“Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art” is a whirlwind of anecdotes, giving the reader a full sense of the people and the history shaping improv into what it is today. Author Sam Wasson will speak at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 12 at Jet City Improv.

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“Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art

by Sam Wasson

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 464 pp., $28

Improv — good improv — is just like an incredible first date: The energy is palpable, rising nerves matched only by boiling excitement as everything clicks and falls into place. Improv is the reason “30 Rock” exists, and, therefore, the reason you don’t feel bad about staying home last Saturday and binging through the series for the 47th time. Improv is how Harold Ramis, Dan Akroyd and Ivan Reitman found themselves locked away for three weeks in a bunker at Martha’s Vineyard, with what this writer can only assume was all of the drugs, hammering out the script for “Ghostbusters.” Improv birthed SNL’s “Not Ready for Primetime Players,” gave us the gift of Key and Peele we didn’t deserve but so desperately needed, and is the single reason every living person who can speak has exaggerated the pronunciation of “Sahn Dee-ah-go” since seeing “Anchorman” in 2004.

Sam Wasson’s new book, “Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art,” is a fast-paced, thoroughly engaging road map of how improv — that rapid-fire art of entirely unscripted performance — came to infiltrate and shape the American pop- culture landscape. At the core, Wasson’s book is about connection; the misfits, the outcasts of “normal” theater seeking something bigger, something truer than they’d found with more established art forms. The book is a whirlwind of quick, sharp anecdotes, never lingering too long yet still giving the reader a full sense of the people and the history shaping improv into what it is today.

Wasson’s history is backloaded with all the names you recognize and front-loaded with all the names you should. The book is a story of history, and like many stories of our history, it is one built on the shoulders of women. “Improv Nation” begins in the 1940s at Hull House with the mother of theatrical improvisation, Viola Spolin. From Spolin’s need to get a community theater group of different backgrounds and languages to work together came the incorporation of play and games; these tools to Spolin are the essence of communication, the core of truth. It was Spolin’s creativity, drive and ideals that formed the foundation of what improv could be, and what it would become.

Author appearance

Sam Wasson

The author of “Improv Nation” — joined by Andrew McMasters, artistic director of Jet City Improv — will speak at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 12, at Jet City Improv, 5510 University Way N.E., Seattle; tickets are $5 and available at the door or through townhallseattle.org.

Expanding on this history of the key players — from Spolin and her son Paul Sills, Elaine May, Mike Nichols and Del Close, to the modern household names of Amy Poehler, Steve Carell and Christopher Guest — Wasson takes us on a whirlwind tale that traces the roots of modern comedy itself. His book focuses on the people who, much like the art form they pieced together a little at a time, were simply making it up as they went along. Each generation, each new class of students and revelation in technique built upon the last — the meta “yes, and” for an entire art form.

“Improv Nation” keeps its focus on established, national proving grounds of improvisational theater: Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. It’s not a surprise that Seattle doesn’t hold a more significant presence in Wasson’s encompassing tome; however, some of the best forms of the art and some of the sharpest improvisers in the country are right here in our backyard. For over three decades, companies like Unexpected Productions and Jet City Improv have been delivering new, engaging and electrifying work, grounded in the foundations laid by Spolin. Relative newcomer CSz Seattle produces shows and classes every day of the week, while dozens of groups and duos without permanent roofs over their heads round out a bustling community that would be able to go toe-to-toe with anything out of Upright Citizen’s Brigade or The Second City.

For all the laughs, the memorable moments and cultural touchstones that have come to define comedy, improv isn’t a perfect art nor is it always a perfect community. Wasson doesn’t shy away from subjects of substance abuse or chronic depression in performers, but lacks a connection from historical behavior to the emerging cultural shift toward accountability. Stories revolving around Bill Murray’s penchant for fistfights during rehearsals at Second City, Dustin Hoffman bombing at an early improv audition because he wouldn’t stop making sexually charged jokes, an emphasis on Elaine May’s desirability over her creative output, these anecdotal tales from the past stand out in sharp contrast set against a backdrop of current revelations. This leads to more than a few moments of wincing and reflection on systemic, problematic behavior that is just now entering a public conversation.

To Seattle’s credit, the local improv community is having that conversation, loudly and often. Players and students across the major companies have taken it upon themselves to push for more accountability, more diversity and more inclusion. While improv is an art form long dominated by white, male faces, there is a steady, constant groundswell building, allowing stronger representation from artists of color, women and nonbinary players. As is true with our national culture there is still a long way to go, but the important conversations are happening, historically marginalized artists are standing up and their voices are gaining more power.

What’s next for improv? As Wasson says, “I have no idea.” Like any great improv scene, the art itself cannot preplan what happens next. Yes, the future of improv is going to be messy, uncertain, full of unbelievable, necessary failure and incredible success. Yes, you are still going to get countless Facebook invites to that 10 p.m. show on a Saturday in some corner of the city. Yes, some of those shows are going to be terrible. Yes, some of those shows are going to be life-changing. Yes, and those shows, all of them, are going to be something you should be watching.