Something Slightly Less Wonderful, Several Decades Later

A new edition of Jeffrey Sweet’s seminal book on improv doesn’t add much, but the original text still has a lot to offer

Warning. This review is going to be biased. I have a deep, personal connection with this book. But I know I am not alone. As a theater writer, I have talked to lots of people over the years – some famous, some not – who have mentioned this book, and how important it has been in their lives. Case in point, Mick Napier, Chicago director, teacher, and founder of Chicago’s Annoyance Theatre, once told me that reading this book in college set him on a career path that led him to Chicago, and his life’s work.

The book is Jeffrey Sweet’s 1978 oral history Something Wonderful Right Away.  And the subject of the book is the highly successful Chicago comedy theater Second City, its roots, specifically the several theaters the founders of Second City attempted – and then closed – before they founded The Second City in 1959 – and found success: Playwrights and the various incarnations of The Compass.  The Second City, you probably know about because of the theater has turned into a greenhouse of sort for several generations of comic actors and writers: among them, in no particular order, Alan Arkin, Tina Fey, John Belushi, Adam McKay, Stephen Colbert, David Steinberg, Amy Poehler, Steve Carell, Barbara Harris, Rachel Dratch, and I could go on.

Sweet’s book was the first book published about The Second City. There have since been dozens of other books since, but Sweet’s book was the first. And many of the books that followed rest on the foundations Sweet created.

And for several generations of young wannabe comics and improvisors, Sweet’s book was the only place you could go to hear (metaphorically) famous (Arkin, Harris, Mike Nichols, Del Close, Joan Rivers, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara) and not so famous (Eugene Troobnick, Mina Kolb, Paul Sand) comic actors and directors talk about the process of using improvisation to create great comedy. The book is so influential, and so beloved, Keegan-Michael Key calls it “the Bible.”

Now, 45 years after its initial publication, Sweet has come out with a 2nd edition of the book, with a couple of new interviews – one with Viola Spolin,who first developed most of  the improvisation theater games improvisers play, and one with Keegan-Michael Key, and a lot of other supporting material, including an introduction to the book by the Nationally recognized director and improv teacher Mick Napier,  a personal essay by Sweet and post scripts by Sweet to all of the original interviews in the book.

I was one of those impressionable wannabe comedy people who read Sweet’s book. It changed me, like it did so many other people. I read it in college, soon after it was first published, when I was 20 and raw and stupid but ambitious, full of vague plans and expectations, uncertain of where to go and what to do, but eager to get there–fast.

I think it was the title that first attracted me. I was, yes, looking for something wonderful – that sounded nice – and as a child of the late 60s/early 70s (Minute Rise, instant coffee, rapid-fire 30 second ads on TV) I wanted it all right away.

I read the book quickly, in a week or two, took it with me everywhere, underlined passages, spilled coffee on it, broke the spine, used the pages that fell out as a bookmark. I read every last one of the interviews in the book, the ones with people I had heard of (Arkin, Stiller and Meara, Mike Nichols, Paul Mazursky, Shelley Berman, Alan Alda, Paul Sand, Joan Rivers, Del Close, Avery Shreiber), the ones with people I thought I might have heard of (Severn Darden, Barbara Harris, Paul Sills), and the ones with people I only found out about because of the book (David Shepherd, Eugene Troobnick, Mina Kolb).

I wanted to be like them–fast, famous, funny. I took improv classes, learned the basics–“yes, and” your partner, don’t deny the reality of the scene you are creating, don’t stop the flow. I studied with various improv teachers, eventually working my way to Del Close (improv guru, who taught a form of long form improv he called “The Harold” at IO (a.k.a. The ImprovOlympic), and then to The Second City Training Center. For a time I used to do improv on late nights (after 11 pm) at IO to audiences made up almost entirely of other improvisers and their friends and family. For a little while improv was my life; my day job literally existed only to come up with money for more improv workshops.

Throughout this period (the mid-1980s) I went through several copies of Sweet’s book, reading and rereading it like some improv Talmudic scholar, hoping to tease out more secrets on how to improvise, how to use improv to create great material, and, most importantly, how to become famous, or how not to become not famous.

Along the way I discovered I was better at reading about improv–and, later, writing about it–than doing it. I also got to know how actors live, and what they have to put up with for their art, and how many of them never become famous or even make a real living on the stage. So I gave up improv. And I moved on to, oddly enough, writing about theater.

I don’t consider my time in improv wasted. It loosened me up as a writer, taught me to trust the flow of words as I wrote, and connected me to something deep .  Improv also helped me in the world. Improv taught me, or maybe it just reminded me, of the basic skills we’re supposed to learn in kindergarten, but often don’t: be nice, share, play well with others, everyone gets their turn, you get what you get, don’t get upset. One of my improv teachers, Josephine Forsberg, once said, “This shit could change the world.” She was right.

Even today, 30-plus years after my improv days, I use elements of improv in my writing and my teaching (I teach high school). But I put Sweet’s book away on a shelf years ago.

Back to basics

Something Wonderful Right Away

And there it sat, until one day, about two months ago, I found out Sweet was turning out another edition of his seminal book. For reasons I don’t totally understand, I bought the new edition–and read it. Reading it has been an experience. Which is to say it triggered a lot of memories about my improv days, and a lot of reflection about my life, and life in general.

I was amazed to discover how well Sweet’s interviews hold up after all these years. Sweet, who conducted the interviews in  his 20s, is clearly on a personal quest when he was doing the initial research. The questions he asks are the ones you ask when you don’t entirely know what the subjects are going to answer. Each interview feels like a stop in a journey Sweet is making to find out, well, a lot of things.

Primarily he wants to find out about The Second City. Where did it come from? What did the people who started the theater think they were doing when they started the theater? What actually happened? What was The Compass (the previous incarnation of The Second City? When it succeeded, why did it succeed? When it failed, why did it fail?  Why was The Second City, in contrast to The Compass, such an “instant” success? (Within two years of its founding, Second City was a hit in Chicago and sending companies to perform in New York or appear on TV.)

But in each interview, Sweet succeeds in getting into the heads of his interviewees, and gives us a glimpse of what makes them tick. More impressive is how well Sweet is able to communicate in the interviews the individuality of each interviewee. This is not surprising. Sweet is a recognized, produced playwright, and his ability to create believable dialogue shows. Each interviewee in this book speaks with his or her own voice; at times the interviews read like speeches in a play.

The newer material in the book, the stuff that makes this second edition of the book, and not just a reprint, is much more uneven. The two new interviews in the book (a previously unpublished one with Viola Spolin and a new one with Keegan-Michael Key) are interesting, but don’t add a lot to the heft of the book. An introduction by Mick Napier is disappointingly short.

And the additional commentary Sweet has added to the end of each interview often feels like a let down. Yes, it is kind of interesting to find out what happened to his interview subjects in the years after the first edition of the book came out, the careers that continued the rise, and those that sputtered out. Almost everyone in the book is dead now. Alan Arkin died soon after the book came out. When I first read the book it made me excited to read about people whose careers had taken off, and to think of what they could do next. It is bracing to discover that no matter how much success they achieved – or failed to achieve – they all ended the race, as we will, in the same place.

Sweet, also, too often uses these post scripts to insert himself into the narrative, recounting stories in which he was present at this or that event with this or that celebrity.  Sweet’s tales often reminded me of an intentionally snobby liquor ad that used to run in the disco era that bragged: “Liza introduced us to white rum and soda at an Andy Warhol party.” Sweet does a lot of bragging here.

Sweet also ends the book with a long personal essay, A More Personal Perspective, which contains some interesting material about the making of Something Wonderful Right Away, but it suffers from the same self-aggrandizing that mars his post scripts to the interviews. Much of it is a lot of me and my friend Mike Nichols, me and my friend Paul Sills. Blah blah blah. Brag brag brag.

The annoying thing is Sweet didn’t have to brag. The original book edition speaks for itself.  The original book was an amazing accomplishment, especially for a young writer (Sweet turned 28 the year the book came out.)

I suppose you can always read around this new material, the way my parents told me to eat around the raisins in the dressing. Sweet, wisely, left the original interviews almost untouched.


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Jack Helbig

Jack Helbig is a journalist, playwright, and teacher living in Chicago. He has written about theatre since 1988. His articles have appeared in the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Daily Herald, and American Theatre. He co-wrote a one woman show, Here Lies a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, with actor Melody Jefferies, who has performed it at fringe festivals in Elgin, Illinois; Chicago; Milwaukee; and, most recently, Boulder, Colorado, where the one-act won an award for best writing.

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