I got asked recently (and by recently I mean about 2 years ago but sshhh) if I wanted to ‘make it in improv’. Now I properly sit down and think about it, I’m not even sure what making it in improv looks like. There are so few people in the UK who make their living solely from getting up on stage and making stuff up, and a lot of them that do so are stand-ups, or well established names who came through another field. The name a lot of people bandy about is Paul Merton, who makes a large chunk of his money now through his touring improv shows, but Paul started life as an alternative stand-up, made his name through scripted TV shows, stand-up and radio 4 panel games. It seems there’s a difficulty in making a career as a pure and simple improviser.
But more to the point of the question – if it were possible to make it as an improviser – do I want to make it?
I don’t think I do.
I got back on stage recently, performing in a Same Faces show for the first time in more than 16 months to a paying crowd, in person, with warm-up acts and laughter and dopamine. After our 45 minute set every fibre of my being was exhilarated by what had just made happen. An instant response from an audience that wasn’t our traditional crowd, people who very likely hadn’t really seen much live improv before immediately bought into the tacit silliness of the craft and got involved to the height of their (semi-drunken) funny. It felt brilliant, like stretching after a 3pm nap only to realise that while you were asleep a cat had decided you were a bed and someone had left a cold beer for you. It felt like home.
For me, improvisational comedy is about those genuine connections you make, with your fellow performers on the stage and bond you form with the audience. They’re real, strong, and key to the whole process. It’s mostly the reason why I couldn’t get into performing online (but this doesn’t stop onlineprov from being equally valid, we just don’t get on). Improv holds a special place in my heart because it’s something I enjoy doing with my friends and can create weird and wonderful stories that I’ll share the rest of my life.
However, I’m not good enough.
I’m not fishing for compliments, as lovely as they are, but I’m not. If I wanted, desperately tried to make a career out of improvising and entertaining people there’s a slim chance I could do it. Very slim. But I know I’d be taking the place of someone I knew was better, and better by a magnitude of difference and who truly deserves and wants to be there.
I don’t do improv to expand my career prospects, haven’t spent all the money and time I have on training and gigging around the country to develop a cult following who would support me on a crusade to professionalism. I do it because it’s fun and it’s how I unwind, let of steam and generally regulate my emotions. I’m British, emotions are weird and foreign to me and I need something to do to manage them.
Every spot in a professional improv troupe is like gold dust. When the call is put out for auditions for the handful of teams that do make good money from this ol’ gig they receive dozens and dozens if not hundreds of applications from people who are dedicated and talented enough to make it work, and almost all of them will fail. They’ll be rejected, perhaps lightly let down with a kindly worded email and they start trying again. They keep sending out applications, keep pushing, keep working and from where I’m sat, happily bumbling along with the few groups I play with, organising gigs with my friends and meeting new people, good luck to them. If you’re reading this and are one of those working extremely hard to ‘make improv work’ for you, I sincerely wish you the best of luck.
But I don’t want to join you. I don’t want to make it in improv. I want it to still be fun, to be a laugh, something I do with the people I love, at a pace that I can manage and have some semblance of control over. If I can get some beer money along the way, that’ll be nice too.