Books

Is New York Improv Back? I Went on a One-Week Binge to Find Out.

Improv comedy became so influential in the first two decades of this century that you could make an argument it mattered more to popular culture than stand-up.

Lines regularly ran down the block outside Upright Citizens Brigade. Students who once would have studied Method acting took classes in “Yes, and.” The author Sam Wasson described it as “America’s most popular art,” and its major theaters were training grounds for stars like Tina Fey, Jordan Peele and Stephen Colbert.

Then, all of a sudden, the boom went bust. The pandemic hurt every live art, but arguably none more than improv. Not only did struggles force the sale of three of its biggest institutions (Second City, iO and U.C.B.), but the prestige surrounding the form faded as criticism mounted over business models built on free labor and racist treatment of artists. The title of the new book “Winging it: Improv’s Power and Peril in the Time of Trump” captures its new mixed reputation.

From left: Drew Reilly, Jordan Savusa, Ashley Leisten and Ben Rameaka at Second City.Credit…Carlos Perez

But with a flurry of improv theaters opening or moving into new homes in this city, one of the major questions hovering over comedy today is: Can improv make a comeback?

“Second City” began as a New Yorker’s insult, then became a Chicago institution, so its arrival in Brooklyn is a return home of sorts. Not only is its vast Williamsburg complex fancier than any other improv house in town — the Manhattan Theater Club to everyone else’s La MaMa — but its first revue represents an aesthetic shift and possibly a changing of the guard.

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