Is improv better? You couldn’t make it up!

Paul Ricketts prefers a solo experience

I’m not a huge fan of improv, but when it’s done well, it’s hugely entertaining combining audience participation and instant quick witted characterisation. Yet I can’t agree with Gareth Morinan’s Correspondents piece that improv is better or ‘more enjoyable/fulfilling/rewarding’ than stand-up.

I didn’t realise that the two were in competition, but I believe improv is just different from stand-up but not better. It’s like apples or pears – I prefer apples. Apart from the obvious fact that improvisation is an important part of stand-up, I’m going to argue for the art form by perverting Morinan’s points.

Stand-up is/not a solitary activity

You’re not forced to spend time working with others. It’s your opinions, your observations and your view on life or view of the world. You can talk about anything you want as long as it’s funny – that’s almost boundless freedom to say and do what you want. Plus you get to spend time with other funny comedians, in clubs, pubs or cars.

OK, some may be competitive or annoying but generally there is a genuine sense of camaraderie. No comic wants another to die (comedy competitions excepted) for the selfish reason that the better the night goes, the better everyone does. Plus I’ve seen plenty of improv nights where individuals rampantly upstage their fellow performers, ruining the night. In stand-up there’s no one else to blame or share the limelight, it’s all down to you.

You have your material

Whether you have something to say or just shamelessly going for laughs, it’s your material, you wrote it. And it’s not a recital; it’s a performance, which has to be honed and perfected. Plus to do this successfully you have to ‘stay in the moment’, which could mean editing, chopping, changing or improvising (we used to call it ‘ad-libbing’) on a heckle or comments from the audience. It’s this continuous evolution in performance and material which makes stand-up exciting and satisfying.

You can’t get better without an audience

I love listening to an audience laugh at something I’ve said – there’s no better way to find out what works! And while all live performers have a love/hate relationship with audiences, if I bomb I know it’s nearly always my fault. It’s a harsh but fair way to learn. Morinan mentions the dispiriting open spot circuit but do you learn more from doing improv in front of 12 ‘resting’ actors?

The scene isn’t imploding

The public are still interested in stand-up as TV shows and sales of comic’s DVDs still attests. However I’m amazed that the live circuit thought it would be immune from the longest recession since the Seconnd World War. I don’t know if I’m happy to say this, but stand-up is still seen as a good stepping stone for some performers – who might not overly care for the art form - to get into TV or other parts of the media.

In a way, stand-up is mainly a victim of its own success, as the supply of new comics continues to grow. So from a personal point of view perhaps some of you should try improv!

It is once again permeating into the mainstream

Of course TV execs will be interested in a new live format as seen in last year’s short-lived improvisational comedy series Fast And Loose. But they won’t be commissioning new shows because, as Morinan argues, improv is cheaper to produce than stand-up. An improv troupe has more members and his point that you’re not ‘paying someone to write a comedy’ is erroneous. You only have to pay the stand-up to perform their material – it all comes in one neat package.

Improv is actually a widely used writing tool in America

It is here too, in shows like Twenty Twelve or The Thick Of It. But I’m sure that Chris Rock or Bill Hicks never felt the need to ‘hone their skills’ in improv theatres.

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

No argument from me here, improv can help create comedy. I’ve used it myself (we used to call it ‘jokey conversations’).

There are none of the stresses associated with potential financial gain

As James Mullinger points out elsewhere on this website, performing stand-up is the best job in the world. I’ve been more stressed out (and depressed) doing many other jobs – teaching, journalism or market research. It wasn’t the fact that I could potentially earn more money doing these jobs that made me chuck them in.

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

So does stand up. But I think stand-up has the advantage that, like me, you can learn on the job. However if you do feel the need to do a course then I recommend this one – which I’m not financially involved in - featuring renown stand-ups John Gordillo, Ivor Dembina, Nick Revell and Dave Thompson.

Published: 10 Dec 2012

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