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Whose Improv Is It Anyway?: Beyond Second City Paperback – June 19, 2001


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 258 pages
  • Publisher: University Press of Mississippi (June 19, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1578063418
  • ISBN-13: 978-1578063413
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 5.9 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,000,146 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Most accounts of improvisational comedy rely on the inspiring story of Chicago's Second City company, founded in the 1950s, and its many stars. Seham (theater and dance, Gustavus Adolphus Coll.) takes a far more sophisticated look at the genre and the history and theory behind it. Her basic point: Chicago-style improv has been dominated both in numbers and in control of content and style by young, white, straight men, which means that it's harder for women and minorities to shape scenes and conjure characters. (For example, men are less willing to accept a female improviser's attempt to initiate a male role, and whites are less able to grasp a minority performer's references.) Relying on extensive interviews as well as texts, she tells the story not only of Second City but of the 1980s groups that succeeded it, like ImprovOlympic and ComedySportz. The latter, she notes, were more committed to improvisation, while Second City became commercialized and incorporated pre-written sketches. Still, the power dynamics remained the same. In Chicago, a third wave of improv began in the late 1980s, including the raunchy and outrageous Annoyance Theater, minority groups like Oui Be Negroes, and all-women's groups. Now, concludes Seham, an even newer wave is addressing the paradoxes of improv. Though this well-detailed book lapses periodically into academic jargon, it should well serve strong performing arts collections. Norman Oder, "Library Journal"
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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An inside view of improv comedy in Chicago

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Customer Reviews

2.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on November 25, 2001
Format: Paperback
There is so much valuable in this book that its shortcomings are all the more frustrating. Nobody else has described in as much depth the history of the improv movement in Chicago since the rise of Second City. Certainly there are hard facts in here that I didn't know, and this is a field in which I wrote one of the early books.
Unfortunately, much of the text has been written through such narrow ideological blinders that the author sometimes offers arguments so contorted that she unwittingly contradicts herself.
As she quotes from my book, SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY, I have to confess to being upset by the use she makes of one passage with an early Second City player, the late Roger Bowen. She misinterprets what he said about black players in improv profoundly, and her misinterpretation has the lamentable effect of implying he was a racist. Since Bowen isn't around to defend himself, and since he was one of the most progressive, thoughftul and generous souls ever to grace an improvisational stage, this is deeply disturbing. His memory deserves better.
If one can distinguish between the often genuinely insightful analyses she presents and gaffes such as the one I mention above, there is a great deal here to chew on. She correctly identifies the contradictions in a form of theatre that grew out of a desire to offer a progressive/radical view of society and those aspects of improvisation which encourage the reinforcement of stereotypes. I'm not aware of anybody else who has made this point as well, so this would deserve its place in the literature if only for raising this issue.
On balance, a book that I think serious improvisers should read, but with some skepticism.
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13 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Jill Bernard on June 11, 2002
Format: Paperback
I love that improv is developed enough now to have scholarly texts about it - not just histories. Although <i>Whose Improv</i> gives a lot of history not available elsewhere, its real value is its assessment of gender issues in improv. There's something to it, and Seham's lifted the rock to see what's crawling underneath.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Shmikey on February 9, 2010
Format: Paperback
As a female improviser, I had been aware of and frustrated by many of the gender power dynamics in the improv troupes I have worked with. This book hit me at the exact right time in my comedy career -- it gave the words and theory I needed to face head-on the unproductive loops and outsider status that I had been trying to fight.

After I read of this book, I started talking openly about race and gender with my improv troupe. It was the jumping-off point for us, as a company, to become more conscious in our approach to the art and our relationships with each other, on and off stage.
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15 of 22 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 26, 2002
Format: Paperback
As a former Chicago improviser in all the new waves she writes about, and a teacher now trying to influence my own students (especially women and minorities) to continue their improv education in the undisputed improv capital, Chicago, I would do my best to keep this book out of their hands. It is a clouded pseudo-history littered with deluded conclusions resulting from her own fears as a female improviser. The talented people I had the pleasure of working with of all colors and genders did not play out of this place of fear that is evident throughout the book, but a place of love for each other and what they do. But I must say kudos to her for even putting a pen to paper about a most neglected subject and I wish that some of the brilliant teachers mentioned in the book would write their own truth about their theatre histories and theories to share with budding improv students throughout the country.
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12 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Telfer on December 11, 2001
Format: Paperback
I borrowed this book from a friend and was quite excited. I performed at Chicago's Improv Olympic for over three years as well as places like the Playground and the Chicago Improv Festival, and right there on the cover is one of my teachers! As I flipped through it I saw tons of pictures of people I called friend and was excited to see interviews with some of my former team coaches.
The trouble seems to be that while the book was written in good faith (in the spirit of giving theaters who perform chiefly improv as much credit as the not-so-improv-anymore Second City) it misinterprets many facts. Shortly after mentioning the book on an online message board I discovered that someone who I was excited to see mentioned in the book had been given a false history in it.
Upon further inspection I noticed the book, although covering much ground where it had never been covered before in improv, seemed to have a bit of a bullying attitude towards what true improv was. All these things combined was very frustrating, as people who don't live here have nothing to go by when it comes to this "age" of improv besides this misleading and inaccurate book. Hopefully someone will come along who is less ambitious and more interested in chronicling events, and I hope this happens for those not in Chicago. If you are in Chicago, you're better off scanning the reviews in the free papers for a more clear vision of the scene, even though there aren't as many nice group photos.
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