Philosophy vs. Improv: A New Podcast from The Partially Examined Life and Chicago Improv Studio

The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life Phi­los­o­phy Pod­cast has been shar­ing read­ing-group dis­cus­sions on clas­sic phi­los­o­phy texts for well over a decade, with over 40 mil­lion down­loads to date.

How­ev­er, inter­ac­tive con­ver­sa­tions about texts you prob­a­bly haven’t read can be dif­fi­cult to fol­low no mat­ter how much we try to make them acces­si­ble, and a decade of his­to­ry means that many names that might be dropped that those new­ly check­ing in may or may not be famil­iar with.

I’m one of the hosts of that pod­cast, and while I’m very hap­py with the for­mat and thrilled to have reached so many peo­ple with it, I also appre­ci­ate the dynam­ic of a one-on-one tutor­ing inter­change, and I stand firm­ly behind one of the orig­i­nal rules of The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life: No name-drop­ping.

As we read more com­pli­cat­ed texts, our inter­est becomes fig­ur­ing out what the philoso­pher meant, and only sec­on­dar­i­ly whether that mean­ing actu­al­ly relates to some­thing in peo­ple’s actu­al lives. Yes, we are crit­i­cal (some say too crit­i­cal) of the sub­ject-mat­ter, but we’re also big fans; we could bask in the lit­er­ary glow of Hegel or Pla­to or Simone de Beau­voir or Han­nah Arendt all day, and have often done so.

My newest pod­cast, Phi­los­o­phy vs. Improv, is rec­i­p­ro­cal tutor­ing real­ized as com­e­dy (or at least per­for­mance art?). As some­one who stud­ied phi­los­o­phy for many years in school and has then been host­ing The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life for so long, I’m in a good posi­tion to come up with par­tic­u­lar philo­soph­i­cal points worth teach­ing to a new learn­er.

My Phi­los­o­phy vs. Improv co-host is Bill Arnett, founder of the Chica­go Improv Stu­dio, author of The Com­plete Impro­vis­er, and the for­mer train­ing direc­tor at Chicago’s famed iO The­ater. He has appeared repeat­ed­ly on the Hel­lo From the Mag­ic Tav­ern improv com­e­dy pod­cast as a char­ac­ter named Meta­more who leads the show’s hosts (who are all fan­ta­sy char­ac­ters a la Tolkein or Nar­nia) in a table-top role-play­ing game called Offices and Boss­es. This and oth­er shows ignit­ed in me an urge to learn the fun­da­men­tals of improv com­e­dy, and so each Phi­los­o­phy vs. Improv episode, Bill comes up with some trick of the trade to try to teach me.

There are two rules of engage­ment: First, we can’t just state up front what the les­son is. We can ask each oth­er ques­tions, go through exer­cis­es, and oth­er­wise dis­cuss the mate­r­i­al, but the les­son should emerge nat­u­ral­ly. Sec­ond, we don’t take turns in try­ing to teach each oth­er. As he’s mak­ing me act out scenes, I’m try­ing to set up those scenes or have my char­ac­ter react in such a way to exem­pli­fy my philo­soph­i­cal point. As we’re dis­cussing phi­los­o­phy, Bill is relat­ing it to com­pa­ra­ble points about improv. Of course, we’re both inter­est­ed in learn­ing as well as teach­ing, so the “vs.” in the show’s title is not so much com­pe­ti­tion between us as between which les­son ends up more near­ly pro­duc­ing its intend­ed effect in the oth­er per­son.

It is sur­pris­ing how smooth­ly these duel­ing lessons often fit togeth­er, as lessens about ethics in par­tic­u­lar, about the art of liv­ing, are very much rel­e­vant to the impro­vi­sa­tion­al skills of being present, pre­sent­ing your­self, dis­cov­er­ing the real­i­ty of a sit­u­a­tion, and explor­ing truths of char­ac­ter. Fic­tion is often a very effec­tive vehi­cle for address­ing phi­los­o­phy, whether the char­ac­ters them­selves are talk­ing philo­soph­i­cal­ly (even if they’re ani­mals, cave men, or oth­er­wise in a non-typ­i­cal sit­u­a­tion for dis­cus­sion), or per­haps we’re embody­ing some polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion or thought exper­i­ment that we’re sub­ject­ing to philo­soph­i­cal analy­sis.

Like­wise, back to the days of Pla­to, a dose of irony in dis­cussing phi­los­o­phy can be use­ful, and this for­mat allows us to not just be our­selves on a pod­cast dis­cussing phi­los­o­phy, but at any point to launch into some com­e­dy bit, and in this way show the absur­di­ty of views we’re argu­ing against or just play with the ideas in a man­ner that I think enhances men­tal flex­i­bil­i­ty, which is essen­tial both for impro­vi­sa­tion and for philo­soph­i­cal cre­ativ­i­ty.

Lis­ten to the lat­est episode (#7), enti­tled “Mer­i­toc­ra­cy Now!”

Start lis­ten­ing with Phi­los­o­phy vs. Improv episode 1.

For more infor­ma­tion, see

Mark Lin­sen­may­er is the host of four pod­casts: Pret­ty Much Pop: A Cul­ture Pod­cast, Naked­ly Exam­ined Music, The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life, and Phi­los­o­phy vs. Improv.

Improv Comedy (Live and Otherwise) Examined on Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #20


What role does improv com­e­dy play in pop­u­lar cul­ture? It shows up in the work of cer­tain film direc­tors (like Christo­pher Guest, Adam McK­ay, and Robert Alt­man) and has sur­faced in some of the TV work of Lar­ry David, Robin Williams, et al. But only in the rare case of a show like Whose Line Is It Any­way? is the pres­ence of impro­vi­sa­tion obvi­ous. So is this art form doomed to live on the fringes of enter­tain­ment? Is it maybe of more appar­ent ben­e­fit to its prac­ti­tion­ers than to audi­ences?

Mark, Eri­ca, and Bri­an are joined by Tim Snif­f­en, announc­er on the pop­u­lar Hel­lo From the Mag­ic Tav­ern pod­cast, and a mem­ber of the Impro­vised Shake­speare Com­pa­ny and Baby Wants Can­dy (impro­vised musi­cals). He’s also writ­ten for Live From Here and oth­er things. We dis­cuss dif­fer­ent types of improv, a bit of the his­to­ry and struc­ture of Sec­ond City, improv’s alleged self-help ben­e­fits, how impro­vi­sa­tion relates to reg­u­lar act­ing, writ­ing, pod­cast­ing, and oth­er arts, and more.

Here are a few improv pro­duc­tions to check out:

For fur­ther read­ing, check out:

For musi­cal improv, try Naked­ly Exam­ined Music #30 with Paul Wer­ti­co and David Cain, and also #55 with Don Pre­ston (Zappa’s key­boardist) whom Mark quot­ed in this dis­cus­sion.

This episode includes bonus dis­cus­sion that you can only hear by sup­port­ing the pod­cast at This pod­cast is part of the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life pod­cast net­work.

Pret­ty Much Pop: A Cul­ture Pod­cast is the first pod­cast curat­ed by Open Cul­ture. Browse all Pret­ty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.


Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.