There seem to be comedy improvisation shows all over London at the moment. If comedy is the new rock ’n’ roll, then I guess improvisation is like the occasional fad for long guitar riffs.
I have mentioned in a previous blog that, when I was a student (around the time Louis XIV was on the throne of France), I saw Keith Johnstone’s seminal weekly Theatre Machine in Hampstead.
I have also blogged before about the comedy improvisation show Set List, when it was the sleeper comedy hit at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.
It started small but gathered extraordinary word-of-mouth, especially among performers and, despite venue and time changes which would have scuppered other Fringe shows, it very quickly had full houses and ‘Name’ comics lining up, desperate to perform and – just as important – to be seen to perform. It was a show with prestige among comedians.
Last night, ending a run at the Soho Theatre in London, Set List had a packed audience, up for anything, full of anticipation at attending an ‘event’.
You know you are onto a winner if your first-on-the-bill is the wonderful Rich Hall, your final act Andrew Maxwell has ploughed through Saturday night London traffic from a performance in Greenwich to take part in your show and, when a billed act drops out, you can get a last-minute stand-in of the calibre of Dave Gorman.
Quite how this ‘hot ticket’ feeling happens is almost always beyond comprehension.
Of course, it helps that the man behind Set List is Paul Provenza director of the cult comedy industry documentary The Aristocrats, (who flew over from Los Angeles to attend the last few shows) and that his man on British soil is the well-connected comic Matt Kirshen, but there is also very shrewd marketing going on.
The sense of anticipation last night (in an audience who had overwhelmingly not seen Set List before) was built-up partly by its late start – there’s nothing like being stuck in an over-crowded entrance hallway filled with chatty Guardian readers for 20 minutes to build a sense of up-market expectation – but also by an on-stage screen which, as the room filled up, was flashing rave quotes about the show from publications and, surprisingly, one from the excellent rising comic Diane Spencer.
There are currently bigger comedy names than Diane Spencer, but I suspect the Set List originators have rightly thought, “She is likely to become very successful,” and are getting into her good books early.
Shrewd marketing. If the punters recognise her name, they give themselves a pat on the back for having their fingers on the pulse. If that is physically possible.
All improvisation shows are, by their nature, a variable ride, but the (justified) self-aggrandisement of Set List works wonders. You are left in no doubt from the flyers, pre-show build-up and great sales technique of compere Matt Kirshen that you are attending an ‘event’ of some importance and that you are a superior punter for having chosen to be there.
Of course, it also helps that, unlike most improvisation shows which have built-in safety-nets of pre-prepared arcs and relationships, Set List is genuinely improvised by the comics and often savagely exposes comedians who are falling back on their own old material or who cannot link the six bizarre topic titles they are given.
If they perform six little separate routines based round the six given phrases, it does not work. They look like open-spot beginners.
But, if they can knit the six unconnected Set List topics together with one or more ongoing subject threads, then they can soar – as Rich Hall did last night with Alaska, grisly bears and Sarah Palin working wonders for him.
He triumphed, but I think the reason top comedians want to perform on Set List is really because it is creatively dangerous. The risk of falling off the comedy high-wire is greater because the performers are not in as much control as in a normal stand-up act and, as I have written before in this blog, I think comedians are a bunch of masochists with an urge to fail.