Why I don’t review improv shows

“Last night, I went to see a performance at Cal State University, Monterey Bay, by the Second City traveling company. The first two-thirds of the hilarious show were filled with rapid-fire scripted sketches, ranging in topics: lesbians here, bears there, republicans here, time-travel there. And then, the last third of the show was devoted to improv; the five players staged an on-the-spot debate and played a few other improv games to show off their tip-top theater sports skills. All in all, it was a night to remember.”

That above paragraph is probably one of the most boring passages I’ve ever written, save for a few linguistics papers I threw together in college. But that above paragraph is also probably the best I could do to describe last night’s performance, as well as the several other improv (and sketch comedy) shows I’ve been to over the last year (i.e., BATS Improv, Theme Park, Narcissists Anonymous). I don’t think it’s because I’m a bad writer, or that I’m a lazy reviewer; I could definitely tell you about the merits of each performer, how one of the players (Kevin Sciretta) had a ton of comic voices in his repertoire (including JFK!) or how another one of the players (Natalie Sullivan) was the perfect straight woman to her stagemates’ crazy, silly Flashdance sequence (Derek Shipman) or how another one of the players (Jessica Joy) interacted perfectly with one audience member who didn’t know what his school colors were. But there I go again. None of this makes any sense to you unless you were there, and chances are, you weren’t.

But that’s the beauty of improv. Most people in the world, on a given day, did not experience a particular improv show. That means that, if you attended one, you shared a singular experience with a small number of people. You were in on the joke. You got all the references, because they were made up in that room, with those people, in that context. And once the show was over, once you left the room, the whole thing dissolved in thin air, available only in your memories. You can’t ever replicate the experience (unless you record it, which is frowned-upon) for anyone, and you really shouldn’t, because it wouldn’t be spontaneous or one-time-only anymore. It is, in a word, disposable.

Not all improv is good, but it’s not all bad either. It’s constantly changing, evolving, improv-ing. I hope that, instead of giving my specific opinions of last night’s show and thus alienating you with more tales of out-of-context inside jokes, I’ve convinced you to attend an improv comedy show of your own and get in on your own joke. Of course, I would be glad to recommend companies and troupes with more experience and practice, because their performances tend to be more fluid than others. But the whole idea of improv comedy is one big experiment, and that’s an exciting concept to me. This blog post here is more of a love letter to improv shows than any “review” would ever be.