×

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.

More TV

  • ABC News

    ABC News Suspends Veteran Correspondent David Wright Following Project Veritas Leak

    David Wright has told many stories during his two decades at ABC News. Now he finds himself at the center of one of them. Wright, a veteran correspondent who has reported from Beirut, Gaza, St. Peter’s Square and the Congo, was suspended by the Walt Disney-owned news outlet Tuesday after Project Veritas, a conservative organization [...]

  • 'Love Is Blind': Netflix Announces Reunion

    'Love Is Blind': Netflix Announces Reunion Special, Which Will Post on YouTube

    Netflix’s unscripted guilty pleasure “Love Is Blind” has quickly turned into a pop culture phenomenon, and the streamer is aiming to capitalize on that with a reunion special featuring the show’s cast. Here’s the twist: The “Love Is Blind” reunion special will premiere March 5 — on Netflix’s YouTube channel. That will presumably expose the [...]

  • Frank Doelger70th Primetime Emmy Awards -

    Frank Doelger and Mark Huffam to Produce 'The Swarm' For European Pubcasters' Pact The Alliance

    The Alliance, the pact formed by Europe’s top state broadcasters to counter the growing power of Netflix and other streaming giants, has joined forces on a high-end adaptation of bestselling environmental sci-fi thriller “The Swarm.” As previously announced, multi Emmy award-winning producer Frank Doelger (“Game of Thrones”) is executive producing the English language series via [...]

  • Macaulay Culkin

    'American Horror Story': Macaulay Culkin Among Those Joining for Season 10

    Macaulay Culkin is one of the stars set to join the “American Horror Story” franchise for its upcoming tenth season. Series creator Ryan Murphy announced the new and returning cast members via a suitably gloomy video posted to his Instagram, set to the tune of the song “Dead of Night” by Orville Peck. Two mainstays [...]

  • ABC Orders Comedy Pilot From Nahnatchka

    Jason Lee-Fronted Comedy Pilot From Nahnatchka Khan and Niki Schwartz-Wright Ordered at ABC

    Nahnatchka Khan could have another series coming to ABC. The “Fresh Off the Boat” creator is an executive producer on a pilot called “Valley Trash,” which has been picked up at the Disney-owned network. A single-cam comedy, “Valley Trash” hails from “Speechless” writer Niki Schwartz-Wright (who will serve as writer, EP and showrunner) and is [...]

  • Pictured: Cyma Zarghami, President of the

    Cyma Zarghami, Nickelodeon's Former Chief, Launches New Kids Content Studio

    Cyma Zarghami spent the better part of her career overseeing the kids-media empire known as Nickelodeon. At last, she’s ready to come out and play. Zargahmi, who left in 2018 as president of the Nickelodeon operations at the company once known as Viacom, has returned to the business of creating content for kids. She has [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content