Long Form Improvisation and American Comedy: The Harold may be the most important improv book you’ve never heard of. It’s definitely the most comprehensive, meticulously-researched study of long form ever written.
Author Matt Fotis connects the dots from Atellan Farce in Ancient Rome to Vaudeville, Spolin, The Compass Players, Second City, The Committee, iO, Annoyance, UCB, and beyond.
But this is much more than a history book.
Fotis explores every facet of long form: the forms, teams, philosophies, personalities, work and performance styles that helped turn The Harold from an obscure art form performed in basements to the most important influence in comedy today.
Whether the slow comedy of Jazz Freddy, the “Fuck it” fearlessness of Annoyance, or the game-based power play of UCB, Fotis shows how The Harold inspired new forms, gave rise to new theatres, and pushed the boundaries of what’s possible.
The book also takes a closer look at key players in the community, including TJ & Dave, The Improvised Shakespeare Company, The Annoyance, UCB, and Octavarius.
Finally, it examines how The Harold has permeated pop culture. (We’re not sure whether Del Close would shudder or cheer at that statement.)
Shows like 30 Rock, The Office, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, podcasts like Comedy Bang! Bang!, and Improv4Humans, and films like Bridesmaids, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Anchorman all mark a dramatic shift from punchline-driven comedy to ensemble-based writing and performance. None of this would be possible without Del Close and Charna Halpern’s creation.
And while improv still suffers from diversity issues, what’s noticeable throughout the book is the enormous contribution of women. From Viola Spolin, to Elaine May, to Charna Halpern, to Susan Messing, to Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, this is an art form that’s been powerfully shaped by female perspectives.
(It’s sometimes easy to forget Mick Napier was the first to insist on equal casting of men and women at Second City.)
If you’d like a deeper understanding of long form, one that goes beyond scene work and structure, you’ll love this book. It’s an academic title (and priced accordingly), but you can purchase it for much less on Kindle here. If your improviser’s salary doesn’t stretch that far, check your local college library. If they don’t have a copy, ask them to order one.
Matt Fotis is an Assistant Professor and Co-Chair of the Theatre Department at Albright College. He’s won numerous awards, including The Mark Twain Award for Comic Playwriting from the Kennedy Center, The Dr. Henry P. and M. Page Laughlin Distinguished Faculty Award for Research, and UCM’s Theatre for Young Audiences National Playwriting Competition…but balances these accolades with his social awkwardness. Learn more at mattfotis.com.