Improv comedy’s 50th anniversary to be celebrated where it all began: The University of Chicago
The University of Chicago News Office
June 16, 2005 Press Contact: Josh Schonwald
(773) 702-6421

Improv comedy’s 50th anniversary to be celebrated where it all began: The University of Chicago


This photo is from the actual opening night of The Compass (7/5/55). In the photo are (L-R) Andrew Duncan, (former Oscar nominee and Tony award winner) Barbara Harris, and (Compass co-founder) David Shepherd. They are doing "The Living News."

It is rare for an art movement to have a specific start date or location, but contemporary improv comedy has both: On July 5, 1955, at a long-gone bar just off the University of Chicago campus, improvisational comedy was born.

Imagine a world without The Second City or Saturday Night Live, a parallel universe without the talents of John Belushi, Bill Murray or Tina Fey, a modern cultural landscape without This is Spinal Tap or Spamalot. These comedic institutions all took their direction from The Compass, a small group of University of Chicago students and friends who unwittingly changed the course of comedy one summer day almost 50 years ago.

Now, on the golden anniversary of the birth of improv — Tuesday, July 5, 2005 — David Shepherd, a founding member of The Compass, will return to the University of Chicago and watch as a new generation of improv comedians performs a tribute to The Compass, the mother of modern comedy and the precursor to Second City.

“Improv is one of the only art forms that is completely indigenous to this country, and the only art form that Chicago has ever given birth to,” said Jonathan Pitts, producer of the anniversary performance and executive director of the Chicago Improv Festival, which, along with the University of Chicago’s University Theater, is sponsoring the event. “Comedy — and theater — as we know it were forever changed by this one group of University of Chicago students.”

Shepherd will work with the cast of Off-Off Campus — University Theater’s renowned improv and sketch comedy group and a Compass progeny — as the students recreate The Compass’ first show performed July 5, 1955 by a cast that included Shepherd, Compass co-founder Paul Sills, Roger Bowen (Colonel Henry Blake in the movie MASH), Elaine May (author of films such as Primary Colors, The Birdcage and Heaven Can Wait) and Barbara Harris (Tony winner, Oscar nominee and star of films such as Nashville and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels).

The evening begins the same way it did 50 years ago with The Living News, a sketch that Shepherd created and directed that has the performers acting out scenes inspired by the day’s newspaper, be it headline, personals or even the weather. Next comes The Game of Hurt, an improvised short based off of a one-page scenario written by Sills in which a husband sells his wife to a steelworker he meets at a bar. Audience members then provide the plot for the rest of the show by offering random suggestions that Off-Off Campus members perform on the spot.

The exercises the students use to create their sketches — as well as actors and comedians the world over — were originally developed by actor, director and teacher Viola Spolin whose depression-era work with children’s theater cultivated individual creativity. Spolin’s highly specific theater games were ultimately more than a series of acting tools — they changed comedy forever. In 1955, her son Paul Sills and his friend David Shepherd adapted the games to an idea they had, partly inspired by Berthold Brecht, for a politically and socially relevant form of cabaret theater. This was The Compass and, four years later, The Second City.

Though today improv comedy seems to be on every campus, the University of Chicago still stands out. University and Off-Off Campus alumni include Pulitzer Prize-winner David Auburn, writer of the play and upcoming film Proof; Greg Kotis, author of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Urinetown; and recent Second City alumni Abby Sher and Tami Sagher, the latter of whom is now a writer for Fox’s MADtv. Other notable alumni of the University’s improv community include Mike Nichols, Bernard Sahlins and Ed Asner.

To cement the relationship between improv and the University of Chicago, Shepherd and the University of Chicago Library will be collecting his life’s papers in the University’s archives, housed in the Regenstein Library’s Special Collections Research Center. The archives will arrive at the University by the end of June and include flyers, photos, production stills, diaries, newspaper articles and audiotapes chronicling the birth of improv.

Facts and Figures

What: The Compass 50th Anniversary Show and Celebration

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 5

Where: The Frances X. Kinahan Third Floor Theater, Reynolds Club, 5706. S. University Ave. on the University of Chicago campus, the rehearsal space of the original Compass crew.

Tickets: $10, available in advance by calling (773) 702-3414

Notes: Street parking will be available. Persons with disabilities who believe they may need assistance should contact Heidi Thompson at (773) 702-9315. After the performance, Shepherd will take questions from the audience and receive a plaque honoring The Compass. A reception follows, including a birthday cake for improv.

For the Media

David Shepherd — author of the new book … that movie in your head, in which he shares for the first time his improv techniques — will be in Chicago Sunday, July 3 through Wednesday, July 6, and will be available for interviews. He can also do phone interviews prior to the event. Paul Sills also is available to do phone interviews.

Shepherd will attend rehearsals to offer his tips and notes on the performance while he is in town. Members of the media are welcome to attend a rehearsal with Shepherd at 2 p.m. Tuesday, July 5, also at the Kinahan Theater.

On the Web

Visit the University of Chicago’s Off-Off Campus players at, the Chicago Improv Festival at and the University of Chicago’s archives and Special Collection Research Center at
Last modified at 12:55 PM CST on Thursday, June 16, 2005.

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