Improvisational theater is as old as the verbal story-telling tradition. Ancient epics, such as Beowulf, was passed down from generation to generation in an oral tradition, with each succeeding generation making "adjustments" as they went on. This was to adjust to any then-current audience. Much as a parent telling a story to a child, the child will direct the story based on his/her responses.
The Compass Players combined sketch comedy developed from improvisation and live improv into an easily accessible format that all audiences could enjoy. The popularity grew and others began to develop their own versions of the format.
The Compass Players spawned of some of the most influential comedy of its generation. This included the comedy teams of Nichols and May, and Stiller and Meara and an evolution into The Playwright's Theatre Club that later became The Second City.
Compass Players have included: Alan Alda, Ed Asner, Del Close, Valerie Harper, Linda Lavin, Ron Liebman, Elaine May, Paul Mazursky, Anne Meara, Mike Nichols, Paul Sills, Jerry Stiller and Viola Spolin.
The Second City alums are at the top of the industry and include such stars as: Alan Arkin, Dan Aykroyd, Jim & John Belushi, Peter Boyle, John Candy, Dan Castellaneta, Mary Gross, Robert Klein, Eugene Levy, Shelley Long, Tim Meadows, Colin Mochrie, Joel / Bill / Brian Doyle Murray, Mike Myers, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine O'Hara, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, Joan Rivers, Martin Short, George Wendt and Fred Willard.
The Committee was an improvisational movement that became a famous sketch comedy troupe in San Francisco in the 60's. The Committee was founded by Alan Myerson and Irene Riordan (which is also the original name for Irene Ryan who played Granny in the Beverly Hillbillies) who were troupe members of Second City. Cast members included at various times Del Close, Rob Reiner, Howard Hesseman, David Ogden Stiers and many other famous, and infamous, alums. The troupe also performed on Broadway for short stints and made quite a name for themselves. The Committee played across the country from 1962-1972 from their home base in San Francisco. There was a Los Angeles branch of the Committee that lasted 3 years that ended in 1970. This counter-culture troupe also made numerous appearances on TV, Broadway, etc.
The Groundlings. One alum of The Committee, Gary Austin, began workshops in Los Angeles in 1972 called the Gary Austin Workshop. In 1974, this group became known as the Groundlings, which has become a staple of Los Angeles improv ever since.
The Groundlings alums include many of Hollywoods' top professionals. SitCom and other stars including Lisa Kudrow, Kathy Griffin, Pat Morita, Edie McClurg and many others trained here. Saturday Night Live often looks to Groundlings alums for new talent including Will Ferrell, Ana Gasteyer, Phil Hartman, Chris Kattan, Jon Lovitz, Laraine Newman, Cheri Oteri, Chris Parnell, Paul Reubens, Maya Rudolph, and Julia Sweeney. Mad TV stars Phil Lamarr, Michael McDonald and Mary Scheer are all Groundlings alums as well.
Del Close took things a whole new direction. While TheatreSports generated games and The Second City provided improv-based sketch comedy, Del Close began working harder on a long-form improvisation called the Harold, first performed with the Committee. The name, itself a joke stemming from an off-the-cuff Beatles remark, was indicative of the revolution to come. Working from the basement of Papa Milanos, then the Wrigleyside, a bar near the famous Cubs stadium, ImprovOlympic began performing the long-form regularly and has become a staple of the industry. They have since moved into their own theater on the same block as the Wrigleyside, a stones throw from the historic stadium.
ImprovOlympic alums include: Jon Favreau (Swingers, Friends, Marciano), Rachel Dratch (Saturday Night Live), Mike Myers (Saturday Night Live, Austin Powers), Chris Farley (Saturday Night Live, Black Sheep, Tommy Boy), Tina Fey (Saturday Night Live), Jay Leggett (In Living Color, Ally McBeal, NYPD Blue), Andy Dick (Suddenly Susan and many more), Tim Meadows (Saturday Night Live), Todd Rice (performs in THEY improv around the country), Jeff Quintana (who opened the Villain Theater in Miami) and Brian McCann (Conan O'Brien Show). Improv Olympic also generated the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York.