What Makes Chicago A Destination For Improv?
A long list of famous comedians got their start doing improv in Chicago. Curious City talks to eight improvisers about why the city is no joke when it comes to the funny business.
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The Second City comedy club and improv school trains around 18,000 aspiring actors, directors, comedy writers, and improvisers every year — that’s more than the average number of undergraduate students who enroll at the University of Chicago. And The Second City is just one of several theaters in town, like The iO Theater and The Annoyance Theater, which offer classes in the art of improv. In 2016, Ty McCarthy was one of those students.
“It was so much fun. I met a ton of cool people and we would just laugh so hard every night," he says.
While he was taking those improv classes, he also met a lot of people who had moved to Chicago specifically to hone their improv chops. So he asked Curious City:
Why did Chicago become such a destination for improv?
It’s true. Chicago has launched the careers of countless comedy writers and Hollywood stars, including everyone from John Belushi and Chris Farley to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. So why here and not somewhere else?
One answer to Ty’s question could be the fact that modern improv got its start in Chicago. The germ of improv began with social worker Viola Spolin, who, while supervising a drama program for immigrant kids at Hull House during the Great Depression, developed a series of games to help kids learn to express themselves. In the ’50s, her son, Paul Sills, took those games and started The Compass Players, which became the first group to improvise shows based on audience suggestions.
Beyond giving rise to the legendary Second City Theatre in 1959, The Compass Players’ experimentation with improv began a sort of revolution in American comedy that’s reflected in entertainment today. The short skit format used on many popular television shows like Saturday Night Live, The Chappelle Show, and Inside Amy Schumer, for example, can be traced back to The Compass Players.
But, maybe it’s more than improv’s long history in Chicago that brings so many aspiring performers to the city today. To understand what makes the experience of improv in Chicago different from New York or Los Angeles, and just what draws tens of thousands to its theater and comedy schools each year, we turned to eight improvisers who got their start in Chicago. Here’s what they had to say about what makes Chicago a destination for improv.
These interview clips have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Saturday Night Live alum, host of The Hooray Show podcast, former Chicago improviser. Grew up in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood.
Second City cast member. Chicago-based improviser and actor trained at iO Chicago and The Annoyance Theatre.
Saturday Night Live cast member, former Chicago improviser.
“The community is a major part of why I think Chicago is a great place for improv. It’s the birthplace of so many great institutions and teachers. The amount of stage time is also a key element to Chicago. There are so many places to play and develop, and even more places to start your own shows and create stage time for yourself. All of this mixed with the different styles and competition is just an ingredient for success."
Chicago-based improviser and actor. One-half of TJ & Dave.
Chicago-based improviser and actor. One-half of “TJ & Dave.”
Chicago-based improviser and teacher. Co-founder of The Annoyance Theatre.
Writer on The Chris Gethard Show, stand-up comedian, former student, The iO Theater.
Chicago-based improviser. Co-founder of the Chicago Improv Festival.
More about our questioner
Ty McCarthy is a zoning and permitting specialist for a telecommunications company in Chicago. Before moving to Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood a few years ago, he lived in Oklahoma City, where the improv scene wasn’t
quite as robust as Chicago’s.
Now an improviser himself (thanks to the classes he took at iO), Ty was surprised to learn that the artform was invented right here in Chicago, where the less competitive environment and distance from Hollywood helped it grow and thrive.
“You do get the feeling that it’s a cultural thing — that there’s something in the air that breeds it here, and that’s really cool,” Ty says.
He’s says he’s not looking to get famous from improv, just learn the craft and now that he knows why Chicago is such destination, he’s pretty sure he’s come to the right place.