Posted by: Mark Nielsen | August 5, 2008

Improv: Colbert’s Therapy For Your Obsessive Branding Disorder

I just saw one of the better interviews Stephen Colbert has had on in months, with Lucas Conley, author of the book Obsessive Branding Disorder: The Illusion of Business and the Business of Illusion. Conley’s message and methods seem terrific, and he does a pretty cool blog as well, but I need to come back to Conley’s topic of hyperactive marketing mania another day, because today we’re here to talk about The Colbert Report as an improvisational comedy/satiric tour de force.

Monday’s interview was better than most because Conley is clearly very smart and knew his topic, yet he’s funny, and with a performer’s sense of timing and showmanship. So he kept right up with Colbert as the host made sharp left and right turns, in Steven’s usual attempt to lose and confuse his guests for the sake of subversive comedy. He didn’t lose Conley, though, who may have even won this round of the nightly “snarkiness” race (one in which Colbert usually crushes the competition, the literary or political figures who are always put in the straight-man/reactive role as Stephen swoops in and “nails” them).

Not a stand-up comedian but a trained and naturally skilled improviser, this is what Colbert does better than anyone else on television. In the looser, more varied pace and format of the show, and especially in the interviews, the Northwestern University and Second City-trained Colbert has created a space where he can start from a pre-conceived premise and just riff like a jazz musician for a minute or two. The magic is often in what he, his audience, and his guest discover or create in that unique “practiced yet spontaneous” style that Second City type improvisers have learned to use, some with great effectiveness.

And good improv performance really is magical. Sometimes it’s even spiritual or therapeutic — something risky and rewarding, where a performer is out on a limb, reaching for something big, in an almost prayerful way, …or else trying to do a sort of “mind meld” with the other performers on stage. Real (if temporary) bonds are formed, with one’s fellow performers and with an appreciative audience, and it’s an enriching and energizing moment for all involved.  It’s a rush when it works. It’s mercurial (my favorite word lately).

This is one of the reasons Saturday Night Live has survived all these years: though it’s scripted, it still grows out of a tradition of improvised comedy, stuff not written while sitting at a desk somewhere, but thrown out onstage and tried out in a real world “lab” (or on other gifted performers and thinkers) to see if it works. This is probably why they’ve continued to do the show live, also. The risk, and the possibility of something going really well (or really poorly, or unexpectedly), is part of what drives the performers to excel. For better or worse, it’s about being “in the moment” together, being vulnerable at some level, in front of an audience of millions.

But that energy, that rush, is also fleeting. It takes a certain personality to develop a taste for it and seriously pursue it, probably a person with obsessive or at least compulsive tendencies already. Many improvisers are cut from that “always on”, Robin Williams type of cloth (though not many to the extreme that Robin is always on… the guy walks the line between brilliant and nuts like nobody else). It’s no accident that SNL people like Chris Farley and steroid freak Joe Piscopo and John Belushi had substance abuse problems: that rush of being onstage, doing that work, is hard to reproduce in the ups and downs of daily life.

I can identify with this type of person. I run at those temperatures. My brain is almost always working at expressing something, analyzing it by exposing it to myself and others, forming opinions and crashing ideas together “on the fly”. This means my mouth can sometimes lead where my brain and body are loathe to go. It also means I drink, to stop the voices in my head for awhile. (Just kidding… schizophrenia is no laughing matter.) This is partly true of the Marking Time blog, as well, though this is more of an edited version of the rants and improv’s that get played out in my head so often.

I went to a Second City Chicago show recently, popped in late (and for free) just to watch the theater games and audience interaction stuff they do after the more polished show (except on Fridays and Saturdays, I think). I’ve heard this is where they stumble upon alot of the material that eventually becomes a full-fledged sketch in a later show. Sure, sometimes a performer can be seen trying to “force it”. And even at those high levels, there’s still a range of talent, as well as a range among good or bad audiences and suggestions. But that process of “messing around” always has the potential to lead to startling, politically and socially powerful commentary as well.

When the daily news is the raw material from which one makes art, as it is on Colbert, it should always be this way. We’re an often foolish, frequently unpredictable, always fascinating species. Any attempt to corporatize or homogenize or squash our natural spontaneity, to “normalize” what is wild within us, is at some level an assault on that eternal, creative spirit within us. The best we can do is channel that spirit, to focus it without getting in the way of it (whether on stage or in life… Jesus talked about needing to “lose” one’s life in order to find it).

Also, we can also learn alot from the improvisers when it comes to cooperation, in the building of even stronger connections, human-to-human. Improvisational writer/actors are not about competition, in the way that the marketers and politicians and even (God forbid) educators tell us we’re supposed to get along in this world. Instead, the best improvisers depend on each other, with each carrying their own weight, each giving the others something to work with, in order to make their art work. They look to sink into the scene’s essence, not to rise above or upstage the actors or ideas with which they are engaged. They just love messing around in the muddiness of human experience, and they’re not afraid about who gets dirty, whether those people are onstage, in the audience, or in the White House.

At some level, I suppose we’re all improvisers. Organize it however you want — we’re still all  making ninety percent of this stuff up as we go along.

Besides, we’re made of mud… and stardust. And if that ain’t a funny combination, I don’t know what is.



  1. Cool post, maybe you dream fof writters?

    Sry, hehe))

  2. […] written a fair amount in the past about Colbert and his self-invented podium/stage, as he takes long-form, Chicago-style improvisational comedy […]

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