My First Improv Teacher
By TOM SOTER
Improvisation is the art of giving, of positive reinforcement. One of its masters was George Todisco, the founder and artistic director of the New York–based group Chicago City Limits who died in 1982. Brooklyn-born Todisco was only 30 at the time of his death but set in motion a company that continues to this day, proving to be the most successful improv troupe in New York City. Many of its past and present members have performed at Sunday Night Improv. And he was also my first improv teacher.
Todisco had studied at the improvisation mecca Second City, where modern improvisation began in the 1950s. While running a New York-style pizzeria called Giorgio’s Pizza Amore, he followed the path of other Second City students and became involved in a number of Chicago-based offshoot groups. In 1977, Todisco formed Chicago City Limits, drawing members from local troupes and workshops (he later claimed the name came from the Chicago city border sign). In 1979, he sold his business and house and moved the company to New York City, where he hoped to become the Big Apple’s version of Second City. The seven-member group spent time in flea-bitten hotel rooms as it played local clubs. Eventually, the group discovered a loft space at 542 West 42nd Street. Todisco took out a five-year lease on the space, which the improvisers then renovated into a theater.
The company opened its first show, Dented, to excellent reviews in June of 1980. Mixing sketch material with improvised games and songs, the shows bore out Todisco’s feelings that it simply being funny was not enough; the comedy had to have a satirical point about politics, people, or life in the early ‘80s. The shows were dubbed “hilarious,” and “beguiling.” Soon after, Todisco started twice–weekly improv acting workshops and also a national touring company, which created his improv stars of the future.
"As a teacher, George had a good way of encouraging you," recalled Jennifer Miller, a former member of the road company who eventually became a writer on the TV series Roseanne. "He wouldn't say you did this badly or that badly. He'd find whatever was good in the scene and talk about that. If not for George, I don't think I would have gone back on stage after my first improv."
Indeed: I remember my first class with him. My ex-girlfriend and I were collaborating on some sketch comedy, and we thought that an improv class might improve our technique. We went up and did a scene together, and, as with scenes by most beginners (especially ones who had been lovers), it soon became an argument. Instead of knocking us for arguing, however, George found something positive to say about the scene. "You had good energy," he enthused, before sliding into constructive criticism of our work. While unduly harsh comments might have discouraged me from continuing, George's positive spin and constructive remarks. kept me coming back – and learning all the while.
But problems soon developed in this improv paradise. During the summer of 1981, the landlord, a man improbably named Sammy Free Universe, said he was going to increase the rent. The group said he couldn’t because of its long-term lease. Soon after that, the troupe received building violations from the city. The landlord refused to make needed repairs, and Chicago City Limits was evicted.
The comics moved to a theater on West 43rd Street before setting up at the Jan Hus Playhouse on East 74th Street. Its third revue had already opened when Todisco became ill. He was taken to Coney Island Hospital, near his home and diagnosed with a blood disorder that was causing his white blood count to go awry. Within a month of admission to the hospital, Todisco was dead.
In a state of shock, the group continued on, staging a 25-hour comic marathon to pay their fallen leader’s hospital bills and help out his widow and child. Although gone, Todisco’s legacy – the group and his beliefs – continued. "George was a good leader because he was able to assimilate ideas well," said Paul Zuckerman, a former member and current producer of Chicago City Limits, which is now performing in the West 50s. "If you had an idea for a scene that he didn't like, he wouldn't say, 'No, I just don't think that's going to work.' He would play with you. He would say, 'What if we did this?' or 'How about...?' And all of a sudden, he would be an instigator of ideas rather than a guy who cuts them off. He had a very positive approach towards material, which is especially important in improvisation, which is an agreement technique."
"I was flattered that he took what we were doing so seriously," former Second City performer/director Del Close said to me in 1982. "It would be wonderful if there were more George Todiscos."
Todisco's own words summed up the improv spirit he loved so well. When asked about his view of life, he once replied: "We are all victims of the same cruel joke. It only hurts when you don't laugh."