×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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

  • Writers vs Agents Packaging War WGA

    Rothman Brecher Ehrich Livingston Signs Writers Guild Code

    The Rothman Brecher Ehrich Livingston agency has signed the Writers Guild of America’s Code of Conduct, allowing the agency to return to representing WGA members again. The WGA made the announcement Monday night. RBEL is joining more than 70 agencies allowed to represent WGA members thanks to agreeing to a ban of agency packaging fees [...]

  • Fiona Lang and Ryan Shiotani

    BBC Studios Hires GMs in Further Asia Reshuffle

    BBC Studios the coproduction and rights sales arm of the British Broadcasting Corporation, has appointed Fiona Lang and Ryan Shiotani as general managers in the Asia-Pacific region. Lang, currently COO for the company in Australia and New Zealand, is promoted to become BBC Studios’ GM in the same geography. Her responsibilities cover marketing, advertising, creative, [...]

  • The Lord of the Rings: The

    'Lord of the Rings' Series Renewed by Amazon for Season 2

    Amazon has given an early Season 2 renewal to its forthcoming “Lord of the Rings” series. Pre-production on the project’s first season, which is set to film in New Zealand, is currently underway — although sources tell Variety that the full cast has not yet been set. Several actors, including Markella Kavenagh, Will Poulter, and [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    'Chinatown' Prequel Series in Development at Netflix From David Fincher, Robert Towne

    A prequel series to the classic film “Chinatown” is in early development at Netflix, Variety has confirmed with sources. David Fincher and Robert Towne, the film’s writer, are attached to pen the script. It will reportedly focus on the exploits of a young Jake “J.J.” Gittes during his early days as a private investigator. Netflix declined [...]

  • TV Roundup: Pop TV Releases Teaser

    TV News Roundup: Pop TV Releases Teaser for 'Schitt's Creek's' Final Season

    In today’s TV news roundup, Pop TV releases a teaser for the final season of “Schitt’s Creek,” and Nickelodeon kicks off the holiday season with “Top Elf.” DATES Nickelodeon’s “Top Elf” series will premiere Nov. 29. “Top Elf” is a new competition series featuring guest judges Frankie Grande, Amirah Kassem, Peyton List, Alex Wassabi and [...]

  • Karen Cogan’s 'Fled' Tops The Brit

    Karen Cogan’s 'Fled' Tops The Brit List, a League Table of Unproduced British TV Scripts

    Karen Cogan’s “Fled” has come top of The Brit List, a league table of unproduced scripts from British writing talent, this year devoted to television projects. The list, similar to The Black List in the U.S., was compiled from recommendations by British production companies, talent agencies, financiers and broadcasters. Cogan, represented by Independent Talent Group, [...]

  • Viacom HQ LA

    ViacomCBS Sets HR and Inclusion Chiefs

    ViacomCBS has named corporate heads of HR and inclusion as the companies prepare for the merger that is set to close early next month. The soon-to-combine Viacom and CBS have tapped Nielsen alum Nancy Phillips to serve as exec VP and chief people officer. Viacom alum Marva Smalls will serve as global head of inclusion, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content