Living in Chicago, attending the occasional painfully uninspired improv show is a fact of life, like long underwear or having your tax money pay for a corrupt politician’s lake house. Eventually your roommate, or someone you’re dating, or someone your roommate is dating, will be very enthusiastic about this improv class they are taking and no excuse can get you out of attending their graduation show even though it’s at midnight on a Wednesday all the way across town on a day when it is very cold outside, like it is for much of the year in Chicago.
Anyway, Bob Odenkirk understands, having started his career in Chicago. He also thinks that improv is currently going through an unsustainable period of popularity, rather like stand-up comedy did in the ’80s. “What I’ve seen and everybody’s seen is an explosion in improvisation,” he tells Splitsider. “There’s no science involved, but anything that gets that big is just going through a phase…I just feel like it’s got to [mutate]. It’s a beast, and it’s got to go through changes.”
Odenkirk says he doesn’t discount improv as an art form, but he does doubt whether having thousands of trained performers “yes, and”-ing each other in an ouroboro of positive reinforcement and/or dentist-office scenarios will produce anything of any lasting merit. “Improvisation is a lot of fun, but a lot of the joy of improvisation is purely in the moment, is purely for the performers and the audience in the moment of discovery and the moment of execution,” he says. “Beyond that, its impact diminishes swiftly.”
All this originates from a recent Salon interview which quoted Odenkirk as telling aspiring comedians, “I would say, get out of comedy, because it’s about to collapse,” a statement he tells Splitsider was taken out of context. But in that interview, Odenkirk does express similar concerns about a sketch-comedy bubble, saying, “I’m thrilled that [sketch comedy is] having a heyday, but I also think that will end, and when it ends, everybody moves on to the next thing.” Odenkirk is obviously a fan of sketch comedy—he recently helped The Birthday Boys get on the air—so we can only assume his remarks come from a place of fatherly concern for young comedians wandering around LA (and New York, and Chicago) thinking their dildo-salesman YouTube sketch is going to make them a star.
So what should young performers do, sitting down at a comedy table already groaning under the weight of innumerable improv and sketch groups? According to Odenkirk, if comedy writers focus on story, particularly long-form storytelling, the rest will follow. Here’s what he said to Salon:
“I honestly would tell anyone young to start looking at stories and learning story, because I think that’s the next step after people go, ‘OK, I’ve had enough of that improvisation, I’ve had enough of those short comedy bits. Tell me a story, tell me a more complex story, something that lasts and maybe has a little more meaning to it.’ Don’t ever look at what’s happening now; look at what’s coming next.”