Second City, iO, UCB Key to TV’s Top Comic Actresses

Shows rely upon thesps schooled in improv and sketch comedy

It’s a story almost as old as vaudeville: A girl moves to New York to make it in showbiz, kid.

Only instead of cramming into cattle-call casting sessions or stuffing envelopes with headshots and dreams, Eliza Coupe sprawled out in the anonymous dark of the Upright Citizens Brigade and People’s Improv Theaters. She couldn’t afford to take a ton of classes, so she created her own school, taking meticulous notes watching her heroes improvise. You could find her at every show.

Coupe, who became a staple on ABC’s Happy Endings, wisely learned from her elders. Some of the most popular comedies among Emmy voters rely on the delicate alchemy of a winning ensemble — with the catalyst an actress schooled in improv and sketch comedy, where working together is valued far more than individual glory.

Parks & Recreation and 30 Rock are/were certainly scripted, but their lead actresses, along with many other Emmy contenders, managed to remain true to the foundations of improvisation and make their scene partners, so to speak, look great.

Both Amy Poehler and Tina Fey trained in Chicago, where improv patient-zero Del Close first laid down his script and was like, “Eh, fuck it.” Poehler studied at iO, formerly Improv Olympic, and branched out with the insolent Upright Citizens Brigade (which once garnered publicity for a show by staging a suicide, tossing a dummy off a roof).

The Brigade were a foursome that eventually found themselves in New York with a Comedy Central sketch show and an eponymous theater housed in a former strip club, to carry on the Close tradition.

Fey rose through the ranks at the Second City theater, where improvised scenes are transformed into scripted, musical revues. She toured with Second City’s troupe and played on its house stages. Thus, it’s no surprise that Scott Adsit and Jack McBrayer, former castmates, found happy homes on Fey’s own 30 Rock, nor that Poehler has thrived on five seasons of Parks.

The trickle-down effect of iO and Second City can be seen across the rest of the Emmy comedy actress category. Melissa McCarthy, a 2011 winner for her work on Mike & Molly, was a staple at the Groundlings in L.A., performing the kinds of brassy, unpredictable characters seen in abundance throughout her film career. She obviously tones it down to bring a sweetness to Molly, but McCarthy’s training allows her to disappear into the ensemble when necessary, and let shades of her eccentricities creep out when it serves the show.

Then there’s Mindy Kaling, who was a member of her college improv troupe at Dartmouth and an integral member of The Office team as a writer and actress — one of the most ensemble-driven shows in recent memory. When working on her new comedy The Mindy Project, she took a page from the improv manual and surrounded herself with those she could trust. Ike Barinholtz, another improv vet, has a big part on her show, and fittingly heightens Kaling’s oddness to great comic effect.

Big, ensemble-driven comedies are dominating the Emmys. For those like Poehler and Fey, it feels like an inevitability. For rising talent like Coupe, it’s a blessing.

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