||Inner SalonSalon Contributors
Chicago improv pioneer David Shepherd dies at 94 — without him, no 'Saturday Night Live'
eople who feel differently about the culture to express themselves.” (Brian Kersey/AP)
Chris JonesChicago Tribune
In 2005, a crowd gathered at the University of Chicago’s Reynolds Club to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the invention of improv. No less an authority than the university archivist had declared that the 50th anniversary of the Compass Players — the famous Hyde Park comedy institution co-founded by David Shepherd and the incubator for such talents as Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Ed Asner and Valerie Harper — meant that it now officially was a half-century since the creation of an entire new art form that would, in time, revolutionize American comedy.
A hubristic assertion for Shepherd’s scrappy little Hyde Park troupe? Not really. History speaks for itself.
“Without David, no Compass,” the comedy historian and writer Jeffrey Sweet said Tuesday. “Without Compass, no Second City.”
And without the Chicago comedy institution known as Second City, no SCTV, no “Saturday Night Live,” no Tina Fey, no Steven Colbert, no Steve Carell, no Boom! Chicago, no iO and no Seth Meyers. No Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City, either.
Some would go further: David Mamet would not have written “Sexual Perversity in Chicago,” nor would Eric Idle have made “Spamalot,” as directed by Nichols.
Shepherd, who died Monday in his home in Massachusetts at the age of 94, was at the root of it all.
Second City announced Shepherd’s death Tuesday, heralding his vision of “a political cabaret for working-class audiences.”
That vision was on his mind when Shepherd hitchhiked to Chicago after graduating from Harvard College in 1952, soon hanging out in Hyde Park with fellow creative intellectuals like Bernie Sahlins and Sheldon Patinkin and, in time, founding both the Playwrights Theatre Club and Compass Players, alongside his friend, the late Paul Sills. It was Shepherd who persuaded Sills to use his mother Viola Spolin’s famous techniques on improv comedy, not scripted shows. Without Shepherd’s persuasion, Sills would have gone in a different direction.
Actually, Chicago’s improv history — America’s improv history — would never have happened at all.
“I almost went to Cleveland to start Compass,” Shepherd said at that 2005 gathering, telling a story about how the truck driver with whom he was hitchhiking from Cambridge, Mass., talked him out of stopping in Ohio because he wanted more of his company on the road.
But Chicago ended up as his destination and was fortunate for his arrival. Shepherd believed in the power of improv — and not just as a down-and-dirty mode of live entertainment
“People get locked inside personas that don’t change for decades,” he said at the 2005 event. “It’s important for them to get out.” In Shepherd’s mind, improv was a way to change the performer’s life, as well as that of the audience.
“It seems to be an ideal way for people who feel differently about the culture to express themselves,” he said. “And it’s a very cheap format.”
Later on, it was Shepherd who came up with the team-based forms of improv that, with the help of yet more collaborators, spawned the Chicago company iO (formerly ImprovOlympic) and its many clones and competitors.
Over time, of course, Second City and its offshoots became wildly profitable entities, cornerstones of commercial comedic entertainment. That was not what Shepherd had intended.
“He never entirely made his peace with Second City,” Sweet said. “He wanted to build a theater to raise political consciousness, and what resulted was an institution that developed great comedy talent. I spent time with him at Second City’s 50th birthday celebration, and he mostly looked miserable. He had helped generate a revolution in theater, but it wasn’t the kind of theater that he wanted. I once said he was like a Marxist who had a child who became head of General Motors. He couldn’t help but be happy for the child’s success even as he disapproved of what the success was in.”
As recently as 2012, Shepherd was doing TED talks on what he saw as the still-unexplored potential of the form.
All that said, the form that Shepherd birthed has remained rooted in populism and (mostly) in affordable tickets.
And the political power of a show like “Saturday Night Live,” now sufficiently potent to fire up the presidential Twitter account on a regular basis, has never been more formidable.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.