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Guest Blog: Day 3 – what is improvised comedy anyway?

Right then, yesterday I realised that I’d leaped into the whole ‘yo, we’re MissImp and we’re dope’ (I believe this is how the kids express themselves now), without explaining what improvised comedy is. That would be due to a lack of planning – that idea will prove to be relevant later on and when I refer to doing so you can yell “reincorporation”.

This evening please bear in mind that I’m also half-watching The Valley of Gwangi, so don’t be surprised if there is an excess of cowboys riding dinosaurs. Never heard of Gwangi? It’s one of Ray Harryhausen‘s finest works. Look, I’m not supposed to be getting so easily distracted, but Ray did the stop-motion effects for the original Clash of the Titans (not the abysmal celebration of dreary 3D and tedious story-telling that the new version brought us), the Sinbad films and so many more degrees of awesomeness than a university of awesomeness could ever hope to graduate. It’s old school and well cool.

Aw man, I was about to get back the point when Merly climbed on my wrists. It’s her favourite way to sit when we’re typing. Marilyn’s out tonight at a rehearsal for HR’d Day’s Night so I get sat on a bit more.

Improv Comedy

On with the improv. Now, if we were in the States, or Australia, Canada, New Zealand… you would almost certainly know what improvised comedy is. Over here, the last big thing was Whose Line Is It Anyway? which I’m sure you can still watch on Bob or Fiveish or whatever those channels are called. It’s massive in most of the English speaking world and a lot of the non-English (though I know much less about that).

It is comedy without a plan – no script, no pre-defined characters, no gags written and/or learned. Some people think stand up comedy is a bit like that, and there are a handful of comedians out there who do great off the cuff work. But most comedy is written, re-written, edited, destroyed by a hostile audience, re-written etcetera. Improv is nothing like that. The scenes and shows we do are based on an idea from the audience – often just a job or a location, sometimes ‘a place where bad things happen’, maybe just a single word. We play games on stage – if you’ve seen Whose Line Is It Anyway? you’ll probably recognise most of them. The eponymous game of that show is one in which the players have a bunch of lines written by the audience, which the players haven’t read. They have to read them out and seamlessly incorporate whatever they say into their scene. It’s fun.

Improv on Stage

It’s also exciting for the performers and for the audience – we’re stepping up to do something funny and entertaining for maybe 7-90 people from whom we’ve taken money (not much, but enough!) And the audience know that all we’ve got is whatever they shouted at us.

The players interpret, explore and do things you never thought were possible from so little. And, amazingly, actually incredibly – it’s funny. Now funny is a funny thing – you can get everything from that pleasant enjoyment of watching something quite clever unfold, or a giggle at silliness, big belly laughs at a completely unexpected turn of events.

And, occasionally silence. Yep, sometimes it doesn’t work – sometimes a scene, for whatever reason, just doesn’t come together into a cool thing. And that’s okay – the audience realise that maybe this isn’t the easiest thing in the world and applaud the attempt, or laugh and enjoy the failure – some of which are hilarious in themselves. Seeing a couple of players collapse in fits of giggles under the weight of foolishness they’ve erected is great – see this clip from the last show for an example.

I should explain the set-up – there are two pairs of players playing a game called ‘Postcards’. Each pair is pretending to be one person writing a postcard to the other, a word at a time each. The characters chosen by the audience are Winnie the Pooh and Attila the Hun…

Postcards from Improv Sizzle – Attila the Pooh

It’s a test of someone’s ability to translate thought directly into action – there’s no time to think and plan. As you can imagine, it’s impossible to rehearse the scenes themselves because you don’t know what they’re going to be about until you play them. The games we play on stage can be practiced so that you’re expecting to have to add a really weird audience line and you can get used to allowing your mind to flex quickly and associate “you broke the teapot” or “stop it you’re going to make me cry” (actual lines given by audience members) with the scene you’ve been building about badgers robbing banks.

What you can do though, and what we do, is practice improvising and playing together – there’s a particular skill set which can be developed and which we work on in our weekly jams and workshops.

Improv – from the Latin…

Improvised Comedy (note the capitals) in the way we play it was sort of invented in Canada and America. There are two major and equally massively influential figures in improv’s development. Both are utterly beloved and we freely utilise ideas and games from both. First there’s the Brit, Keith Johnstone who wrote a massively influential book called (rather drily) ‘Improv’. It’s insightful, but painfully packed with self-penned anecdotes about just how incredibly AMAZING Mr Johnstone is and how AMAZING everything he did/saw/improvised/ate/said was. It’s rather tiresome. On the other hand there’s this dude, Del Close who co-wrote The Truth In Comedy, which is tonnes more fun and accessible. A huge number of popular comedians are ex-Del Close students – think Mike Myers, John Belushi – most of Saturday Night Live and so on.

Agree, damn you

The main idea is agreement – if you agree with what someone says to you then a scene can build, in exciting and unpredicatable ways. I might declare that your mother is a triceratops. If you just say ‘no’, then that scene is dead; if you say ‘yes, and I have inherited her bony frill’ then you’re gonna go far.

That kind of agreement is at the heart of it all – whatever has been said is true, if a player declares themself to be a doctor then a doctor they are. From that you build it up, make interesting choices – it’s no fun if the doctor just tends to the patient, but if they fall in love, reveal some new bizarre illness, the patient fixes the doctor or they have an existential dilemma about whether to use sentient surgical instruments… then you’ve got potential for comedy. If you can also remember that the scene is supposed to be in stop-motion or that the other character has an obsession with cowboys then you can bring that back, reincorporate it and add to it. Somehow, all the weird stuff in a scene makes sense together.

Reading (watching) List

So that is sort of what improvised comedy is. Really, you have to see it to understand and enjoy it. Here are a few links to improv in the UK and elsewhere to get a flavour of it. Then you can come to the show on Friday and see how we do it!

If you would like to have a go, I’m running a beginners’ workshop as part of the Nottingham Comedy Festival – it’s a 3 hour introduction to the games and silliness we get up to. I think you’ll like it – more details here. (that’s us!)

Great UK improv group The Suggestibles:

This is Paul Merton & co – the guys who started up Whose Line (more or less)  – they’re performing at the Nottingham Comedy Festival too!

Upright Citizen’s Brigade (spawned from the Del Close world)

Baby Wants Candy – these guys do a one hour musical based on whatever title you give them:

So, that’s me for today – I’ll fill you in on our preparation session for the show tomorrow. Then there’s no time, because it’s show time on Friday – 8pm at the Art Organisation on Station Street. BE THERE. Or be a cowboy eaten by a dinosaur, see if I care. Later!

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