A Secret History of American Comedy

I came to improvisation pretty late in life compared to most improvisors. I didn’t see my first show until I was 30 and freshly moved to Amsterdam for multimedia school. I had gotten a job tending bar at Boom Chicago, yet another of Amsterdam’s odd landmarks – a wildly successful and (largely) American improv & sketch comedy show in the heart of Holland. It was amazing.

And as with anyone who has ‘discovered’ improvisation, there was no going back. I started doing projects for the show and pretty soon designed a video system for improvising live video & integrating set video pieces into the show. Owners Andrew Moskos and Ken Schaefle rolled the dice and took me on as video director, an act of blind faith for which I am eternally grateful.

Once I was working full-time in the shows, I had  to know more. I asked cast member Jason Sudeikis whose uncle George Wendt had been a stalwart at The Second City, and who had a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the art. When he told me about Second City, Improv Olympic, UCB & The Groundlings, all in Chicago, NYC and LA, I had to ask if San Francisco had a history with improvisation. He said Del Close had worked at a place called The Committee, but that he’d never seen much information on it. It was at that point I knew I had to learn more.

Having grown up in the Bay Area, I had heard of The Committee in the same breath as The Diggers and sit-ins in the Park, but never really knew much about what they did, pretty much rolling it all into street theater and people getting high. What can I say – I grew up in the Reagan Era. Once Sam Shaw, myself, and members of Crisis Hopkins took up the cause of the San Francisco Improv Festival in 2010, we knew the first thing we wanted to do was celebrate the city’s history with improvisation – and that started with The Committee.

As Sam says in his post, we were extraordinarily fortunate to have the cooperation of founding director Alan Myerson in putting together a panel with Carl Gottlieb, Larry Hankin, Allaudin Matthieu, Jim Cranna, and lassoing  Del Close’s biographer Kim “Howard” Johnson to moderate. Once I met these people, and looking at the skills and resources we had available, I knew we had to get a documentary going. It’s an amazing story of San Francisco, political activism, theater, and improvisation, with roots in the beginnings of The Compass and Second City and tendrils extending out into the current state of the art and most modern, popular comedy.

Here’s a taste of our first effort with The Committee – one of their classics – reprised with the help of Howard Johnson, in August of 2010: