Improvised comedy is an interesting beast. I spent two years improvising in a university comedy society, performing regularly in the student pub down the road and even collaborating with another group in the Netherlands. So I feel like I know how it all works – the rules (No. 1: never contradict or ‘block’ someone else’s factual statement in a scene. No. 2: accept you will be made to look ridiculous), the various games, the tricks you learn to make these games work, the different kinds of improviser (scene hogger, straight man/woman, one liner machine) and the exhilaration that comes from making an audience laugh with something you made up on the spot.
So I came to two improv shows at the Fringe with a relatively trained eye, eager to see how other troupes worked. I’ll start with another university based group, Blind Mirth, who hail from St Andrews. They take to the stage in matching baseball jackets, and having both explained the basics of improv and ‘warmed up’ the audience by getting them to shout out words en masse, they start the short form games section of the show with a World’s Worst – similar to Scenes We’d Like to See from Mock the Week – which is less than impressive. Since it’s a game entirely based on the invention of one liners, it’s not the best to play before your performers have fully warmed up their funny bones in scenes. Next, they decide to play the Alphabet Game, which doesn’t go well either. (This game consists of two performers acting out a scene with each of their lines starting with a letter of the alphabet. So: Player A says ‘I don’t want to go swimming!’ Player B replies ‘Just get in the water!’ Player A ‘Kill me instead.’ You get it. It’s great as an exercise for encouraging improvisers to think quickly and creatively, but it doesn’t make for a very interesting scene to watch – it’s usually funnier for the performers.) Fortunately though, as the show progresses Blind Mirth come on leaps and bounds. I encounter new games – there’s Bamaloof, where performers define nonsense words in the style of a dictionary entry, and the one liner game ‘Sex With Me Is Like…’ is so funny my friends and I play it for ages in the pub afterwards. (Sex with me is like the Edinburgh Fringe: exciting at first, but eventually leaves you poor and exhausted.) The long form section of Blind Mirth’s show is particularly funny and well-executed. Using a game called Slackers, the group play a series of scenes connected by characters to create a narrative. I’ve tried several different long form games and they can get pretty complicated – Blind Mirth manage to develop amusing and distinctive characters, and although the game lacks a structure that will drive a plot, this follows naturally in the wake of character interaction and allows the performers to improvise more freely. Best of all, Blind Mirth spend their entire show looking like they are thoroughly enjoying themselves – something which definitely rubs off on the audience.
Whilst Blind Mirth did their paid improv show in a theatre space, A to Z Improv Comedy put on their PBH Free Fringe show in a cosy pub called Kilderkin (which I highly recommend if you’re ever at the bottom of the Royal Mile in search of a drink). This is a group of older performers and they do not bounce onto the stage with the enthusiasm of Blind Mirth – in fact the first host seems nervous, doesn’t explain the games clearly enough for improv newcomers and worst of all, spends the whole show chewing gum. Off-putting. Like Blind Mirth, A to Z play the Alphabet Game early on with similarly uninspiring results, but unlike the St Andrews group it does not get better from there. In one game of ‘Change,’ the performers take the suggestion ‘pizza’ and adopt terrible Italian accents for the entire scene. In another, a character is given Tourettes as a ‘quirk,’ which is offensive and a cheap way to get laughs. (Sadly, it does.) There are stronger performers who attempt to pull the others up by keeping scenes on track, and the host for the second half of the show is much more confident in her manner, but these can’t be relied on to make a good show. Fundamentally, their choice of games is fine, but each one outstays its welcome and risks boring the audience.
Perhaps it seems harsh to judge shows that are made up on the spot, based on audience suggestions and different every night. But hey, that’s improv – and that’s reviewing.