One of the talents I admire most is the ability to improvise. When someone knows their craft or whatever they’re doing so well they can change with any given situation, I would put that person in the category of master of their domain. Pardon the Seinfeld reference. It popped into my mind and I couldn’t say no to it.
Those who do master an activity to the point that no unexpected situations can throw them off track are rare and deserve a lot of respect. I will try now to name some greats in various fields who have risen to the title of this post.
The art of improv in performances that are purely skits made up on the spot are, in my opinion, the epitome and zenith of improvisation. As much as I feel capable of writing comedy, I cannot imagine myself going on a stage and doing what improv comics do. Riding a wave consisting of an idea seems like a great recipe for a sudden wipe-out that may just pull my swim trunks down to my ankles and leave me horribly embarrassed. Kudos to the brave souls who can pull off this form of entertainment.
I thought I might be able to name one or two comedians who have mastered pure improv performance, but I definitely underestimated the number of stellar comedians that rank among the elite. Records as far back as 391 BC detail the existence of improvisational theater. For centuries in Europe and probably around the world, this challenging and spontaneous brand of comedy has been entertaining appreciative audiences.
Second City spawned many brilliant comics via the creativity of improv. There have been numerous other venues that teach and show this unique art. Amy Poehler co-founded the Upright Citizens Brigade, an improv troupe. The first improv comedy I remember seeing was when Jonathan Winters would be given a mundane object and would create a whole hilarious monologue on the spot just off that object. Later, he and Robin Williams would improvise together with their brilliant minds on full display. In recent years, improv has been given and has taken the opportunity to shine on a wide platform with the TV show Whose Line is it Anyway. It features perhaps the three best improvisational comedians today. Ryan Stiles, Wayne Brady and Colin Mochrie are the core of the comedians on the show, along with host Aisha Tylor. It gives viewers more uproarious laughs per minute than arguably any other TV show. What these entertainers can do spontaneously is simply brilliant.
Improvisation in Music
While there have been many incredible masters of music and their instruments, many stay true to the written music or when performing solos, use a few previously created riffs or patterns to reel off impressive interludes. Those who could truly improvise as they gave us solo pieces were the real masters of their instruments. For instance, Jimi Hendrix knew his guitar extremely well and he had a remarkably creative mind. He used rhythms and melodic phrasing in a way no one had ever done before. Django Reinhardt was a Romani-Belgian jazz guitarist whose improvisation in the world of swing is legendary. By the mere fact alone that he had only three fingers with which to play the guitar fingerboard, he was improvising from the start. Still, he played groundbreaking music that holds up almost 100 years later. The jazz world is where improvisation is likely at its finest. The best musicians in this category include John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk. They took jazz music to places unknown with technique that’s copied widely in the 21st century.
There are few actors who can go off script in a big way and get away with it. Here are a few. They include Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Bill Murray and Fred Willard. They showed they could carry scenes and in some cases whole films with their creative, spontaneous wit.
Williams had a reputation for his improv skills when he was given the Mork & Mindy show. He could hardly contain himself from improvising in shooting episodes. He seemed to just live improvisationally. A deal was worked out with the producers and director that at specific points in each script, he was allowed to improvise as he wished. He also was known to improvise here and there in films in which he starred.
Jim Carrey came up with some improv in his films as well. One of the best known was in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, where he was supposed to pull a tablecloth off a table and the dishes would fall to the floor. Remarkably, he managed to pull the tablecloth completely off without anything else being pulled with it. Not missing a beat, he reached over and swiped everything off the table. It was a highly memorable moment.
Bill Murray was said to have improvised his way through most of Ghostbusters. To be able to do that and to be allowed to do that meant he was operating on a level most of us never realize. To have the confidence in one’s own ability and the certainty that just making it up on the spot would be high quality humor is living in rarefied air.
Fred Willard had a long career in film and TV. A significant part of it was involved in Christopher Guest’s “mockumentary” stories such as This is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration. He is said to have improvised virtually all of his dialogue in those films, and with a perfect blend of satirical humor and slightly off-center normalcy.
Off the Cuff
Articles like this can’t do justice to the topic. One reason is there’s not enough detail about the specific work done by each person honored. I mean, deep examples of their bits or songs or films. Another problem is there isn’t room enough in the format to cover more people who should be included as masters. So, I apologize for not mentioning those who I know should be on the list and for those who I don’t even know about. Hopefully, I’ll come across them and you do the same in the years ahead. Meanwhile, I recommend checking out the comedy, the music and the films of those I have been able to write about today. You’ll be amazed.