Why improv is better than stand-up

Gareth Morinan goes off-script

A lot of people seem pretty adamant that there are too many stand-ups these days. I am not about to say anything that’ll further the debate on that subject. Instead, like the saint I am, I will try and convince comedians that perhaps doing less stand-up, and more improvisation, is a good idea.

So for the worthy cause of making the stand-up circuit slightly less clogged, please observe these reasons why improv might be more enjoyable/fulfilling/rewarding than stand-up:

Improv is not a solitary activity

You are forced to spend time with others, to the point where you’ll actually enjoy their company. There’s no more standing alone at the back of a club, jealously watching as an act you dislike rips the room you’ve just died on your arse in. Instead you stand in solidarity with your fellow performers, as you all jealously bitch about the act ripping the room you’ve all just died in.

No need to remember your material

Because there isn’t any! Not a jot. The most you have to learn is some basic structures that are literally as simple as remembering A-B-C. I’m normally a wreck before a stand-up gig, desperately trying to memorise all the edits I’ve made to my material. But before an improv gig I couldn’t be more relaxed. Who gives a damn? We’re expected to make it up!

You can get better without an audience

You don’t have to spend night after night honing your act in front of five audience members and eight comedians. An improv team probably shouldn’t even consider performing in front of an audience until they’ve done a few weeks of rehearsal. Though rehearsal is the wrong word, you’d probably describe it as training – repeatedly performing together until you’re slick enough to perform a good set out of any suggestions you get. A good improviser can take any situation and immediately steer it into funny.

The scene is expanding

Ever since the stand-up boom way back in the late 2000s/early 2010s it’s all gone to shit! It seems to be the consensus that we’re entering some kind of live stand-up recession – so jump ship while you can still get out alive! Meanwhile the relatively microscopic improv scene has been continuing to expand rapidly, with high-profile success for groups like Austentatious and Showstoppers! Plus Abandoman continue to prove that even the largest audience can be entertained by raw improv skills (and some Irish charm).

It is once again permeating into the mainstream

Improv kept a pretty low profile in this country since the end of Whose Line Is It Anyway? But now it’s making a come back (I’m not referring to panel shows), TV execs are willing to try out new improv-based formats. Sooner or later one of the ideas in production is going to turn into a hit, and then there’ll be no stopping it! After all in these times of austerity, why bother paying someone to write a comedy, if you can just work out a format which allows some funny people to write it live as it’s being performed. But having said that…

Improv is actually a widely used writing tool in America

It’s hard to grasp quite how ingrained improv is into the North American comedy scene. Many of their biggest stars – Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Bill Murray – honed their comic skills performing improv and sketch comedy at one of the big improv theatres – Second City, Upright Citizens Brigade, Improv Olympic, The Groundlings. And so improv is considered one of the basic tools when writing for stage or screen. Shows like Saturday Night Live get most of their performers and writers directly from the big theatres.

As a writing tool it can create something that is really funny

One of the most critically praised show of the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe, and one of my favourite all time shows, was the Pyjama Men: In the Middle Of No One. Now this was a tightly scripted show, but you can tell from watching it that many of the ideas have been generated through improvisation; presumably the two of them pissing about for hours on end trying to create the most ludicrous situation possible. You’d be surprised how many of the well-known upcoming British character or sketch acts have a background in improv.

There are none of the stresses associated with potential financial gain

It may be an expanding scene, but there’s still far less money in performing improv than stand-up! There’s a big problem of people getting tricked into thinking they might actually make a living out of performing live stand-up comedy, but with improv you know where you stand. Improv may help your chances of breaking into the semi-lucrative worlds of acting and writing, but in terms of cash in hand live performances… there are very few people making a living out of it.

What’s more, improv actually costs you money to do!

The basics of improv really need to be taught by someone who knows what they’re on about. In the past, to get a really good improv education, you’d have to spend a small fortune flying over to Chicago and study at somewhere like Second City. Luckily these days there are North American improv veterans in London, which means we have some world class teaching available right on our doorstep.

By sheer coincidence, at the time of writing, I just so happen to be helping to promote some classes for Mark Beltzman – click here for details of what he’s done and what he’s teaching.

Published: 5 Dec 2012

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