Out of Bounds Comedy Festival

Is Improv Art?

Is improv art? Apparently not in the state of Texas, according to the Texas State Commission on the Arts. When the 15-year old non-profit, volunteer-based Out of Bounds Comedy Festival in Austin recently went to apply for some funding, they were told flat out by the commission that “improv is not art,” and therefore OOB “was not an arts organization.” And so guess what? No funding.

Really? Improv is not an art? Since when? If you haven’t heard of it, Out of Bounds is one of the premier improv and comedy festivals in the country. Over the years, they have consistently brought some of the biggest names in comedy – including sketch, stand-up and improv — to Austin for the festival. (Full disclosure: I was one of those big names they brought to the festival a couple of years back).

And this festival has been doing this before Austin was the cool, hipster, skinny-jeans-wearing capital of the world. Not to mention in those 15 years, Austin has become one of the hottest cities in the country for improv. They have five improv theaters that all do a good job of getting along with each other, which has turned Austin into a bit of an improv destination. All of this seems to be lost on the Texas State Commission on the Arts. If only they would open their eyes and see that improv has become just as much of Austin’s culture as live music, barbecue and food trucks.

So what makes improv an art form? I know that 95 percent of the people reading this blog probably don’t need me convincing them that improv is an art form, so please indulge me here. But for those who do need convincing, here’s why I think improv is art.

First and foremost, improv is theater, and theater is art. That should be the end to the argument right there and the start of the state of Texas writing a big ol’ check made out to OOB.

Unfortunately, some people think of improv as simply a type of comedy, and comedy is something that seems to still be unrecognized as an actual art form. We see it during the Academy Awards every year: A comedy may get nominated for something, but we all know that it never has a chance to actually win anything. Why? Because comedy never wins. Even though people are always saying things like comedy is much harder to do than drama, it doesn’t matter. Comedy doesn’t get any respect as an art.

The weird thing is comedy is more popular than ever in TV and films, but on some level, it’s still taken for granted. People think it’s easy to be funny. The general public doesn’t see it as a skill or a craft, and by all means, not an art. They admire people like Louis C.K., Chris Rock, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee and Maria Bamford, but they would consider them comedians, not artists.

Those of us who are in the comedy world realize that they’re both. The problem is they are so skilled that they make comedy look easy, and worse, most of the time they are having fun doing it. And of course, people assume that if you’re having fun, you can’t be making art because art must be serious and hopefully pretentious. By all means, make us think, not laugh.

In fact, comedy usually makes fun of the people who take themselves too seriously, and those are usually the people who work for the state government who are in charge of funding.

But regardless of what the great state of Texas thinks, I know that improv is art. I know what some people say about improvisers: All we are doing up there on stage is screwing around. Making thing up. Having fun. All true, but do you know how many years it took to learn that skill? I am sorry we make it look so easy that you don’t realize we have trained for years to develop this craft. We know you can’t see that, we don’t want you to see that. Just like when you go to a play, we don’t want you to see we have memorized all the lines.

Saying “improv is not an art,” is an insult to all the improv artists in Texas. If you’d like to fight this, share this open letter written by the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival, and use the hashtags #improvisart and #comedyisart.

And I really hope that someone forwards this blog to someone who works for the Texas Commission on the Arts who has a sense of humor.

Why do you think improv is an art? Tell us in the comments below.

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5 replies
  1. Ruby Willmann
    Ruby Willmann says:

    Thank you Jimmy! We tried contacting the TCA multiple times and they would not open a dialogue with us other than simply shutting us down or simply not returning emails. They are refusing to speak with us due to our affiliation with comedy. A quote from one TCA email was as long as “the majority of their work (50% or more) is arts-based, we categorize them as arts organization,” but still they refused to recognize that over half of our festival was improv, and therefore art.

    They strictly do not fund stand-up, and are very hung up on the fact that “Comedy” is in our name. Of course, we argue comedy is art, but to play within their own guidelines, we are forced to focus specifically on the validation of improv.

    Thank you for helping us bring this issue to light and hopefully it will lead to more dialogue!

  2. Sally Smallwood
    Sally Smallwood says:

    Those same people probably don’t consider David Shrigley’s or Banksy’s work art, or Jonathan Adler’s furnishings, or Flight of the Conchords’ or They Might Be Giants’ music, since all of them employ a healthy dose of humour in the work. But artists have always used humour to provoke a response. Think of Duchamp’s urinal. It shocked people when it debuted in 1914, but nowadays would be considered tame. And improv isn’t all comedy. One of the top shows at this year’s Toronto Fringe Festival was a completely unscripted cop drama called True Blue. Laughs were organic, not the reason for the show. So, how is that not art?

  3. adam
    adam says:

    Texas is significantly conservative, but parts of it are quite liberal. Please don’t judge the whole by the parts. Also, most Texans don’t even know that Improv has emerged as an art form. But some do and in the cities—especially Austin—there’s a lively improv scene.
    Political and religious conservativism plays its part.

  4. Doug Dunston
    Doug Dunston says:

    I’d like to double down. I think improv is *all* the arts.

    Even when something is scripted (I’m a sometime orchestra conductor), I find a performance comes alive only when the participants are listening and responding to each other and their environment. Trying too hard to make something be a certain way leads to a stilted performance, whereas allowing yourself to be there for the “making” allows for wonderful things to emerge.

    And as far as the scripts/scores/books/sculptures are concerned, they were all improvised originally, too. Even editing and revising are improv sessions when they’re being done well. None of us who really cares about this just “executes” – ever. We’re improvising all the time.

  5. Jordan Weimer
    Jordan Weimer says:

    It’s a protection of self for a lot of people. The one show I did on stage in high school was a lipsync competition, and I was asked to join a group of dudes that MC’d the show together since Middle School. I wrote like five transition sketches that introduced the next act and got the audience laughing. I subconsciously stole characters from SNL, comedian’s impressions, and TV commercials and so the sketches killed; but, the director was totally unimpressed.

    “That is not acting,” he said, as though you had to play character and honest emotions only in the context of a play to be considered acting. It’s the type of distinction that was totally needless especially considering no one was even addressing what acting is. He basically just put our work down for the sake of ensuring we knew the difference.

    That thing they’re saying about improv is all about social hierarchy. That’s primate shit… or, they’re cheap. They could just be cheap.


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