When I heard veteran character actor Richard Kind (pictured) publicly suggest last week that there might be, maybe, a little bit, something sort of wrong with abject worship of Chicago-style improv comedy, the resulting silence in the room was a little tense.
While the crowd at the Chicago History Museum’s “Comedy Speaks” program wrestled silently with Kind’s blasphemy, I felt like applauding. Improv is a sacred cow in Chicago, and perhaps for reasons of guilt over Chicago’s traditional treatment of cows, it enjoys a support base around here that is fairly called fundamentalist. Chicago improv fans are a fiercely loyal and vocal group of enthusiasts who endlessly laud the form and point to its many famous and beloved graduate practitioners as proof of its inerrant genius.
The unfettered fervor for improv Kind was opposing usually comes from actors who don’t want to face up to the fact that improv comedy, like psychotherapy, is a best-left-private development exercise and is usually senseless torture for discerning audiences. To do it humorously requires rare performers who are funny as opposed to plentiful performers who act funny. The reason there are at least six hundred Jimmy Fallons to every Jeff Garlin is because many, many people can mug for laughs but only a few people think or emote in a naturally amusing way. It’s the tiny minority of performers who can be funny by showing how they are as opposed to showing what they can do, and that is the precise difference between the great Eugene Levy and the shut-up-already Mike Myers. As well as the difference between a Bill Hicks and some Pi Kappa Phi brother from Northbrook who thinks he’s hilarious and won’t stop trying to prove it.
To be fair to Kind, he was not trashing the form in toto, but he did express impatience with The Harold, a particularly irritating long-form improv invention of legendary Second City director / ImprovOlympic founder Del Close. The Harold takes normative improv games to artificially extended lengths, (and sometimes into TV series and improv-training franchises.) Kind, bless him, finds the Harold “masturbatory.”
Masturbatory! And he wasn’t hustled out of the room and into hiding!
Well, it’s a form of progress.