By JOHN SEMLEY
Special to The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, January 2, 2018
The recent scandal around comedian Louis C.K., who, in mid-November, confessed to masturbating in front of female colleagues, but only after long-rumoured allegations of his doing just that were confirmed and published in the pages of The New York Times, and long after the victims of Louis C.K.'s predation (or "misconduct") were bullied, shushed and tormented for coming forward in the first place, should cast serious misgivings on the value of truth in comedy.
Since forever, one of the guiding illusions of comedy is its ability to tell truth. Satire reveals the comic hypocrisy of political and social life. Mark Twain and Stephen Leacock magnify the comic foibles of human interaction.
The (typically male) stand-up rants and raves about masturbation and heartbreak and being awful, making a spectacle of his self-loathing and impressing us with his raw humanity, casting a lumpy shadow across a brickwall backdrop that, in its very simplicity and unadornment, is itself meant to feel elementary and somehow honest. Louis C.K.
was such a comedian, one who, it seems, was using his status as comic truth-teller as a guise for his depravity. As Lindy West wrote in The New York Times days after the allegations, it effectively becomes impossible to take Louis C.K.'s public apology, apparent contrition and shopworn self-disgust seriously as, she writes, "disarming self-flagellation has always been his art."
If we can't trust those who profess to be true, then what?
Truth is not just the standard of comedy's effectiveness, but its artfulness. And with the ostensible exception of stand-up - the stock-in-trade of Louis C.K. and his shameless, truth-telling ilk - this quest for truthfulness is the oldest, truest principle of improvisational comedy. Indeed, if author Sam Wasson is to be believed, improv is not about things so debased as laughs and yuks or pleasing audiences as the stripped-down, pseudo-philosophical quest for truth itself.
Wasson's new book, Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art, reads (unintentionally) like a heavy parody of the very way Improv People talk about improv. In his introduction, he calls it a "book about democracy in comedy." In his conclusion, he invokes, of all people, Hegel: "Wherever there is improvisation, anyone can speak her mind, and that mind, folded in with others', will form a totally original, harmonious entity - thesis, synthesis, antithesis." Later in that same paragraph, he sounds like a bleary-eyed college student describing a DMT trip, while on an LSD trip: "You only ever know the you you know. The rest of you, the complete and boundless you, is a prism of infinite refraction, waiting for a shock of light - a spontaneous impulse from another - to surprise a beam of unknown you to life."
In his desperately lavish, rococo authorial voice - to witness John Candy's "big Wallace Beery smile," he writes, "was to land in the centre of a giant pillow fort" - Wasson sounds more than a bit like Corky St. Clair, Christopher Guest's ludicrously pretentious theatre impresario in the 1996 improvised comedy Waiting for Guffman: a character whose ideas of art and the creative process stand in stark, hilarious contrast to the nature of his art, and the results of that process. The difference, of course, is that Corky St. Clair is a made-up, richly imagined character, whose function is making the joke that creatives often wildly overestimate the artistic consequence of their work. Sam Wasson is that joke.
THE CULT OF IMPROV I will confess, in the interest of full disclosure etc., that I am an improv skeptic, if not openly improv hostile. Years ago, a friend and I signed up for a free improv class, for reasons I can hardly recall, and were forced through the rigours of mirror games and rounds of "Zip! Zap! Zop!" It all seemed less about being funny than about drawing people out of their shells; a sort of exposure therapy for the easily embarrassed. (Without going all Freud or Catholic Church homily, perhaps humiliation and embarrassment are not mere damning social restraints but necessary conditions for the functioning of society and the sustenance of civilization itself. But that's another book, and another book review.) The class's instructor, who carried himself as if he were wise instead of just disagreeable and sort of mean, spent what felt like an eternity driving into the fundamentals of improv comedy: how it deflates the ego, drives toward group togetherness, reveals some deep and invisible truth latent inside all of us.
His imperious monologues were easily the most memorable, and funny, thing about the class.
Yet, as much as my problems with Wasson's Improv Nation may proceed from my learned improv skepticism, I doubt the book will do much for even the improv ambivalent. It's not just that his reflexive use of overwritten hyperbole (Dan Aykroyd, the guy from TV's Soul Man, is a "purveyor of spirits and human miscellany") makes Anthony Bourdain read like Hemingway.
It's that Wasson is so totally immersed in and obsessed with improvisational comedy that, paradoxically, he can't sufficiently stump for it.
Wasson, who dabbled in the field in college, is undoubtedly an Improv Person. And Improv People who talk about improv to non-improv people are like Jazz People who talk about jazz to non-jazz people. It's like they're trying to enlist you into a cult using a language that feels both foreign and very, very annoying.
As a history, Improv Nation suffers from certain shortcomings.
Wasson clearly has his favourites, exhibiting an obvious fondness for the cast of SCTV, for Chris Farley, for old-school improv mystic Del Close and, especially, for the relationship, both creative and personal, between Mike Nichols and Elaine May. There's little mention of more modern standard-bearers of improv comedy, such as the unscripted sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm or Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the Britishturned-American improv game show. (I presume Whose Line, with its focus on hokey hoedown songs, goofy games and Ryan Stiles's Carol Channing impersonation, sits well beneath the contempt of those interested in improv's more experimental, long-form possibilities.)
There are also only brief mentions of major, if ostensibly noncomic, uses of improvisation in the films of directors such as John Cassavetes and Robert Altman. Instead, Wasson devotes reams to scripted comedies featuring seasoned improvisers: Animal House, Ghostbusters, Caddyshack, The 40-Year-Old Virgin etc. There are also extensive sections given over to discussions of Saturday Night Live and SCTV, programs that have been previously treated to exhaustive official histories. Some Saturday Night Live anecdotes seem directly recycled from Tom Shales and James A. Miller's door-stopper oral history, Live from New York.
That said, many of Wasson's insights on the medium with which he is so clearly, fervidly enamoured are sharp. Late in Improv Nation, Wasson discusses the late career of Bill Murray, who has evolved from a capable purveyor of on-screen comic smarm to a quasi-mystic internet-meme version of himself. For Wasson, this shift is attributable to Murray living the fly-by-theseat-of-your-pants principles of improv.
"The internet gave Bill Murray a run for the greatest improvisational run of his career," he writes, "a venue for those Bill Murray stories formerly confined to rumour and word of mouth."
It's a keen observation, especially given the extent to which Bill Murray's particular "randomness" has been unpacked in print over the past decade.
Other sections, such as the bit in which Wasson traces the American desire to improvise back to the revolutionary language of the Declaration of Independence, scan as wholly ludicrous. Ditto comparing the Charles Grodin comedy The Heartbreak Kid to the plays of Samuel Beckett, a connection made without any substantial justification whatsoever.
AN ART IN ITSELF? Reading less like a history than a hymnal, Improv Nation feels dangerously, sycophantically obsessed with its subject. It's about democracy! It's about freedom! The Heartbreak Kid is Krapp's Last Tape and Talladega Nights is To the Lighthouse! It is, above all else, about honesty: about a performer's fealty to his or her own creative impulses. The big problem, argumentatively, is that Wasson never bothers to question the inherent virtue of that impulsivity and free-form anarchism.
As a creative exercise, improv is clearly useful: in devising scenarios, developing characters and inuring aspiring performers to the sting of embarrassment and self-recrimination. But given that so many of the beloved comedy films and TV shows Wasson writes about eventually shaped that chaos into coherent, often highly conventional, entertainments, it seems harder to make the case for improv being an art in itself. It's sort of like arguing that tuning a guitar is the same as ripping a killer solo.
Also: Given how improv has been professionalized, with Second City-style outfits luring wannabe-Belushis into pyramidscheme classes, and the extent to which the discipline's fundamentals are drilled, it actually doesn't seem all that free, anarchic or, you know, improvisational. It's less about exploring the boundless infinity of creative and comic options than developing a deep matrix of reactions. It is, like most things, guided by (often explicit) sets of rules. This makes it not only as restrained and orthodox as any other would-be art form, but also explicitly dishonest about its very professions of honesty.
Art, goes a quote commonly attributed to Picasso, is a lie that tells truth. Improv - art, discipline, exercise, whatever it is - is a lie that lies about its own truthfulness. It is also, with some exceptions (Christopher Guest movies, Curb, the odd Whose Line hoedown), rarely funny. And isn't this the whole point of comedy? Not the metaphysical quest for truth or the paring back of self-consciousness to reveal a performers "true" self. But being funny?
In an age when the treasured truth-tellers of comedy are revealed as shady creeps and liars who hide behind their apparent honesty, it's perhaps best to be wary of acolytes ranting about the truthfulness of the fealty of comedy, of improv, of anything.
Truthfulness no longer feels commensurate with artfulness.
And so, in the face of such frothing, wildly overstated proselytizing, the cynic or the improv skeptic, might naturally read Wasson's hyperbolic hosannas and ask, disbelievingly, "Yes, and ...?"