Severn's specialty was to play a German-accented professor who had expertise in everything. (The character was sometimes called Dr. Valter Von der Voegelwide, which Severn told me was the name of a medieval minnesinger. Whatever that is.) A topic would be solicited by the audience, and then he would be interviewed on that subject. Being sufficiently well-read to have a smattering of knowledge about a wide range of subjects, Severn was equipped to not only parody the various disciplines, but also to take on the workings of the academic mind.
I saw him at the University of Chicago in 1976 give an extermporaneous speech in which he stated that, since colors tend to fade in sunlight, it follows that the natives of tropical countries are very fair skinned. He asked if there were any questions. A black student rose and said, "Professor, I find your theory very interesting, but I was born and raised in a tropical country and you can see I have a very dark complexion indeed. How do you account for this?" Without pause or hesitation, Severn replied, "you must have led a very sheltered childhood."
In addition to academic foolery, Severn could be a very affecting actor. One of the greatest scenes in the history of Second City was "First Affair," a father-daughter scene with Barbara Harris. As part of the lecture I do on the history of Second City, I have run this scene dozens of times and always find something new in it. It has the depth of a first-rate one-act play, and Severn and Barbara give performances of astonishing depth and subtlety, the kind of work too rarely seen today in improv, when speed and noise are so highly prized.
Nichols and May may have been improv's brightest stars, but among improvisers, Severn was a thing apart -- possessing a comic mind of stunning individuality, he was in many ways THE Second City player. At his memorial, Mike Nichols said that whenever he was depressed, all he had to do to cheer up a bit was to recall one line from Severn's lecture on zoology -- "Of motion, the oyster has but a dim racial memory." Not many people could have made a joke that elegantly constructed.