroyd. Lorne Michaels, the Canadian creator of Saturday Night Live, often scouted at Second City shows in the programme’s early days.
That pedigree slips from my mind as our next activity begins. “Imagine your favourite animal,” says Al, as we wander in silence around the room. Gradually, at Al’s command, we start to mimic our chosen animal. I quickly ditch mine, a hedgehog; I am not sure how long I could sustain rolling in a ball around the floor. I opt instead for a flamingo and, with a stance that vaguely resembles that of a one-legged turkey, I saunter around the room.
“I wasn’t sure if everyone would be open to being silly,” says my classmate Alejandro, a 22-year-old actor who moved to Canada from Mexico a few years ago. “But people here are all in a collaborative mindset and willing to make fools of themselves.” He isn’t wrong. It’s freeing to stand on the precipice of comedy oblivion in the company of strangers. “I’m a bit of an introvert and want to get out of my shell,” says 29-year-old software engineer Siddiq. “I’m using this to train myself to express myself more.”
Improvisation’s core principle is to say “yes” to unexpected scenarios. Rejecting the unknown, in comedy as in life, might seem like the safer bet but, says Al, “Not saying yes means that you’ll miss out on so many chances. We keep ourselves bottled up a lot of the time so it’s interesting when you walk into a room with people and they say, ‘We are going to have a good time together.’ When you do it, you think, ‘This is fun. I want to do it again.’”
If my flamingo routine hasn’t completely destroyed my improv credibility, sign me up for a second go.