L.A. has some of the better improv groups performing locally all year long, but for one week in June, our town becomes Improv City, as Improv Olympic West, Second City Stage, Acme Theater and Bang host the Los Angeles Improv Comedy Festival. Groups from New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Boston, Toronto and even the Philippines come to town to show off their chops, along with people who actually make a living at comedy, including Amy Poehler, Andy Dick, Jeff Garlin, Mo Collins and Stephanie Weir. This year’s Del Close Lifetime Achievement Award goes to Shelley Berman, an originator of the form going back to his work with Elaine May and Mike Nichols, which led to his famous improvised one-man phone
“In my early career, I always felt the need to have another player, but I didn’t have another player, so I put myself on the phone,” he says on the phone from Harrah’s in Las Vegas. Berman, who can now be seen as Larry David’s father on the improv HBO hit Curb Your Enthusiasm, teaches humor writing at USC and goes on the road regularly. At 77, he still gets a thrill from performing sans script, but adds that some of today’s improv groups go for the easy laugh prematurely. Berman warns that cheap jokes are not part of improv. “I’m afraid that a lot of young people are not getting it. When I see sometimes Second City at work, what I see is a lot of game playing, and it’s fun and it’s wonderful, but I like when a scene is developing rather than seeing who is the funniest. I like Del Close’s long-form, but frequently it becomes a chopped-up long-form, because one actor will decide that he wants to get the funny line, so you dismiss what has been happening.”
Berman is honored to have the recognition and happy that “people are coming around to understand that improv is an art form.” Will he improvise a speech at the June 13 event? “I don’t know what I’m going to do, it scares the hell out of me,” he admits. “They may ask for a suggestion from the audience, and then I’ll go with it.” Is he afraid? “You’ve got to know you may fall on your face. The artist who doesn’t dare, doesn’t deserve to be there.”
The Second Annual Los Angeles Improv Comedy Festival runs June 6-13 at Improv Olympic West. See Comedy listings in Calendar for complete schedule.