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The Dozens, Battle Rap, and... Improv Comedy?

Can improv podcasts help redress the failures of a form?

In June of 2020, as companies and organizations everywhere reckoned with

racist ideologies and policies in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the ensuing wave of protests across the nation, the famed improv theater Second city released a formal letter addressing the role of racism in its storied history. “We have read and heard condemnations of The Second City’s culture and work environment shared by our BIPOC, Latinx, and LGBTQIA+ communities,” they wrote, adding, “We are prepared to tear it all down and begin again” (Stuart & Johnson).

According to the New York Times, this was at least the fifth time the group has tried to reconcile race-related concerns. None of those prior reckonings had resulted in lasting change. It is true that improv’s origins are located in the construction of a homogenous in-group — Viola Spolin, the so-called mother of improv, utilized traditional games with immigrant and inner-city children for the purpose of socialization and, crucially, assimilation. Men, and white men in particular, dominate the stage, often controlling games and skits and casting women and POC in supporting — or even submissive — roles. As Amy Seham writes, “Groupmind, so valued in improv, all too often becomes the heterosexual white male mind” (4). Second City may be prepared to “tear it all down,” but it is clear that whiteness is embedded in the very foundation of the form.

And yet, while Spolin’s gamified version of improv may be exclusive and white-centered, there are forms of improvisation that have served women and communities of color for centuries. As such, I locate the African American traditions of the dozens and battle rap as alternative sites of improvisation and argue for the sonic as a space of potentiality for a more equitable form of improv comedy, where power can be used productively and the tradition of “yes and” need not be a phrase that requires submission from groups that are always already marginalized.

Race is a fraught issue in improv comedy. The form often relies on stereotypes as a basis for stock characters, and often humor is located in the caricature-like portrayal of the non-dominant by the dominant, i.e., a “macho” man as a woman. Michael Chekhov, writing about the technique and ideology of mask play, argues that the method merges the self with another body, “you clothe yourself, as it were, with this body; you put it on like a garment” (qtd. in Johnstone). As such, the form often emboldens white male performers to “try on” various identities. Yet marginalized performers are typically denied this opportunity: “White characters were able to represent blackness, but the reverse was not the case… the white spectator could not recognize him as a white character” (Seham, location 404). Black improvisers are frequently pushed to play racist stereotypes — the “welfare queen,” the pimp, etc. — and Second City performers report having been sent to vocal coaches and dialect trainers, “to make them sound more palatable to Second City’s majority white audiences, they believe” (Ryzik & Malooley). Both leadership and audience demographics posit whiteness as the norm and discourage deviance from that norm.

In contrast to the white-dominated spaces of Second City and other theaters like it stand the specifically black traditions of battle rap and its predecessor, the dozens. These traditions operate on similar notions of play, yet they are enacted in black-majority communities, and as such depend on a largely different set of allusions and norms. These games are also based in comedy — as Henry Louis Gates writes, “The dozens is perhaps the best-known mode of Signification, both because it depends so heavily on humor and because the success of its exchanges turns on insults of one’s family members, especially one’s mother. It is enough to say “Your mama” to commence — or to conclude — this ritual exchange” (99). Battle rap is the dozens’ natural successor, a broader and more formally competitive version of the game. Its majority-black audience and creative core enacts a different set of norms and an alternative basis for humor; in this space, white-black hierarchies are subverted and blackness is established as dominant.

Blackness is the superior mode in these scenes; yet it is important to note that a black-dominated space does not automatically foster equity. Indeed, H. Samy Alim, Jooyoung Lee, and Lauren Mason Carris have collectively noted that black freestylers often rely on stereotypes in interracial battles. They write that “while artists are producing new meaning of blackness and whiteness by reversing their status in this local scene, this ‘reversal’ comes along with the reinscription of white, hegemonic discourses of race and ethnicity at the expense of Asians and Latinos” (125). Battle rap often enacts an alternative social structure that is nonetheless reliant upon other proscribed hegemonic ideologies. Like improv comedy, these spaces also reify existing hierarchies of gender and sexuality, mining the female body for jokes and utilizing homophobic and misogynistic slurs as insults. Proscribed masculinity and heterosexuality remain dominant in both realms.

Yet perhaps we may identify in the battle rap tradition a mode of improvisation that can utilize power productively, as a recuperative measure. Cecelia Cutler argues that an inverted version of Du Bois’ double consciousness is at play in hip hop culture, noting the ways many white rappers “mark” and parody their own whiteness through the invocation of stereotypes and a comedic emphasis on linguistic features such as the hyper-rhotic /r/. The rap battle, according to Cutler, is a space in which “Black and White contestants cooperate to construct difference in ways that reflect a shared orientation about the markedness of Whiteness within Hip Hop. The foregrounding of Whiteness serves an important functional role in the MC battle as a way to ratify an alternative social order” (91). In contrast to Alim et. al., Cutler sees the battle rap environment as a space for critical conversations about language and race, where white contestants “experience a bit of what it feels like to see themselves through the eyes of Black Americans” (91). What is critical in Cutler’s argument is the acknowledgement, indeed the foregrounding, of whiteness as construct — as well as the rejection of whiteness as inherently superior, the defection to blackness as normative.

Improv comedy is not without its own blueprint for this kind of flippage. Seham recognizes this reverse-double-think in use within feminist troupes, who might invoke masculine stereotypes in order to undermine the supremacy of masculinity. She notes that third-wave improvisation as a whole is indeed marked by the inversion of many of the form’s tropes: “Third wave improvisers… make use of postmodern techniques of double-coding, or a paradoxical approach that ‘uses and abuses, installs and then subverts, the very concepts it challenges’” (location 1850). Perhaps more traditionalist improv groups might adopt some combination of these two forms of inversion, constructing a place in which white masculinity is comedically foregrounded, marked and (crucially) undermined by those who possess it, and a place where those typically excluded from its privileges can play with and deconstruct the norm. This form requires a kind of self-reflection on the part of improvisers. Performers, especially white, heterosexual men, must ask themselves why they think a role or a skit is funny — a notion that defies the traditional formulation of improvisation as a free-for-all, in-the-moment. Instead, the call for self-reflection treats any given skit or game as a potential space in which to consider a performer’s core assumptions and their relationship to that performer’s own subject position.

In recent years, improvisation has proliferated in mainstream culture. No longer just an in-person experience, the medium has found new life on television, YouTube and beyond, from Whose Line is it Anyway to Middleditch and Schwartz. Battle rap, too, has benefitted from the expanded universes of YouTube and television — consider, for instance, MTV’s Yo Momma, or even Nick Cannon’s Wild ‘n Out, which merged the two forms in one show.

Among this wave of broadcast improv is an emerging network of improvised podcasts. Improv podcasts mark a space that I see as primed for a version of the art that rejects traditional hierarchies. While still largely white-dominated, these shows rely less on race-, sexuality- and gender-based stereotypes, instead centering format and story as the primary location of play. Shows like Hello From the Magic Tavern (which parodies the chat show format by positing a podcast hosted by a wizard, a talking badger, and an average Joe who’s fallen through a portal into their magical, Middle-Earth-style world), Dead Authors Podcast (in which host Paul F. Tompkins interviews dead authors while playing a dead author himself) and With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus (in which Lapkus takes the guest role in each episode, allowing her guest hosts to decide the podcast title, subject matter, and Lapkus’ character) generate humor and play by parodying the podcast format and its many stereotypes. All three shows also mark a space of potential hierarchical subversion, as they give guests quite a bit of creative license. Lapkus’ show in particular marks a radical de-centering of the hegemonic ear, as it revolves around a creator willfully ceding creative control to her guests. The show’s form also allows for infinite changeability; episodes have parodied everything from sports talk (“Sports Snack,” in which Lapkus plays a current NBA bench-warmer) to girlboss culture (“Ladies Night,” in which Ego Nwodim hosts Lapkus on her empowerment podcast) to fandom (“The Force Awakens Minute,” a podcast that tackles every Star Wars film, one minute at a time).

By decentering the body and the gaze, and orienting storytelling around the ear, improv podcasts prioritize world-building and genre-bending, mining formal stereotypes rather than demographic ones. These podcasts create a different potential for equitable improv comedy, both through a remote guest-host dynamic that offers opportunities to a wide variety of comedians (rather than local intra-troupe collaboration) and through a de-emphasizing of the body, which allows performers to play against type. While the format isn’t perfect — certainly, podcasts as a form are associated with whiteness and the industry is dominated by historically white institutions like NPR and the New York Times — I see in aurally-based improvisation the potential to combine the privilege-marking of rap battle improv and the trope-inversions of third-wave comic improv, a marriage of strategies that can facilitate the deconstruction of traditional comic hierarchies in favor of more equitable performance and play.

Works Cited:

  1. Alim, H. Samy, Jooyoung Lee and Lauren Mason Carris. “Short Fried-Rice-Eating Chinese MCs” and “Good-Hair-Havin Uncle Tom N****s”: Performing Race and Ethnicity in Freestyle Rap Battles. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, vol. 20, no 1, 2010, pp. 116-133.

  2. Cutler, Cecelia. “‘You Shouldn’t Be Rappin’, You Should Be Skateboardin’ the X-Games’: The Co-construction of Whiteness in an MC Battle.” Global Linguistic Flows: Hip Hop Cultures, Youth Identities, and the Politics of Language, edited by H. Samy Alim, Awad Ibrahim, and Alastair Pennycook. Routledge, 2009, pp. 79-94.

  3. Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifyin(g) Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. Oxford University Press, 1988.

  4. Ryzik, Melena and Jake Malooley. “Second City is Trying Not to be Racist. Will it Work This Time?” The New York Times, 12 Aug. 2020,

  5. city-black-lives-matter.html. Accessed 10 Apr. 2021.

  6. Seham, Amy. “Performing Gender, Race, and Power in Improv Comedy.” The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, Vol. 1, edited by George E. Lewis and Benjamin Piekut, 2015.

  7. —— Whose Improv is it Anyway?: Beyond Second City. Kindle ed., University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

  8. Stuart, D’Arcy and Steve Johnston. “The Second City Response Letter to the BIPOC, Latinx and LGBTQIA+ Communities.” Updates from The Second City, 11 Jun. 2020, Accessed 10 Apr. 2021.


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