These days, it’s safe to say every college in the country has an improv group. Most of them perform “short-form” games, but several have also adopted the “long-form” style best known in cities like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. While many of these groups are located in those regions, or have Ivy League pedigrees, a good number have miraculously sprung up in the country’s unlikeliest of corners, from the swamps of Florida to a few miles from the Canadian border in Washington state.
Despite their regional differences, it’s interesting how similar many of these groups are. Most have around 9-12 members. All of them are extremely popular on their campuses and play to packed crowds on a regular basis. Most have apocryphal origins (Harvard’s group was allegedly founded to reenact episodes of Star Trek). Most importantly, they say, all are composed of people who are best friends – they live together, travel together, spend several hours a week rehearsing together, party together, and yes, date, sleep with, and in some cases marry each other.
College students – for whom focusing on a “real career” seems light years away – have the luxury of seeing their improv team as a sacred fraternity (unsurprisingly, most of them are not involved in Greek life), upon which it is worth spending countless hours each week and hundreds of dollars out of pocket.
Thanks to the Internet and a number of national improv festivals – the National College Improv Tournament, the Del Close Marathon, and festivals organized by the colleges themselves – the college improv network has exploded over the past few years. It’s time they received attention from someone other than student newspapers.
Arizona State University
Arizona State’s Barren Mind exemplifies everything great about college improv: completely self-directed, a strong sense of play, and a fanatical commitment to comedy. Combined with the college’s sketch team, Farce Side – which writes and performs a new hour-long sketch show every week – Barren Mind can be a commitment of over 40 hours a week for some members. After being around at ASU for over two decades, the group has the benefit of its own on-campus theater, and it regularly ships its performers to Chicago and Los Angeles for training over the summer (they recently participated in the Del Close Marathon, and they regularly attend the Fracas Improv Festival put on by USC’s Second Nature). “Everyone stays fucking busy,” says Michael Skarstsen, the group’s director. “Other groups will do one show a month. We want to meet six days a week, and be the one college group that does a shit load of stuff.”
Columbia College of Chicago
It’s not surprising that the city of Chicago would give us some of the country’s best college improv teams, and Columbia’s Droppin’ $cience – which won the 2012 College Improv Tournament – is no exception. Among the team’s benefits from the windy city’s comedy scene is a partnership with pH Productions, which sets up D$ with a coach and a weekly show with DePaul University’s team, the Cosby Sweaters. Several of D$ members have gone through Columbia’s popular Comedy Studies program, in which students take classes taught by top Second City improvisers (including Susan Messing) for college credit. While other groups have praised the team’s bookended show structure, team captain Jamie Jirak describes their style as “controlled chaos.” “We do better when we cut loose,” she said.
Immediate Gratification Players
Harvard’s Immediate Gratification Players would probably cringe at the title “the Harvard of college improv groups,” but IGP is certainly up there with the best. Founded in 1986 – legend has it as a Star Trek reenactment troupe, according to team “czar” Katherine Damm – it’s the second-oldest team on this list, after Yale’s. IGP’s resume is indeed Ivy League: celebrated alums like Nate Dern, artistic director of the UCB theater in New York; its own annual Laugh Riot Festival; a Player of the Year roast-style event of celebrity improvisers like Jeff Garlin and Wayne Brady; even the publication of its own book for improv students. While not affiliated with the Harvard Lampoon, there has been some crossover in recent years. According to Damm, IGP has attempted to brand themselves as a Harvard staple, donning garish red and yellow ties as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the prestigious, tie-clad final club culture at Harvard. Not as imaginative a jab at final clubs as, say, inventing Facebook, but a clever touch nonetheless.
New York University
Like college groups in Chicago, NYU’s improv team, Dangerbox (and sketch team, Hammerkatz), is blessed with a few key advantages: a metropolitan area with a flourishing arts scene, a major improv theater and training center just a few blocks away, and a number of valuable alumni – among them the men of DERRICK – who keep in touch and drop in for occasional workshops. Yet the members of Dangerbox don’t take their resources for granted. They ‘re up there with Ohio State, Harvard and Yale in terms of mileage – except on their own dime – and despite having the entire New York improv community at their disposal, the team prides itself in being a college group first and foremost, performing three shows a month on the NYU campus. Dangerbox member Bowen Yang appreciates the team’s pre-show ritual of checking in with each other by repeating, “I got your back,” a common practice for top Harold teams around the country.
Northwestern has a long history of great comedy alumni – Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, to name a few. But over the past 15 years or so, it has developed a highly sophisticated system for training college improvisers in a 4-year period. Whereas most colleges have one team that replaces graduating seniors with incoming freshmen, the Titanic Players casts one new team each year – a team that will stay together until the last of its members graduate. Northwestern therefore has four long-form teams at any given time, the eldest of which is composed of seniors who have been performing together since they were freshmen. The Titanic Players organization – founded and directed by former iO Chicago performer Mike Abdelsayed – has become wildly successful, spreading to seven different universities in the Midwest. Its Northwestern home branch has produced two winners of the College Improv Tournament, in 2007 and 2009, making it the only college to accomplish the feat.
Ohio State University
8th Floor Improv
If your college isn’t located in one of the major improv markets (Chicago, New York or Los Angeles), it helps to have the country’s largest student population at your disposal, says Eddie Greenblat of Ohio State’s 8th Floor. It’s hard to find a college improv group that networks as well as 8th Floor does. Using profits from monthly sold-out shows on campus in Columbus, the group’s two long-form teams travel all over – from the Del Close Marathon in NYC to USC’s Fracas Improv Festival in LA – meeting and jamming with as many other college groups as they can (they’re particularly good friends with Harvard’s). Every year, the members of 8th Floor hold an alumni show as well as their own Bellwether Improv Festival, with headliners like iO Chicago’s Revolver and the UCB Touring Company. And considering 8th Floor is one of the youngest teams on this list, it’s amazing to see how much they accomplish within an academic year.
If one trait defines Suffolk University’s Seriously Bent from other teams on this list, it’s presentation. A standout from the early years of the College Improv Tournament, the team gained a reputation for strong, consistent scenework, and shows more polished than the typical (though loveable) rag-tag college style. In recent years, the team has hustled to better integrate themselves in college life, performing regularly in dorms, alongside a cappella groups, and for Suffolk’s summer orientation. You could point to a longtime partnership with the Improv Asylum theater in Boston’s North End to explain the team’s success, but SB’s Ethan Bukowiec credits the group’s patience and improv mantra – “Let the scene breathe” – as the key factor.
University of California, Santa Cruz
Humor Force Five, Someone Always Dies
The improv teams at UC Santa Cruz have major street cred with many of the other teams on this list, which is somewhat surprising considering how little they travel. The college has two teams: Humor Force Five is the elder and began as a short-form group before switching over to long-form to match its sister team, Someone Always Dies. The latter is known for slower-paced scenes and ensuring the death of at least one character per show. Despite the UCSC community’s smaller scale – the teams are unaffiliated with the university and perform in a renovated barn on the outskirts of campus – the quality of their improv is widely respected. “Quality is in the eye of the beholder,” says longtime member Ben Samuel (who can be seen in the Hulu series Battleground). He explains that perhaps the groups have discovered a “sweet spot” between having fun and respecting the art. Samuel quoted a HFF/SAD mentor (admitting the phrase’s pretentiousness): “Don’t chase the god of comedy. Chase the god of art, and you will catch comedy along the way.”
University of Florida
Theatre Strike Force
For a university best known as the old stomping grounds of d-bag athletes like Ryan Lochte and Tim Tebow, it comes as a surprise that UF is also the home of not only a long-running improv group, but a massive one. Florida’s Theatre Strike Force consists of three long-form teams, a short-form team and a sketch team, as well as a five-level student-run improv training program open to all students. That all adds up to upwards of 100 students doing improv on campus every year, supporting an average of five shows every week. Phew. In years past, the frat mentality has lent itself to a “TSF house,” an annual show for a top sorority, and a short-lived bid for student body president. Longtime member Patrick Hart says the big numbers can lead to improv exhaustion, forcing the group to come up with bold new ideas to shake things up. It goes without saying that the TSF extended family has migrated everywhere, from top teachers at iO Chicago to… look at that… writers for Splitsider!
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill Players (CHiPs)
Other than a yearly trip to Chicago, the improv powerhouse at UNC doesn’t venture much outside of Chapel Hill. But when you look at everything they have going for them in the Tar Heel State – a region seeing a comedy boom, apparently – you’d rarely want to leave either. Having won the INNY award in 2011 for “Best in College Improv,” the Chapel Hill Players, or CHiPs, is wildly popular on campus. 150 people audition every semester just for the team’s Incubator training program – a narrowed-down crop of “junior varsity” performers who sometimes wait years to get invited to the main CHiPs ensemble. CHiPs alum Zach Ward returned from Chicago in 2005 to establish the DSI Comedy Theater in nearby Carrboro, which hosts the popular NC Comedy Arts Festival every year. Says alum Ben Greene about the intense competition within the group: “I learned a lot about persistence, and what it means to really want and fight for something.” And with fellow alums like founding member and Kimmel writer Megan Grano and SNL’s Jeff “Drunk Girl” Richards, the CHiPs program certainly has its shit together.
Western Washington University
Dead Parrots Society
Located just 25 miles from the Canadian border, Western Washington University doesn’t seem like a hotbed for improv. Yet the college’s Dead Parrots Society remains the only team outside of Illinois to win the College Improv Tournament – a testament to the notion that great improv can happen anywhere. Of course, it’s not like they’re operating within a vacuum: DPS regularly attends the NCII in Seattle and performs with the University of British Columbia’s team, and they average home crowds of 200. Business director Greg Phelps credits DPS’s experimenting with new improv structures: “A lot of improv groups stick to one or two improv formats, but we try to come up with our own twists on conventions and styles.”
Founded in 1985 when a Yale student worked in Chicago with Del Close – yes, the Del Close – Purple Crayon has been doing long-form improv longer than any team on this list… perhaps longer than any team in the country, including the UCB. Close and iO co-founder Charna Halpern encouraged Purple Crayon to recreate the Harold team model at the college level, a torch the team continues to bear in its networking. Purple Crayon has two annual trips, as well as a full season of shows in Yale’s already overflowing theater community, where the team experiments with formats such as improvised Shakespeare (inspired by the popular iO Chicago show). “The sense of camaraderie and community that has been evolving in the college improv scene is really cool to be a part of,” says Purple Crayon’s Zeke Blackwell. The team name? A reference to the children’s book in which a boy named Harold (of course) “uses a purple crayon to draw his imagination into reality.” Yeah, I suppose it works okay as an improv team name, but it’s no Chucklefucks.
Note: I’m certain there are several great college improv teams out there that I failed to mention on this list. Some I didn’t hear back from, others may have missed my radar entirely. My apologies. In either case, please let me hear about it in the comment section below.