Lay of the Improv Land

The improv community in Chicago is large, probably the largest in the world, and like all communities, it has managed to organize itself into some rough hierarchy.

At the top is Second City, or at least parts of it. The very pinnacle is its two revue shows, where twelve people at a time who combine excellent improv skills with having caught the eye of the right people at the right time make a living not performing improv.

Second City’s Touring Company, generally abbreviated to TourCo, operates as a farm team for the big shows. TourCo members do perform improv for a living, although when they ask for audience suggestions they usually get “dildo.” Almost every improvisor wants to join TourCo, but most TourCo members come to hate it.

Three well-established theaters form the next tier. There is iO, owned by Charna Halpern. It was formerly named Improv Olympic before the actual Olympics went nuts with protecting the name. The largest pure improv theater in the city (which is true even though plenty of scripted shows play there too), anyone who’s anyone in the community and a whole bunch of people who aren’t will perform there at some point. Just about every improvisor wants to, at least, with two broad exceptions. First are those who tried to and didn’t get cast; they generally spend far more time than is productive complaining about how it’s all about who you know, or its close variant, who you fuck. Second are those who have been performing there and grew angry about something or other. This is a relatively common occurrence in an environment that has too many performers competing for too little stage time; “pissed at Charna” isn’t in any slang dictionary yet, but the number of people who feel that way could support the entry.

The Annoyance is the next of the troika. It has the reputation as the countercultural, rebel theater, even though there’s plenty of cross-pollination. Its shows are often profane and sometimes legendary. The theater doesn’t, as a rule, have the same runaway success of iO, but its training program is generally considered the best there is.

At the other extreme of this tier is ComedySportz, which is a bit of an anomaly. It’s a franchise of a national chain of improv theaters whose focus is short-form, game-based improv (“Like Whose Line is it Anyway” any improvisor will explain, with a sigh that signifies a tiny bit of their soul has died) rather than long-form art pieces, and as a result is sometimes looked down upon. But it is one of the most selective theaters in town, and its shows are consistently crowd-pleasing, if a bit repetitive and, due to the keep-it-clean policies there, a bit sanitized.

Occupying the next step down are a handful of companies that have managed to rent their own space on a reasonably permanent basis, but as relative newcomers haven’t acquired the reputation of the step above. Foremost among these is the Playground, which used to introduce itself as “the nation’s only not-for-profit improv co-op,” until they realized that that combination of words didn’t mean anything to anyone who wasn’t them. There’s a relatively take-all-comers philosophy to the booking of shows at these theaters, so most improvisors have performed at this level. They don’t necessarily invite everyone back, though, so becoming a regular can carry a certain prestige.

All of the above will be useful background information. This, however, is not their story.


Hey! Another lunch-break post.

If I ever write a novel set in the world of Chicago improv comedy—which is likely, although I have no specific plans to—this would (tentatively, of course) be the prologue. The actual story would focus on people far, far, far, far, far lower on the improv food chain: The people who have been chewed up and pooped out by improv, and who still don’t leave.

In the meantime, it’s a reasonably accurate classification as far as it goes.


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