Susie Allen

Talking to your parents about improv

Susie Allen, AB’09, offers a guide for comedy-inclined UChicago alumni.

Susie Allen, AB’09

You are 23. You’ve taken classes at Chicago comedy institutions like Second City and iO. Your bookshelf prominently features every memoir by a former Saturday Night Live cast member. An ice-cold Pabst Blue Ribbon is your drink of choice. Sometimes after you perform, people say “Good show!” in a way that doesn’t sound like they’re lying. You have done backstage warm-ups that involve dancing rhythmically while pretending to be a rabbit, tossing imaginary bowls of spaghetti at your castmates, and cooing like a pigeon as loud as possible. You believe that two bentwood chairs are a suitable stand-in for the front seat of a car, a hospital bed, or, depending on the night, the gates of heaven.

Congratulations! You are, like me, an improviser.

Rejection. Poverty. Self-doubt. The young improviser faces many challenges. But perhaps the greatest obstacle of all is this: at some point, you will need to tell your parents about your decision to ritually humiliate yourself in front of an audience.

This news can strike fear into the hearts of even the most understanding, granola-eating, Northern California-dwelling, public-radio-listening, just-follow-your-heart’s-true-path parents among us. (Hi, Mom and Dad! Did you hear the latest Fresh Air?)

Having already stepped on this parental conversation landmine, I’ve developed a handy guide for others preparing to do the same. It’s useful not only for parents but also concerned grandparents, aunts, uncles, people on airplanes who have unexpectedly strong opinions about your decision to pursue a career in the arts, and high school classmates who definitely did not expect you to turn out this weird.

1. Remind your parents that you have a day job.

I can’t emphasize this point enough. Take every possible opportunity to reassure your parents that you have gainful employment and are not relying on comedy to feed yourself. If your employer provides health care, bring this up as frequently as possible. Make it clear that your eggs are diversified across any number of mature, responsible baskets.

2. Define your terms.

Do not assume your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and the very opinionated woman sitting next to you on the plane know what improv actually is.

In my experience, approximately 85 percent of nonimprovisers think I do stand-up comedy. In their defense, a lot of stand-up comedy clubs are called “The Improv,” in what I can only assume is a vast and frankly mean-spirited conspiracy to confuse the relatives of actual improvisers.

If you choose, you can prolong the confusion by taking this opportunity to workshop the stand-up material you’ve been secretly working on after bad improv shows. “What’s the deal with cinnamon raisin bagels? Am I right, guys? You’re a breakfast food! Stop pretending to be dessert!”

However, I invite you to make this a teaching moment. Take the opportunity to educate your parents about the art form that is taking you further and further away from middle-class respectability.

Improvisation is, essentially, spontaneous theater—or, as Janet Coleman wrote in her influential history, The Compass: The Improvisational Theatre That Revolutionized American Comedy (1990), “improvisation is the state of not knowing.” Everything you see onstage is developed on the spot by a group of performers. Although the bulk of improv is comedic, dramatic improv does exist. In a typical improv show, the performers take some kind of suggestion from the audience and use it to inspire one or more scenes. Often, these scenes are shaped by loose, pre-determined structures called “forms.”

It’s worth noting that when you go to a main-stage show at Second City or watch an episode of Saturday Night Live, you’re not watching improv—what you’re seeing is called sketch comedy, meaning it was scripted beforehand. Both Second City and SNL rely heavily on performers with an improv background and even use improv to develop material, but it’s not, for the most part, what they perform.

Both improv and sketch comedy are flourishing in Chicago. The three most prominent theaters (Second City, iO, and the Annoyance) all offer training programs; there’s also an active network of small theaters where independent improv and sketch groups can mount shows. Many bars allow improvisers to perform for unwilling and sometimes actively hostile audiences across the city.

Your average improviser takes classes and workshops at all three theaters, performs on multiple independent teams, and will sleep when he or she is dead. My own vital stats are fairly typical:

Independent improv teams: 3
Improv classes taken: 16
Rehearsals and shows per week: 2–3
Number of responsible, adult day jobs with benefits: 1 (see what I did there?)

Over the years, I’ve written and performed sketch comedy, and even dipped my toe into the pool of stand-up. As fun as those attempts have been, the adrenaline charge of improv is impossible to replicate, short of injecting coffee intravenously. The good shows—the really good shows—are few and far between, but you somehow can’t help chasing the next one.

Explaining all of this can take a while. If time is running short, I have found that “I make stuff up in front of people” also gets the job done pretty well.

Paul Sills

3. Remind your parents that you are part of a long, proud University of Chicago tradition.

This tidbit has the advantage not only of being true but also of reminding your parents they aren’t the only chumps to have sent a child to the home of 89 Nobel laureates only to have them turn around and want to make up funny things in front of people.

Improv in the modern era was invented by a loose band of UChicago alums, dropouts, and affiliates who were drawn to the intellectual and rebellious atmosphere of Hyde Park in the 1950s. (As longtime Second City producer Bernie Sahlins, AB’43, told me in 2009, “Second City [was] really born on the top floor of the Reynolds Club.”)

Among their ringleaders was an idealistic young New Yorker, David Shepherd, who was frustrated by the elite East Coast art scene. Inspired by his socialist views, Shepherd came to the Midwest to make theater for the proletariat. After failing to create a community theater in Gary, Indiana, he came to Chicago with a $10,000 inheritance in hand.

In Hyde Park he met Paul Sills. Sills, AB’51, was a brilliant and erudite young director with a passion for the works of Bertolt Brecht.


The theater was in Sills’s blood. His mother, Viola Spolin, ran extracurricular theater programs for children in the 1930s. To help her students stay focused and present in their acting, Spolin developed a set of spontaneous, unscripted theater games. These were later published in Spolin’s landmark 1963 book Improvisation for the Theater and were a key ingredient in the new style of performance Shepherd and Sills would develop. Many of these games, like simple mirroring exercises, speaking in gibberish, and tossing an imaginary ball back and forth, are still used in improv classes. On one fateful day in an early Second City class, I was forced to sing all my dialogue—blame it on Viola Spolin.

In the summer of 1955, Sills and Shepherd created the Compass Players. The troupe included Shelley Berman, Severn Darden, EX’50, Andrew Duncan, Barbara Harris, Elaine May, and Mike Nichols, EX’53. By this time, May had already earned quite a reputation around Hyde Park for both breaking hearts and causing mischief: she once sat in on a philosophy class and tried to argue that Plato’s Symposium was really about Socrates being drunk. She also apparently ate enormous quantities of apples, including the cores. Truly, friends, I could not make up these Elaine May anecdotes if I tried.

The Compass performed in a small nightclub connected to Hyde Park’s Compass Tavern at the northeast corner of 55th and University (not far from the present-day site of Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap). They produced cabaret-style revues that included improvised scenes based on audience suggestions, as well as a segment called “the Living Newspaper.” Performers would take a story from the week’s news and satirize it by adding pantomime and ad-libbed dialogue. Early Compass productions also relied on lightly scripted “scenarios” in which plot points were decided ahead of time, but dialogue was developed spontaneously.

The Compass ultimately disbanded, but its innovative hybrid of sketch comedy and improvisation, along with its satirical and intellectual style—and of course, its alumni—would shape American comedy for decades to come. Nichols and May found success as a sketch comedy duo on Broadway. Sills and other Compass alumni banded together to create the Second City.

The University of Chicago had a lasting impact on Second City’s style. Pretension and high-mindedness were subjected to the gimlet eye of Second City writer/performers. Maybe that’s why so many of them still tickle me 50 years later. In one 1961 sketch, “Football Comes to the University of Chicago,” a tough-minded coach tries to explain the game to a group of effete University students. “It’s a demi-poly-tetrahedron!” a delighted Maroon exclaims on seeing the ball. I still think someone should put that line on a University of Chicago T-shirt.

Second City’s success spawned offshoots, each with its own style and espousing its own philosophy. One of the most important was ImprovOlympic, now iO, cofounded by Del Close and Charna Halpern. Close, who had performed with both the Compass and Second City, advocated improvisation as not just a tool to generate material—it could stand on its own in performance and generate long, self-sustaining pieces. iO continues to perform entirely improvised pieces.

The schism between those like Close, who believed improv was an art, and others like Sahlins, who saw it as merely a tool, lasted for decades. (Only when Close was on his deathbed would Sahlins temporarily concede, “Del, for tonight, it’s an art form.”)

Today the University of Chicago tradition of improvisation and sketch comedy continues with Off-Off Campus, a student group founded in 1986. Off-Off has produced Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright David Auburn, AB’91, and Second City alumni Abby Sher and Tami Sagher, both AB’95. Sagher later wrote for Tina Fey’s 30 Rock and was a writer and producer for How I Met Your Mother.

I was not in Off-Off Campus. In college, my main activities were studying very intensively on the fourth floor of the Regenstein Library and eating pizza bagels, which left little time for other pursuits. Only after college did I decide to put aside my natural shyness and try to make someone other than my boss laugh. I’ve come a long way since my first classes at Second City, but I do still like pizza bagels.

Pause. Take this moment to remind your parents once again that you have a day job with benefits. Even dental!

4. Answer the FAQs.

Learn to answer these commonly asked questions with a smile.

So when am I going to see you on SNL?
If I meet a painter, I don’t typically ask, “So when am I going to see your work in the Louvre?” But for some reason, this is invariably the first question nonimprovisers ask me.

The polite response is to laugh and say, “You never know!” The short and honest answer is, “Not ever.” The longer, even more honest answer is to weep uncontrollably.

For every performer who goes on to write for a sitcom or perform on SNL, there are many more whose comedic talents never net a dime. It’s an uncomfortable reality of a world in which there is more talent than there are jobs, and everyone is working just as hard as you.

Are you going to be Tina Fey?
Did you hear what I just said?

Are you going to be Amy Poehler?
OK, now you’re just messing with me.

Do you make money?
Remember, laughing in someone’s face is considered rude in many cultures.

Just to paint the picture: I perform on a two-woman improv team called Smart Pant. (I met Brenna Lemieux—the “other leg” of Smart Pant, as we like to say—in classes at iO. Our first conversation was about a pair of shoes I was wearing that we agreed were “ugly-cute.” We are in disgusting improv love with each other.) We made $5 on a show recently. This was the first money I’ve ever made doing improv in three years. We immediately spent it on beer.

5. Be selective.

There are some things parents never need to know.

That time a rat ran across the stage in a bar where you were performing, for example—leave that particular story out.

How one of your improv friends slept in a “bedroom” that was actually a converted pantry—nope, never bringing that one up, and definitely not mentioning he has a college degree.

The shows where you perform in front of three people who are also performing that same night—you know, maybe don’t talk about those.

That you secretly fear you’re incredibly bad at the thing you’ve devoted so much time to—keep that to yourself.

6. Tell the truth.

Truth #1: Comedy is a hard, frustrating, and tiring business. You do a lot of bad, painfully unfunny shows in front of audiences of three people, you make exactly zero dollars, and in all likelihood, it will never lead to Hollywood success or any other kind of professional success that warrants inclusion in the family Christmas letter. The mental roller coaster of having good shows followed by bad ones, ad infinitum, would drive anyone to seek solace in refined carbohydrates.

Truth #2: I am convinced it is the most fun thing you can do with your brief time on planet earth. Without improv, I wouldn’t get to spend my Saturday nights performing made-up episodes of The Twilight Zone. I wouldn’t have heard my friends say things like, “Listen, son, I’m not your pop—but that’s a lot of snow globes,” that were so funny in context I almost broke a rib laughing. I would never have gotten to do an entire courtroom scene dressed as a clownfish.

Truth #3: Whatever happens, I still have my day job. Have I mentioned how great the benefits are?


In her day job, Susie Allen is a writer in the University’s News Office.


Susie Allen (wearing glasses) performs with the Improvised Twilight Zone at the Annoyance Theater. The group has been creating all-new episodes of the classic TV show since April 2014. (Photography by John Zich)

Below: Paul Sills, AB’51 (on sawhorse), cofounded the Compass Players and Second City. (University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-03723, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)