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Friday September 30th

Improv Comedy Dates Back Decades, Births Acting Icons

One of the first improv groups began in the early 1950s when students at the University of Chicago banded together for the sake of improv. The students went through a few name changes before emerging as The Second City.

After gaining popularity -- Time magazine even dubbed it "a temple of satire" -- more Second City groups have popped up in Toronto, Detroit, Las Vegas, Cleveland and Los Angeles.

Frances Callier, a producer for Second City's Training Center in Los Angeles, said there has been an increase in people interested in improv at all the training locations.

"Enrollment has been pretty high even before 'Whose Line is it Anyway,'" Callier said. "We're still getting off-the-cuff people but also people who are just looking for something to do on a Wednesday evening."

In addition to expanding to various cities, Second City made a foray into television with "SCTV." The show served as a starting point for comedic actors such as Rick Moranis, John Candy and Martin Short, whose character Ed Grimley would later be seen on "Saturday Night Live."

Another talent pool for "Saturday Night Live" has been the troupe known as The Groundlings, founded in 1972 in Los Angeles. Originally the Gary Austin Workshop, the group instructed comedians in the art of improv and performed at various comedy clubs. The number of students taking these classes has grown exponentially -- from 17 in 1979 to 300 today.

Once students make it into the advanced classes, they get opportunities to perform. Jim Rash, director of The Groundlings Mainstage Show and UNC alumnus, was one such comedy graduate.

"I think 'Whose Line' may have brought (improv) into the mainstream, but Groundlings have been around for over 30 years," he said. "I love the idea of it. It's low-maintenance -- you just show up. There's something raw about it that people like."

Many of the students who learned the art of improv at The Groundlings school have graced the set of "Saturday Night Live," including Will Ferrell and Phil Hartman. Actors Lisa Kudrow and Paul Reubens -- aka Pee-Wee Herman -- also got their starts with The Groundlings.

Although much of sketch comedy and improv theater came before it, "Whose Line is it Anyway" is the most popular improv show today. The show began as a London radio program in 1988 and was formatted for television by co-creators Dan Patterson and Mark Leveson.

"I always thought it would work well over here because I auditioned in America a lot of people and I thought the Americans were very good at it," Patterson said. "When I'd shown the people the show on Comedy Central we thought there was definitely an audience for it."

Like its British predecessor, the U.S. version of the show has also been successful. Host Drew Carey serves as ringmaster for the show. Providing the laughs are Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie, alumni of the British version, along with Emmy-nominated Wayne Brady. Accompanying the trio is one guest from a revolving roster of talented comedians.

"I think it's always funny," Patterson said. "It's got energy; it's not like anything else."

"People like that it's comedy without a safety net -- that they are improvising and there is that sort of danger. They tend to be able to pull it off, but I think people like to see someone struggling as long as they're sure that they'll eventually succeed."

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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