Across the great divide

Stand-up and improv need each other, says Benny Harris

I’m a British expat who belongs to an improv troupe in Hollywood and performs stand-up in comedy clubs in the Los Angeles area, so I have some opinions about Charlie Partridge's earlier Correspondents article about 'Why jokes ruin comedy’.

The whole argument of stand-up versus improv is a regular debate in the two American cities I have lived in, Chicago and Los Angeles. And I find it completely pointless, as do many comedians in the US. I hope that as the improv scene in Britain grows, this Us vs Them argument does not develop any further.

Certainly some improvisers feel they are ‘above’ stand-up, which they see as passé, and relying on material that is not organic because it has been written and performed many times over whereas they feel improv is a true art form because it is never scripted.

Improv is, indeed, an excellent art form. And when done well it can be a magical experience for performers and audience alike. Crowds are delighted when a simple suggestion can turn into an excellent scene. But this in no way downgrades stand-up.

Yes, it is true that improvisers are taught not to go for the joke. But stand-up and improv are two entirely different ways of communicating, and to place one above another is meaningless.

Improv has helped my stand-up no end. It helps you write, improves your crowd work and helps you project yourself better on stage. A mantra often taught in improv classes is ‘you are an actor who improvises’. And I think this is a very clear distinction. Acting is essential in improv. There are some excellent stand-ups who could not be good improvisers because they would always go for the gag and may not be able to act. But many stand-ups can improvise.

America is far ahead when it comes to improv comedy. Not just live, but also with TV shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm. Britain does not have large improv comedy theatres with a reputation for producing talent or offering courses for those who would like to try. Between them, The Second City and The Groundlings have made up almost the entire cast of Saturday Night Live for the past 25 years. And most of them are now big comedy movie stars. Where are the British equivalents?

I do agree with Charlie: the UK comedy scene needs more improv. There needs to be thriving circuits for both stand-up and improv to improve Britain’s chances of once again making good comedy TV. Comedy clubs can easily share both styles, with none being considered ‘above’ the other. Stand up and improv need each other…

  • Benny Harris's stand-up:

Published: 27 Mar 2008

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