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  • Paul Deichmann

4 Famous People You Probably Didn’t Know Got Their Start in Improv

Improv might seem like a niche art form–well, it definitely is–but did you know that many of the famous comedians, writers, and performers in American media began as improvisers? Improv is an excellent tool to enhance creative energy, to collaborate with new people, and has helped many professionals develop their attitudes that lead them to success. Here’s just a few people who have become incredibly successful who began their career in improv. 

Keegan-Michael Key

Key’s achievements are remarkable, as an actor, producer, philanthropist and writer. But did you know he got his start at Second City Chicago, one of the great schools of improv and sketch comedy? Key has spoken directly about how his time as improviser has fueled his other endeavors.

Key talks about how improv creates creative energy and creative habits in this clip from Off Camera with Sam Jones:

Stephen Colbert

One of the things I was taught early on was... you are not the most important person in the scene. Everybody else is.

The host of The Late Show did not begin his career thinking he’d host a late night talk show. But after he began performing with his improv team (No Fun Mud Piranhas) in the Chicago area, Colbert’s life changed dramatically. He staffed the Second City Box Office in exchange for free classes in 1987 (and still holds the record for most t-shirts sold in a day). In 1997 he was tapped to be a correspondent for John Stewart’s Daily Show, and he’s been in the New York comedy world since. Here’s a snippet from an interview he gave to Mockingbird about improv influences his outlook: 

One of the things I was taught early on [in improvisation]  is that you are not the most important person in the scene. Everybody else is. … No one is leading, you’re all following the follower, serving the servant. You cannot win improv. And life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next and you are mostly just making things up as you go along. And like improv, you cannot win your life. 

Amber Ruffin

The first black woman to write for a US late-night network and host of her own The Amber Ruffin Show, Amber Ruffin got her start performing in an improv team in Omaha, Nebraska. During an event in Chicago she was encouraged by comedian Charna Halpern to move to Chicago because she was certain Ruffin would "have a full-time job, doing comedy, within the year.” Amber took classes at the iO and ended up moving to Amsterdam as part of the improv comedy troupe Boom Chicago Amsterdam, before eventually coming back to the US and becoming a writer for Late Night with Seth Meyers, where she still writes today. In addition to hosting her own late night show, she also co-authored a NYT best-selling book, You'll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories about Racism, and co-wrote the Broadway musical Some Like it Hot.

Below is an excerpt from Ruffin's interview with Backstage magazine:

On resilience: Performing thousands of live improv shows prepared Ruffin for a Hollywood life full of uncertainty and rejection. “Once 300 people are like, ‘Boo!’—once that happens, and then you are sad, and then you wake up and you go do another show again—then you realize it doesn’t matter.”

Tina Fey

As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no.

Writer of Mean Girls and 30 Rock, Tina Fey’s career as a writer, industry leader and producer is legendary. After college, Tina Fey ended up in Chicago and took performance classes at Second City and performed at the Improv Olympic. Fey says that improv changed her worldview  subtly but significantly, and ultimately helped her cultivate this worldview, which she explains in her book Bossypants

As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. “No, we can’t do that.” “No, that’s not in the budget.” “No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.” What kind of way is that to live?

She also talks about the lessons improv offers to life in this talk she gave as part of Google Talks:

In Conclusion...

The many skills of improv have helped these 4 excel in their fields, as leaders of writers rooms, showrunners, writers, performers and thinkers. Your support helps us share the skills of improv with students in Philadelphia, so that they may learn the tools of collaboration, creativity, and resilience - for performance and media - or, perhaps more importantly, simply for their everyday lives.


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