Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Improvisation: the Creativity of Making Connections

"Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!"

Saturday Night Live is currently celebrating its 40th season, and the show has faced its fair share of positive and negative reception since Lorne Michaels first created the show in 1975. The Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special aired on February 15, 2015, and as I watched, I couldn’t help but think about the creativity that flowed from every performer stepping onto the stage. SNL has welcomed some of the greats of comedy from Chevy Chase to Steve Martin to Kristin Wiig, and the list could go on and on. So why is this creative, particularly in the context of our class?

Will Ferrell in a sketch from SNL40
Stand-up comedy is known to have one major rule: performers always accept what the person before them said and then continue to build from that, the “yes and” rule. Most SNL cast members start out in improv, at places such as The Groundlings or The Second City, where they are trained to create instantaneously. Improvisation is all about taking one idea and building a connection from that root concept to create an entire story. Entire shows can be centered around one word or phrase, often called out from the audience to begin the show. This reminds me of Andreasen’s remark in the article Secrets of the Creative Brain that “creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way – seeing things that others cannot see.” This is true not only for improv but also for the scripted comedy we see play out live on Saturday nights. The SNL writers encounter many of the same things each of us encounters in our daily lives like politics or strange public transit interactions. Yet the writers have the creative brains that Andreasen refers to, and they are able to make associations with those daily activities, see the connection their individual life could have with the greater American population, and then create a script that will resonate with their audience. 

Lorne Michaels
I think many would agree that comedians are in fact creatives. As to SNL in particular, the program has won 45 Emmy Awards and is the most nominated show in Emmy history. Public reception throughout SNL history has varied drastically. The show was almost cancelled a few times and has gone through many phases of casting choices. Lorne Michaels has been at the helm of the show throughout its entire run, except for a short hiatus in the 80’s. It has almost always starred new talent from improv theaters rather than well-known comedic actors. The much stronger reception resulting from such casting choices further suggests that improvisation is in fact a more creative – and thus more entertaining – type of performance. Lorne Michaels saw the opportunity to create a space where comedians could change the culture of comedy and America forever. His creativity produced an arena for many more creatives to continue to build a legacy of comedy that will always be a part of television history.

Andresen, Nancy C. "Secrets of the Creative Brain." (2014)


  1. Last year Steven Wright in an interview said that "comedians are sociologists...who point out stuff that the general public doesn't even stop to think about." I think this interpretation is what makes Saturday Night Live the creative, 40-year-old marathon success that we all know and love. These comedians get away with saying shocking and offensive (but always entertaining) comments because they use the popular medium of comedy to share these ideas. Comedians use their talents as a creative tool to get across points that others are too scared to say. What comes to my mind as a good example of this is SNL's Weekend Update, where a few one-liners from Seth Myers can rip apart almost any public figure, and the audience will play right along. In this way, the work of comedians can be both little c and big C creative at the same time. Comedy can simply make people happier or convey big points to a big audience.

    Also, I wonder how much is actually scripted versus made up on the spot. Through Saturday Night Live I gained a lot of respect for Steve Carell because he supposedly improvised the majority of the sketches that he was part of when he hosted the show.

    When Gabriel Iglesias performed at Loyola, he made a comment like yours that comedians see the world differently and that is why audiences flock to hear their unique takes on the mundane. It was cool to hear that reinforced in your blog post again.

  2. I have always been impressed and envious of the quick wits of improv actors. I agree that those comedians fit Anderson's definition of the creative mind. They not only need to make interesting connections, but they need to make them quick, developing elaborate and zany scenarios in a matter of seconds. The prime example that comes to my mind of golden improv is the show "Whose Line is it Anyway" (I prefer the older version of the show with Drew Carey as the host, but maybe that's just me). In one episode, Wayne Brady could make up for different songs in varying styles about airlines, Colin Mochrie could develop an elaborate news story about friars selling flowers at Hugh Heffner's house, and Ryan Stiles could make a fat joke about Drew Carey (see why I prefer Drew Carey as a host?). It is always a joy when people can share their wacky talents in unique ways to entertain us all.

  3. Although some is improved, there are many comedians who are strictly writers for SNL. Tina Fey is one comedian who began at Second City and was a writer for SNL. She actually wasn't a regular cast member. In her book Bossypants, Fey explains that she was asked onstage simply because she looked just like Sarah Palin. She didn't really want to do it, and they definitely didn't think it would be successful. Clearly it was, but most of her talent is behind the scenes as a writer. Many other comedians got their start that way as well. It goes to show that creative genius isn't always on the surface. Sure, writers have more time to think, but SNL writers are still under strict deadlines and have to make their content relevant. Sure, comedians can be funny. But writers have to know exactly how to make others funny and to make even more people think that said person is funny. It's the creativity of manipulation, just like many other performers and entertainers.


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