These opinions come from a place of total love for this form.
And they are just my opinion. Hopefully it helps you. Hopefully, if you work for or are obsessed with a particular institution- it doesn’t offend you. Just like in improv, there is no “right” choice. You just make a choice, live in it, and see how it makes you feel.
So let’s get all touchy-feely, folks.
FYI: I studied at Second City Conservatory in Chicago, iO Chicago and the Annoyance. I’ve done improv intensives and retreats all over the country before coming to LA (happy to share which ones if you ask). In LA, I’m involved with Groundlings and UCB while still hitting up the other comedy places regularly. I’ve spent a lot of money, energy, and time in this world. Does that make me more qualified to have an opinion? No. Anyone can have an opinion. But it does mean I’ve hustled and still regularly hustle. So I have feelers out everywhere. Constantly feeling. And this is what I’ve felt.
See how I brought it back to the touchy-feely stuff ? That’s called a callback. You’re learning already!
Offers awesome classes for people who are first improvising and a really positive environment to learn the basics. They approach improvisation as an end unto itself meaning their improv shows are just that- completely improvised (and I’ve heard their sketch program loves to use improvisers to help brainstorm ideas and what not, though I haven’t taken any sketch classes there).
PROs: great for beginners; you get a show at the end of each of your classes on the UCB stage which is not only awesome because the UCB stage rocks, but is great for industry because UCB is arguably the ‘hottest‘ comedy theater right now for scouting and opportunities and whatnot; they have a super-diverse stage lineup so any given night of the week can be filled with all styles of comedy- stand up, sketch, and improv. There are also AMAZING performers and performances that happen nightly. Plus, show costs are the most reasonable you’ll find anywhere (ranging between $5-$10). And, while you’re a student, most shows are free. Also, you get to choose your teacher (assuming you have options in when you can take the class, of course).
CON: In the improv program at least, they hit very hard on a very specific form of improvising- using ‘game’ to find the funny in the scene. This could make you feel stifled at first- but you know what they say- you have to learn the rules to break them properly. Then again, some people love love love game (and do very well with it) so it could be a catapult for you rather than holding you back. You don’t know until you try (and fail then try, try again).
Fantastic basic classes for beginners as well and really awesome stuff for people who want to get better at specifically character work. They approach improvisation as both a tool to create sketch and as an end unto itself (though their weekend mainstage shows- the stuff their known for- is sketch comedy that they used improvisation to create). They have plenty of other shows that are completely improvised (my personal favorite is the Wednesday night Crazy Uncle Joe show. In my humble opinion, it is exactly what improvisation should be. It’s out there, fast-paced, filled with strong character work, and extremely fun and accessible for the audience. There’s room for failure, but the pace of the show and the caliber of the performers make it successful week after week. If you’re in LA- go see it. Now. Or rather, next Wednesday.)
PROs: They have a track of classes you don’t have to audition into that are for beginning improvisers as well and are just as fantastic as what they call the ‘core track’; I’ve had a very positive experience there and LOVE it; they let you be a little sillier and wackier while still teaching you how to be a good improviser; some of the funniest people I’ve ever seen are Groundlings; I see a Groundling or a person I recognize from the Groundlings on every other commercial and in like half the shows I watch- they work like crazy. (Note: This is true for many UCB performers, too, there is just a much more massive pool to choose from. So while may faces are easily recognizable, many are not working as much.) Also! They have created a new “G2” theater space specifically for student shows, so if you’re on the waiting list (like me…see below) for your next class, they’ve gotten better about offering workshops with the opportunity to keep your skills sharp and perform more regularly.
CON: If you choose to go through the core program, you have to ‘pass’ at the end of each of your classes in order to continue to the next level. You can retake the class up to 2X (total of 3X taking the class) in order to ‘pass’ if you go this track, as well. This ‘pass’ system can sometimes create a weird vibe in class because everyone wants to move ahead and theoretically (many years down the road) become a ‘Groundling.’ The good news is, you get feedback while being told ‘pass’ or ‘retake’ – so you know what to work on not just be told “GETOUTTAHERE! NO!” You also only get a class show at the end of each class starting with the advanced class only (not the first two- basic or intermediate). The first the classes- basic, intermediate, and advanced are all offered pretty frequently. After that, you’re put on a waitlist for nobody knows how long (current average wait time 1.5 years) until you get called for the next level ‘Writing lab’ where you produce shows and write a bunch. After that, assuming you ‘pass‘ you’re on a waitlist again for the last level of the training program. Rumor is right now that waitlist time is around 2 years.
I don’t know a TON about SECOND CITY and iO West programs in LA. I do know that both of those theaters are filled with some of the most talented and funniest improvisers (especially many former-Chicago transplants) in the city.
Second City tends to approach improvisation as a tool to help you create sketch comedy and uses it less frequently as the show itself (though, like all other theaters, they have a wide variety of shows, plenty of which are fully improvised).
iO tends to approach improvisation as the end unto itself- they improvise within different forms and teams and experiment with styles and whatnot. Improvising is the show. Of course, they offer a (great) sketch program as well, but we’re talking improv here. Let’s stay focused.
The only real CON with these places is they’re not as ‘hot‘ as the other two theaters in LA. At least that’s the “word on the street”- for what it’s worth. You’re more likely to get industry to come out to UCB or Groundlings rather than iO and Second City- though OF COURSE there are amazing people at all of the theaters. And industry DEFINITELY come out to both Second City and iO. Who knows? (Answer: f***ing nobody.)
Financially, they all cost about the same…a boat load for a ‘poor’ actor. But this is what we invest in, right? Second City, iO and UCB all have internship programs to help you pay for classes. But they are highly competitive so don’t count on it- at least for your first couple classes. Groundlings offers a couple payment options to make it hurt a little less when paying outright for the classes, but you do pay a small interest for using them. But, speaking from experience, when you’re shelling out that much cash- it’s sometimes worth it.
So I’ll say it again, know what you want and why you’re getting into improv before you choose a place. That will help you enjoy the experience there even more. Go see shows. Each of these major improv institutions offers a variety of classes depending on your wants and needs. They all have comprehensive classes in improvsation, long form improvisation, sketch comedy writing, solo workshops, advanced improvisation, etc. Just choose where you can vibe with.
I’ll also say, lots of teachers teach improv on their own on the side. Although this can be beneficial and may be a route you want to go, I’d at least start at a major institution before veering off to a more specialized teacher. Mostly because you get a much more diverse group of peers and students at the major places which can help you decide if a certain style or approach works best for you.
I should also note, this is a pretty comprehensive list but not completely satisfying by any means. It’s just a start. The anal retentive part of me wants to keep discussing all the nuances of each place and why some of my generalizations are not completely true and yadda yadda. But the normal part of me is tired of typing and obsessing over this. So… I’m done. For now.
I love improvisation and have had really positive experiences in that community. I find it makes ALL performances I do better- stand up, sketch, auditions, writing- everything. I have so much more confidence now in my own ability and my own voice thanks to improvisation. Were it not for my confidence in all that, I would not have begun stand up because I would have been so nervous about what could happen onstage. Now, I look forward to when things don’t go according to plan or it’s a really feisty audience or it’s a really quiet audience- whatever!
Having the foundation that improv puts in your mind means you’ve always got something to fall back on in your own talent toolkit, so you never have to get mad or angry at the audience for not being as responsive or too responsive or whatever. They’re always right because in improv, everything that’s happening is always right. You’re more present and responsive in the moment and aware of your surroundings because of the improv training.
Basically, improvisers are just kinda better people. So… you know. Start improvising, you a$$hole.