The insane asylum hothouse that is the Chicago improv "community" exists to perpetuate its own bloated self interest. It does this by huckstering multi-leveled "coursework" ostensibly aimed at creating armies of earnest improvisers poised to make their lives, and by extension, our world, a better place. In actuality what this pipeline churns out are armies of adherents willing to do nearly anything to be validated by their improv teachers and "coaches", themselves extensions of the organizations that sell the coursework. Any given cult or pyramid scheme uses methodologies to indoctrinate the faithful that bear striking resemblance to what passes for the advocacy of the group think of improv. Its all about the "yes, and"...or actually, “there’s a sucker born every minute”. Let me begin by painting a picture.
Eager Young Person: I want to be an improviser so I came to Chicago. I live in a crowded apartment with four other young wanna-be improvisers and we all work minimum wage jobs. Can you help me (insert here your choice: iO, The Annoyance, The Playground, Second City)?
Multimillion Dollar Improvisation Theater/School (again, insert your choice from the list above): Can we help you? Babe, you can’t get ANYWHERE in this town WITHOUT our help. You’ve come to the right place.
Eager Young Person: What do I need to do?
Multimillion Dollar Improvisation Theater/School: OK, first, give us several thousand dollars and all of your free time to take classes at our establishments that span several levels and many, many months, if not years. Following that, audition for one of our “teams” in a very competitive but essentially totally random selection process. You will be observed and your skills judged by (in one of our $$$$ “schools”) a shadowy organization made up of self-important douchebags who call themselves The Harold Commission. Let me repeat that: The Harold Commission. Commission. Yes, I know; try hard not to laugh at this level of outlandish pomposity. This holy order is named for "The Harold", the signature improv format that nobody outside of the insular world of improv has ever heard of. The Harold was invented by cult-founder-leader-for-eternity-self-proclaimed-warlock-and-clearly-certifiable-sadistic-maniac Del Close who, in the late 1950s, supposedly invented the cult...er, " art", of improv. I’m not going to go into his story so as not to rile up the pathetic faithful who continue to extol his superior vision all these years later. To improv purists Del Close is quite literally a god.
So, if you aren’t selected its because you did something wrong or otherwise missed the deep message embedded in the training you’ve just had, so clearly you need to go back to the beginning and start again. Come back for another audition in about 18 months, but of course, no promises. In the meantime max out your credit cards and, or, beg money from relatives to pay for this next round of “education” because, of course, by beginning again you have to pay the full fee. And you'll go on paying it until we deem you sufficiently "educated". Also, know that once you complete the first two or three levels that ensure that you’re adequately indoctrinated into our group think, cultish lifestyle, we’ll precipitously limit the the number of “students” that have to compete for a dwindling number of slots in our “courses” in order to complete the full roster of “training” that allows you to audition for a “team”. Oh, and sometimes those audition slots are limited to the point that online registration for an audition is filled in a matter of a few seconds. Have fun with that because that’s what the mind fuck of Chicago improv is all about. If your life is disrupted to the point that you have to take a day off work in order to be at your laptop when registration opens, oh well, that’s the improv life - a full-on commitment to playing by our random, ever-changing rules. You gotta want it! Plus, if it isn't obvious by now we really like to shake our dicks at all of you just because we can. That and we're awful, awful people.
Eager Young Person: OK, if I do that will I get on a “team” and be able to perform and use all the skills I’ve learned going through your course levels again? Will I be able to get on SNL then?
Multimillion Dollar Improvisation Theater/School: Not so fast. If you’ve set aside your ego sufficiently this time to be able to absorb the improv wisdom that has been presented to you in this second (or third, or fourth, or fifth) round of coursework (and we’ll be the sole judge of that), and you successfully pass the audition for a “team”, then you get to BE on the team, pay money to us each week for a team “coach”, and fork over the cost of our performance space when your team is on stage. You, of course, earn zero money for this activity; you’re just one of the lucky ones that gets to be in the position to pay US for the opportunity we’re offering you to get into the “group mind” of improv. Of course we sell the fuck out of tickets to those folks who come to see your team perform because, well, we set the rules, remember? Also, if you’re really, really lucky we’ll pick you to work for free selling tickets or tearing tickets or pouring beers because by volunteering your free time to work in a for-fucking-profit enterprise you show us just how much you WANT IT. Oh, did we tell you we’re building a new seven million dollar theater across town? Yeah, it’s good to be king. Or queen, as the case may be.
Eager Young Person: Where do I sign up? AKA, please, please love me.
And...scene. So if I told this story to a random group of people not brainwashed by the improv cult leaders that rule the improv roost in Chicago would any of them in their right mind choose to participate? Uh, just in case I have to spell it out for you...oh, hell no. However, what you read just now is exactly the way the world works in the factory farm environment that is Chicago improv. The difference being that it’s not cattle being sent down the chute to the slaughter, its young people from around the country who make the pilgrimage to Chicago because they saw a few episodes of Whose Line Is It Anyway? and expect that they’ll become the next in a supposedly long line of winners chosen by Lorne Michaels to join his SNL casts over the years. Reality being reality, a decent guess as to the chances of that happening, based on the number of young people paying to become an improv "star" versus the number of actual stars that have been made over the years is about 1 in 50,000. If the odds are even that good. For real.
So there you have it, folks. The dirty little secret that is the rigged game of the Chicago improv world. All the chips for all the prizes for all time are owned by the few at the top of the pyramid and paid for by the multitudes of slaves at the bottom of the pyramid. So, YOU! Yes, you, that slob in the flannel shirt, geek-chic glasses and dirty sneakers, shuffle on over here to Chi-town and take your place in the great factory that is Chicago improv. We guarantee you’ll be glad you did. And what were you going to do with that down payment cash anyway? That house will always be there and, after all, it’s just a house. We’re offering you the chance to create ART with a capital “A” because we’re all assholes with a capital “A” and we’re damn fucking proud of it.