Improv, or Why I was a Terrible Stand-up

As I mentioned in an old blog (and by old, I mean I ‘published’ it last wee), I have been taking part in a local Improv comedy group’s lessons, The Same Faces, and loving every minute of it. Whether that’s due to the group themselves (hint, it is), or the fact that it’s a fun way for me to let off my creative steam (hint, it’s that too), I feel like I’ve found a home in what I’m doing. You get the joy of making people laugh and creating a whole new piece of ‘theatre’, without the need to spend time panicking and stressing over trying to write things that are both witty, relevant, and not shite, or remembering the words.

Some back story, as it’s generally been known to help. I used to do stand-up comedy, albeit briefly, and even that is being very generous. Over my year long “career”, during which I made no money and about 8 pints, I performed my very unique brand of comedy   about 8 times at 7 different venues, all over the 4 corners of Shropshire and Hereford. It was the big time. But when I came to Leicester, I did one night, found that my brand of comedy and themes did not work at all with a cosmopolitan audience that weren’t Shropshire people, accidentally offended the whole audience of 6, and then point blank refused to ever do it again.

Since that terrible night, I did a few more semi-comedy things, helping devise a Fringe show, twice, hosting a Proteus sketch show a couple times, and in both cases I used improvisation very sparingly, just to flesh out ideas in the early stages of what we were doing, and then letting the words that others had written for me take control. I had written a few sketches as well, neither of them were particularly funny nor worth any note at all, despite the polite applause they received from the audience.

I was very happy to leave stand-up alone, and just work doing the odd bit of writing and enjoy doing the 14/48 twice a year if they asked me. This was fine, but it didn’t really satisfy my needs to make people laugh, and I’d always found Improv highly curious.

This curiosity in Improv comes from the comedy I was brought up on – a healthy diet of BBC Radio comedies such as I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, The Masterson Inheritance, and The Goons, and, like every Improv fan, Whose Line is it anyway?, both the Radio 4 show, and the Channel 4 incarnation. The ability of these immensely talented people to create whole worlds, people and plots without any planning or writing amazed me, and the way that the cast of ISIHAC could so easily weave joke after joke after joke on the fly, seemingly endlessly and effortlessly. It was always fabulous to experience, and I’d loved to be able to do that.

This is not to say that I thought that stand-up is easier, I’d argue that it really isn’t, as you haven’t got any proven material to fall back on. It’s just that I was a terrible, terrible stand-up – I hadn’t found my voice or style at all, and my writing was either not funny or ranting. But I’m quick with a joke or pun, and like to run away with ideas in mad directions, so I though that improv would surely be something worth trying properly, at least once in my life.

So, realising that I have little time left to odd and weird and get away with it, I took the plunge and turned up one week. Admittedly, I turned up an hour late and missed most the planed session, but I loved it. I’d like to say that I made an impression on the people there, and I highly doubt that happened, but they definitely made an impression on me. It felt brilliant, and all we really did was go through a few simple exercises, a game or two, before doing a number of scenes each. I don’t think I was too terrible, and even managed to get the room to crack up a few times, and, although my inexperience was plain to see, I don’t think I was too terrible in stopping the scenes flow.

I left that session skipping, literally skipping.

The next few lessons were different, the more experienced members turned up and we did a more long form exercise. I was completely in over my head – I was blocking the scene a few times, I didn’t build upon the other suggestions, I get describing and not showing, and a couple times we restarted the whole scene because I got the whole idea completely wrong.

And I left the session skipping.

Why? I was learning. It felt fantastic to be so stupid in the room, and to be shown where I was going wrong so I could improve, again and again. The next week I went I felt brilliant. I was open to the others suggestions, both guiding the scene and being lead through it, and even trying to take things massively absurdist to suit the style of comedy I love. It was brilliant.

Was I perfect? Hell no. But I was better than I’d been before, and that was all I needed.

I was… no, I am learning. And the more I go and am open to suggestions the better I will be.

It’s good to be doing something you’ve respected and been impressed by for years.


Published by Adam Unwin

Yeah, I write stuff occasionally, make things up on stage, and like saying words other people have written in a dramatic way.

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