Tag Archives: Committee

The IBM Machine…

Avery Schreiber was a very funny actor and improviser that, despite his many talents, ultimately became best-known for his snack food commercials. But he served a tenure at The Committee and Second City, and also teamed very successfully with Jack Burns and, as Burns and Schreiber, even had their own network TV series one summer.
He was also a friend of Del Close, who is no stranger to followers of this blog. While at Second City in the early 1960s, they developed a scene in which Schreiber played a computer (then better known to audiences as an IBM Machine). Del would get a question from the audience, then feed it into Schreiber’s machine. Avery would then go into various gyrations as he tried to come up with an answer. Finally, he would spit out the answer by way of an invisible tape that Del would pull out of his mouth, and Del would then read the answer to the audience.
This generally got a great laugh from the audience and the audience was always very impressed with Avery. Of course, the person asking the question was the one who did all of the work and had to come up with the funny response, but it was a great bit.
(Avery did the human computer bit with other people over the years, most notably Jack Burns.) Here’s a clip of Close and Schreiber, disguised as a Second City documentary…

Committee Report

Before the Python reunion floodgates were opened a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I was working on a book on The Committee, the legendary San Francisco Improvisational Theatre. It’s a fascinating story about a theatre that should be remembered and celebrated, if only for a couple of reasons.

First of all, it was Ground Zero for the San Francisco counter-culture during the ’60s, and the San Francisco counter-culture was, arguably, Ground Zero for what we all know today as the ’60s. As one of them put it, “The Sixties walked through our door.” If you hung out in San Francisco at all during that era and had any interest in the music scene or counter-cultural events, you likely spent a little time at The Committee. And if you did, you may have rubbed elbows with Lenny Bruce, or the Byrds, or the Jefferson Airplane. Because none of the hotels he stayed at had a piano, Bob Dylan used to stop by in the afternoons to practice playing piano.┬áThe Grateful Dead played their first gig there, when they were known as The Warlocks.

And that only scratches the surface, and doesn’t delve into any of the political figures or the social events of that time.

The second reason that improvisers today ought to remember it is because The Committee gave birth to The Harold and longform improvisation. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, but I was able to track down the real story and speak to many of those involved. The details are in my book The Funniest One in the Room: the Lives and Legends of Del Close. The Committee made a couple of attempts at a longer montage format, but it was after Alan Myerson, Del Close, and Bill Mathieu, conducting separate workshops, got together and compared notes, that they began working with The Committee members to develop what they later named The Harold.

There’s a lot more to the story, of course. Del brought The Harold back to Chicago with him and the world of improvisation was never the same–but it all started at The Committee.

I mention this not because my own book on The Committee is finished (don’t I wish), but because there is also another Committee project under way. Jamie Wright and Sam Shaw, who do a terrific job running the San Francisco Improv Fest, are working on a documentary film telling the story of The Committee as this, their 50th anniversary year, draws to a close. They’re interviewing as many folks as they can for this very worthwhile project, and they ran a successful Kickstarter campaign not long ago. Even though that has ended, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if other folks decided to support them as well. Their Facebook page is here, and you can learn lots more about it. BTW, we’re not competing with my book. We’re working together and pooling resources so that they can turn out the best film, and I can turn out the best book possible about The Committee. Not because we owe them–but because they’ve earned it.

I’m in the middle of writing a longtime project that will pay tribute to The Committee, the legendary San Francisco improvisational theatre. (More about this later. A LOT more.)

Some of the members that I’ve interviewed have been quick to correct me, ever so gently, when I use the word “improv.” So much so that they’ve pretty well trained me not to use it (at least in front of them), and so I’m always careful to say “improvisation” around any of them. Hey, I figure they’ve earned the right to call it what they want. After all, that’s where The Harold was developed and named.

One of the guys I talked to this week preferred the term “improvisational theatre,” at least for what they were doing in the 1960s. He discussed the development of what they were doing as developing and polishing scenes which would be repeated every night, and were good enough to be transcribed and published, which has always been Second City’s bread and butter. He differentiated it from iO shows, for example, in that scenes performed during a Harold at the iO were forgotten immediately after and never performed again. (Fireworks, as Del Close always described them.) And, I realized that it was another example of the Del Close/Bernie Sahlins argument–whether improvisation was an art form in itself, or just a tool for developing scenes.

Del used to say we should be able to perform at such a high level that we could improvise in the evening, transcribe it overnight, and send it off to Samuel French to be published in the morning.

Have longform scenes been transcribed in that way? If not, is it because the quality or longevity isn’t there? Or because no one has bothered? He seemed to feel it was the former, but I offered up T.J. and Dave as an example of the quality that he was referring to. He hadn’t seen them, so it pretty much ended our disagreement.

But how about it? Is there an example of this that I wasn’t aware of?