American comedy remains a subject of endless fascination — for proof, look no further than the books of this year. Jeremy Dauber situated the topic in a complex cultural context in October’s Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, while a month earlier, Budd Friedman’s The Improv featured titans like Jerry Seinfeld and Lily Tomlin giving first-person accounts of the early days at the legendary stand-up club. For decades, books like these have followed celebrities and underground icons as they confront American life with punch lines and pratfalls. There’s a reason their stories resonate: Jokes have a way of revealing who we are.
Sam Wasson’s Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art reminds us that the best is often saved for last. The social historian, whose 2013 biography Fosse provided a thrilling portrait of the famed choreographer, traces the rise of improv comedy over nearly a century, zeroing in (at least initially) on a few key players — famous and not — with vital intimacy. You probably know more about Mike Nichols than Viola Spolin, or Tina Fey than Paul Simms, but in Improv Nation their stories are entwined and given equal weight.
Wasson masters the art of the monograph by locating a sharp argument within a sweeping, messy, compelling history. Improv is the definitive American art form, he asserts, discovered and developed by “young, mostly middle-class amateurs” negotiating methods of collaboration. The creative process is like democracy in action. (The book cleverly posits this theory against the backdrop of, among other political moments, the chaotic 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.) Wasson’s dizzying style drives the point home. Though he jumps around, he never gives a player short shrift, and his conversational tone captivates. The book’s focus tightens as its narrative strands converge, but it maintains a loose unpredictability throughout. It holds the element of surprise — true to the spirit of its subject. A-