You couldn't make it up
My first exposure to improvised comedy was late at night on Channel 4, where Whose
Line is it Anyway? introduced me to made-up-on-the-spot comedy games, seemingly without any scripts or rehearsal, and very few rules but lots of laughs between bursts of Clive Anderson's excitable buzzer.
Naturally then, once I was a performing arts student in Ipswich, at the drop of a hat and ignoring the phrase ‘perhaps not’, I would suggest people play impro games at parties.
While other younger, but seemingly more mature, students were name dropping bands to impress pretty goth girls, I would be leaping around loudly pretending to be Kermit the Frog doing a musical about spoons in the style of Brecht.
Despite my enthusiasm and loudness, I wasn’t actually very good at impro, as I discovered to my horror when we finally visited it in drama class. Partly due to my insistence on affecting a northern accent in the then-fashionable style of Vic & Bob, but also because most of the clever suggestions (i.e. 'do it in the style of Restoration comedy') drew a blank as I didn’t know what that was.
I later learnt from YouTube that Whose Line was edited down each week from from over two hours to 23 minutes and a lot of the spontaneity was in fact retakes. Even my favourite, Tony Slattery, had to be given second chances to be funnier.
Improvised comedy was, and still is, tarnished with the reputation of being 'actors showing off' and more fun for the performers than the audience. Which, I think, was why the UK TV version moved away from John Sessions reciting Chaucer in Spanish as Orson Welles at a Bar Mitzvah and towards Paul Merton and Josie Lawrence getting the giggles doing a song about erotic hedgehogs. I couldn't get on board with the American version – it was just so slick that it felt like you were watching a pre-written cabaret show. I preferred the British approach of riding a slightly terrifying rollercoaster where you had no idea if the next bit would be funny at all. Live comedy is probably the only part of my life where I enjoy the thrill of being on the edge. Actual rollercoasters terrify me. It's true. I'm a coward.
Despite my failure at college, I tried again with improv a few years later. The first show I was involved in was based at the UEA in Norwich and I showed up for an audition to discover how good American students were at it – almost as if they practised and thought about it rather than just turning up and hoping for the best. I'm still not sure why there were so many Americans in the group. We all had t-shirts printed to wear at gigs (mine had ‘Malcom Morissette’ printed on it for reasons I can’t remember). There were ten of us and we would meet up and run and run Whose Line games, standard drama stuff and more sophisticated games from the USA.
We were performing regularly at the Bill Wilson Room (I'm still not sure if he designed rooms or the room looked like him) to quite a big crowd, when we fell afoul of a group of students armed with a clipboard who asked what jokes we would tell that night and if they would offend anybody on a list of groups provided. I explained that we wouldn’t know what jokes we would tell – with that being the nature of improvised comedy – and that it depended on what suggestions were shouted out by the audience, but we would do our best to be respectful.
During the show, as usual, the crowd made various off-colour suggestions at some points, which we ignored and carefully did what we thought was a pretty funny improvised and definitely non-offensive show. However, our printed t-shirts and a random box of props would prove our downfall. Right at the end of the show during a father and son sketch suggested by the crowd, the traditional call came out, 'you’re naked!’. Quick as a flash I grabbed an object from the table, a lamp to cover my pretend shame. Unfortunately, my fellow performer followed my example and grabbed another item and put it over his groin. The picture was a kitsch Margaret Keane-style painting of a sad looking young boy, this got a gasp from the assembled onlookers and if the placing of the art hadn't been dodgy enough, the t-shirt above it reading 'Captain Pervert’ was enough for the student union officer to have the group banned from all future student events.
I wasn’t actually a student at the UEA at all, I had snuck in as a guest performer, and at this point we discovered that at least 90% of the rest of the group weren’t either, so before we got into even more trouble we left and continued in various guises as Klustafux, Yesterday’s Comedy Made Awesome, and (for a very brief time) Impropotamus, mostly at the Playhouse Bar in Norwich. I started dating my future wife, who I was unable to persuade into joining us in the delights of live improvisational comedy and day drinking, but who made us some excellent flyers. When she was offered a job in London, I naturally followed her (in case I needed any more flyers), convinced my improv days were not over.
When Mark and I then started running sketch show nights together we automatically used improv games as a warm-up before starting work on each skit and sometimes the made-up bits were funnier. So (mainly to avoid learning our lines), we decided the second half of the shows should be improvised comedy. We always enjoyed it, and so did our performers, and I felt it was one of our big selling points, but it wasn't in fashion at the time so after the Kilburn shows ended, I let the idea drift.
But improv finds a way! I carried on loving it and channelled it into YouTube videos and silliness until years later when during a frustrating period trying and failing to get a fringe production organised, our rehearsals for a play turned into 'Let's get drunk in this pub backroom and play impro games'. What started as one night became a regular social meet-up and after a conversation with a punk woman who ran TNT stand-up nights at Torriano's in Kentish Town, I sold her the idea of ‘Come on Punk, Make It Up’ – a new comedy night
of pure improvised anarchy.
So, did the ImproPunks take down society with their raw untamed wit and energy? Did the UEA students union ever track us down and what were the three unbreakable rules of impro I insisted upon? What happened next, you couldn't make up.