Mr. Wasson is not the first to chronicle the innovative comedians of the period (see Gerald Nachman’s Seriously Funny from 2003), but he makes fine use of improv as a prism for understanding the development of American comedy, and it’s a pleasure to encounter his acute characterizations of such talents as Alan Arkin, Bill Murray and Del Close, the self-destructive guru of the genre little known in the wider world. Mr. Wasson also captures the big picture, showing the evolution of improv from its utopian beginnings to a more commercial and aggressively funny style—from Elaine May, in other words, to John Belushi. Yet the original spirit lives on, dispersed into an array of spaces nationwide.
Wasson masters the art of the monograph by locating a sharp argument within a sweeping, messy, compelling history ... The creative process is like democracy in action. (The book cleverly posits this theory against the backdrop of, among other political moments, the chaotic 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.) Wasson’s dizzying style drives the point home. Though he jumps around, he never gives a player short shrift, and his conversational tone captivates. The book’s focus tightens as its narrative strands converge, but it maintains a loose unpredictability throughout. It holds the element of surprise—true to the spirit of its subject.
Sam Wasson may be the first author to explain its entire history in comprehensive detail. For that reason alone, it’s a valuable book, benefiting from dogged reporting and the kind of sweeping arguments that get your attention ... What mars this book, however, is not its overreaching claims or narrative ambition, but its fuzzy conceptual framework. It’s like a lively scene with great jokes but no direction ... Improv Nation is at its more assured in the pre- and early-history of the form, when the number of improvisers was small enough that telling the story of the art through a collection of personalities is more manageable ... To do justice to the impact of improv comedy, you need a wider lens, one that explores the increasing importance of improv theaters in the comedy ecosystem, the various schools of pedagogy and how the principles of improvisation have infiltrated the business world, traditional acting and popular culture.