What Makes Chicago A Destination For Improv?

A long list of famous comedians got their start doing improv in Chicago. Curious City talks to eight improvisers about why the city is no joke when it comes to the funny business.

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The Second City comedy club and improv school trains around 18,000 aspiring actors, directors, comedy writers, and improvisers every year — that’s more than the average number of undergraduate students who enroll at the University of Chicago. And The Second City is just one of several theaters in town, like The iO Theater and The Annoyance Theater, which offer classes in the art of improv. In 2016, Ty McCarthy was one of those students.

“It was so much fun. I met a ton of cool people and we would just laugh so hard every night," he says.

While he was taking those improv classes, he also met a lot of people who had moved to Chicago specifically to hone their improv chops. So he asked Curious City:

Why did Chicago become such a destination for improv?

It’s true. Chicago has launched the careers of countless comedy writers and Hollywood stars, including everyone from John Belushi and Chris Farley to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. So why here and not somewhere else?

One answer to Ty’s question could be the fact that modern improv got its start in Chicago. The germ of improv began with social worker Viola Spolin, who, while supervising a drama program for immigrant kids at Hull House during the Great Depression, developed a series of games to help kids learn to express themselves. In the ’50s, her son, Paul Sills, took those games and started The Compass Players, which became the first group to improvise shows based on audience suggestions.

Beyond giving rise to the legendary Second City Theatre in 1959, The Compass Players’ experimentation with improv began a sort of revolution in American comedy that’s reflected in entertainment today. The short skit format used on many popular television shows like Saturday Night Live, The Chappelle Show, and Inside Amy Schumer, for example, can be traced back to The Compass Players.

But, maybe it’s more than improv’s long history in Chicago that brings so many aspiring performers to the city today. To understand what makes the experience of improv in Chicago different from New York or Los Angeles, and just what draws tens of thousands to its theater and comedy schools each year, we turned to eight improvisers who got their start in Chicago. Here’s what they had to say about what makes Chicago a destination for improv.

These interview clips have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Horatio Sanz

Saturday Night Live alum, host of The Hooray Show podcast, former Chicago improviser. Grew up in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood.

“There’s something about the sensibility [that comes with] being in Chicago. You think LA is full of flakes, you think New York is full of rudeness. We’re not those guys. And so there's a little bit of an arrogance that comes from a little insecurity. [When I got to] Second City, I was auditioning with a bunch of theater kids, and I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t know about these guys, but I’m from Chicago.’ ... ”

Emily Fightmaster

Second City cast member. Chicago-based improviser and actor trained at iO Chicago and The Annoyance Theatre.

“... People go to LA and New York to make it. People come to Chicago to study and grow. The scene in Chicago lacks the cutthroat competition factor of the coasts, so we’ve been able to build a community based on friendship and collaboration. ... ”

Chris Redd

Saturday Night Live cast member, former Chicago improviser.

“The community is a major part of why I think Chicago is a great place for improv. It’s the birthplace of so many great institutions and teachers. The amount of stage time is also a key element to Chicago. There are so many places to play and develop, and even more places to start your own shows and create stage time for yourself. All of this mixed with the different styles and competition is just an ingredient for success."

T.J. Jagodowski

Chicago-based improviser and actor. One-half of TJ & Dave.

“I think, in a nice way, it’s the grind. A lot of people look back on the time before they made it as being ‘the best time of my life,’ for whatever reason. ‘I had nothing to eat, lived on someone else’s couch. Gosh, was that great.’ … ”

David Pasquesi

Chicago-based improviser and actor. One-half of “TJ & Dave.”

“[In Chicago], no one is going to come to your show and take you away to a TV show or a movie. Nobody’s going to do that. So, the people who are in Chicago understand that. … They’re just here to learn how to improvise better. ... ”

Susan Messing

Chicago-based improviser and teacher. Co-founder of The Annoyance Theatre.

“I think when people are doing their research [about where to study], they're going to look at famous alumni and say, ‘Ooh these people did very well.’ That's a basic way to get there, or to start. But I think once people start peeling back the layers of how rich this art has become [in Chicago], I think they choose to stay. ... ”

Will Miles

Writer on The Chris Gethard Show, stand-up comedian, former student, The iO Theater.

“When you walk into the doors of iO and you see all the pictures of everybody who made it out of there … like, these are all the people I looked up to in comedy. Chris Farley, Key and Peele are faces you see on the wall. As a black man, though, watching Jordan [Peele] specifically — because Jordan was still around a lot … I was like … that’s huge. ..."

Jonathan Pitts

Chicago-based improviser. Co-founder of the Chicago Improv Festival.

“We took a baseball game and turned it into 16-inch softball; we took acoustic blues and electrified it; we took poetry and turned it into poetry slam; we took beats and made house music. Our whole cultural history as a city is taking something and turning it into something else. ...”

More about our questioner

Ty McCarthy is a zoning and permitting specialist for a telecommunications company in Chicago. Before moving to Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood a few years ago, he lived in Oklahoma City, where the improv scene wasn’t quite as robust as Chicago’s.

Now an improviser himself (thanks to the classes he took at iO), Ty was surprised to learn that the artform was invented right here in Chicago, where the less competitive environment and distance from Hollywood helped it grow and thrive.  

“You do get the feeling that it’s a cultural thing — that there’s something in the air that breeds it here, and that’s really cool,” Ty says.

He’s says he’s not looking to get famous from improv, just learn the craft and now that he knows why Chicago is such destination, he’s pretty sure he’s come to the right place.