Self improv-ment | John Cooper on the benefits of an under-appreciated comedy form

Self improv-ment

John Cooper on the benefits of an under-appreciated comedy form

When I meet new friends and they ask me what I do, if we're on the same wavelength I'll reveal I'm a stand-up. Sometimes people are impressed. Then I tell them I'm an improviser too, not so impressed. When I try to explain what it is I often have to reference Whose Line Is It Anyway? and my heart sinks as I bring up a TV show from more than 20 years ago to give some context – they don't get out much so won't haven't heard of Baby Wants Candy, Showstoppers, Fast And Loose or Comedysportz.

Improv comedy in the UK doesn't get the attention I think it deserves. Granted, there's not as much of it as stand-up, but I also think it's not fully understood as its own genre. We only see the tip of a much bigger iceberg.

In the USA improv is a far greater recognised discipline in its own right. Chicago takes the lead with four dedicated improv venues within the city, and the US as a whole has around 100 dedicated venues that predominantly show improv comedy (and drama) shows. Improv is taught in many US schools with the same emphasis and attention we would teach drama here in the UK, and while drama, like comedy, shares some of its tropes, improv is very much its own recognised discipline.

Improv troupes in the in the UK have blossomed in the last five years it's and now much easier to catch an improv comedy show in one our larger cities. During the Edinburgh Fringe, shows are plentiful, but with so much white noise generated by stand-up, sketch and other varieties, it's impossible for the average punter to discern the good from bad without doing plenty for research; those in the know enjoy a good show.

I hear folk say about improv comedy 'but it's a different show each time, what if the night I go it's not very good?' If that's your reaction then you can go and stand in the corner with the safe people who travel to Edinburgh and watch a comic they saw on their own telly last week. Live a little.

Granted, for all the excellent shows from professional companies, there are also not-so-excellent ones. A bunch of comics messing about for an hour doing a show they thought would be easy because they didn't have to bother writing it, they're just making it up. Performers who don't know what they are doing, audiences who don't know what they are watching, both go away unhappy and 'improv comedy' takes the blame. I've seen it happen and it boils my gaskets.

Improv is not about making it up as you go along.

What is improv? Taking the comedy part out for a second, improv is a technique of observing, listening, making a connection and then responding.

Improv comedy is like karate. You can learn the techniques and get to black belt, but even then there's a whole other level to explore. It's not about the destination, and like good stand-up, those who have been improvising for years and know what they doing can make funny look easy.

When I started doing improv, I thought I was using the same parts of my brain for improv as I was for stand-up. Over time I realised this wasn't actually true. With stand-up I think as fast as I can and plan ahead, my brain gets three of four gags ahead of my mouth, assessing material based on the taste of the audience that night. Improv is different. It requires me to be in the 'now' all the time, no planning ahead, no looking for gags, just finding them. There's an old improv proverb: 'Don't bring the house, just a brick will do.'

I teach workshops in companies and a buzzword I hear often at pitch meetings is 'mindfulness' – 'to focus attention in a non-judgmental way on the emotions and thoughts of what is occurring in the present moment.' It's not related to improv, but the practice of improv certainly covers these aspects that good businesses look for in employees, and does it very well.

The reason I'm so passionate about improv is that it translates so well into other areas of life; you can take it with you.

There's no arguing that doing stand-up comedy, even for a short while, makes a person more confident. With improv I'd argue the rewards to the individual are even greater. With so many social networking distractions, text messaging and screens invading our attention span, the less time we are spending on real verbal and non-verbal communication that helps us create stronger relationships and live happier lives.

Watching improv comedy is different to watching stand-up – like life, it's all about the journey. Doing improv, well that's even better.

Now go and watch a show, or better still, get involved.

• John is a member of family-friendly improv show ComedySportz (next performing at the Waterside Arts Centre, in Sale, Greater Manchester on January 17. Tickets). They also run courses (Details.)

Published: 5 Jan 2015

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