When I lived in New York City in the mid-90’s I had the pleasure of working with some very funny people in a couple of sketch comedy and improv groups, as well as working and learning with a great improvisation company called Chicago City Limits.
The form of improvisation comedy that everyone is familiar with from shows like Whose Line is it Anyway? is a uniquely American invention, growing out of the experimental theatre scene of the 1950’s at the University of Chicago.
Two earnest young students there, David Shepard and Paul Sills started The Compass Players to bring intellectual, little seen plays to the Chicago area. They also began working on a form of improvised theatre based on basic plot outlines but with no lines for the actors.
Some of the people involved in The Compass Players are familiar to us now for their work-Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Ed Asner, Barbara Harris, Severn Darden and many others.
Paul Sills mother was the amazing Viola Spolin, who had designed a series of improvisational games that she used in teaching inner-city youth in Los Angeles. Sills took these games and applied them to acting and the new form of scenario plays he and Shepard were working with. Many of the games that are played on Whose Line are variations on Viola Spolin’s creations. Her book, Improvisation for the Theatre is still considered one of the best on the subject.
When The Compass folded, many of the members went on the form The Second City, which still operates today and is probably the best known improv theatre in the world.
That’s the quick and wholly inadequate history of the origins of American improv. Below are some links and books that explain it in depth. Its a fascinating story of a truly American form of theatre and entertainment.
This is Janet Coleman’s superb history of the Compass: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0226113450/102-4755840-4108112?v=glance&n=283155
This is a great oral History of Second City from the people who made it happen:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0879100737/ref=pd_bxgy_img_b/102-4755840-4108112?ie=UTF8
And here is Viola Spolin’s book: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/081014008X/qid=1152989384/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/102-4755840-4108112?s=books&v=glance&n=283155
Here are some links: