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How did a stand-up comedian and improviser become a business guru?

Neil Mullarkey in the Comedy Store dressing room this week

Neil Mullarkey in the Comedy Store dressing room this week

In yesterday’s blog, I talked to Neil Mullarkey about his memories of 1980s alternative comedy.

I talked to him in the dressing room of London’s Comedy Store before he improvised two hours of comedy with The Comedy Store Players, the group of which he was a founding member in 1985.

Now, he mostly makes his living from running improvisation workshops for businessman and organisations – Improv Your Biz.

As well as this serious business guru career, Neil also occasionally pops up as spoof life coach guru L.Vaughan Spencer.

Neil’s chum PR guru Mark Borkowski advised him to distinguish between the two. So, as L.Vaughan Spencer, Neil sports a small beard and ponytail. L.Vaughan Spencer staged a show Don’t Be Needy, Be Succeedy in 2002 and, in 2008, published a book: Don’t Be Needy, Be Succeedy – The A to Zee of Motivitality.

Neil’s 2008 spoof book

L.Vaughan Spencer’s 2008 spoof book

What links Neil’s three worlds of comedy, spoof life coaching and real business training is improvisation

Neil explained: “One of my chums at the Edinburgh Fringe back in 1983 told me: I saw this brilliant show last night. – Omlette Broadcasting (Jim Sweeney, Steve Steen, Justin Case, Peter Wear). They were improvising. And I couldn’t believe it was possible. I thought: They must take a suggestion from the audience and then steer it towards the thing they’d already planned. In a sketch format, I didn’t realise you could do Funny without planning.”

“And you met Mike Myers,” I prompted, “who went on to do the Austin Powers films.”

“Yes,” said Neil. “I met him when he was selling tickets for the Cambridge Footlights show I was in at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, London, and he made me laugh.

“He told me he had been at Second City in Canada and that was where my heroes were from. My heroes were John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd. The Blues Brothers was the thing I wanted to do. American comedy was what I loved. American sitcom. And Mike told me about improv where it’s about ‘accepting offers’.

“When The Comedy Store Players perform, we are each listening intently to what the others are saying. Someone will throw me a line and I will take it on. Instead of thinking No, no, no, that’s not what I am saying – which is called ‘a block’ – I will take the other person’s line – ‘accepting the offer’. The more Mike told me about the whole ethos of improv, the more I said: This is intriguing! This is fantastic!”

Mike Myers (left) and Neil Mullarkey perform at Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club in 1986 (Photo by Bill Alford)

Mike Myers (left) and Neil Mullarkey perform at Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club in 1986 (Photograph by Bill Alford)

“And,” I said to Neil, “you teamed-up and performed in Britain as Mullarkey & Myers in the early years of alternative comedy.”

“Yes,” said Neil, “we did quite physical visual parody sketches”

“Did you think of going over to America when Mike moved back?”

“I visited him a few times. We did our show in Toronto and the audiences got it. When I visited America, I did quite like being the foreigner. You become more English when you’re in America, because people say: Do that accent! I’m pretty English anyway, I suppose, even though I’ve got an Irish name and I was brought up in France for my early life. I went to LA a few times and thought This is great to visit, but I don’t want to live here. I like England and I like London.

“Mike wanted me to go and write on Saturday Night Live, but I fell in love with someone in Britain.”

“You fell in love and your partner wanted to stay here?”

“Yes. I did help Mike with the script on a film called So I Married An Axe Murderer, which was great fun… but I’m doing the thing I want to do now.”

“At what point did you get into your corporate teaching guru hat?” I asked. “And why? Was there one trigger for that?”

“In the late-1990s,” said Neil, “I thought: Do I want to be doing this when I’m 50?

“Going on stage in front of a drunken comedy audience?”

“Yes, a bit of that. But also, when you are an older comedian, you’re not as interesting to people in TV and radio. They want Who is the new person on the block? They want Who is the same age as me? – They don’t want to discover somebody that’s already been discovered.

Two complementary improv worlds shown on Neil's website

Two complementary improv worlds shown on Neil’s website

“I also found that the vehicle for most comedy on TV and radio was the panel show. It tends to be quite combative and un-collaborative and I’m not very good at that. But also, philosophically and psychologically, I was looking at other things. I was interested in how organisations and businesses function. My degree is in psychology, sociology and economics, so I was always interested in that.

“I suppose the big thing was I met a man called Frank Farrelly who created Provocative Therapy… Provocative Therapy uses humour to help people get better.”

“What does Provocative Therapy provoke?” I asked.

“It sounds confrontational,” said Neil, “but what you do is satirize people’s self-limiting beliefs in order to help them achieve mental health. You assume the answer – the solution – is within themselves.

If you say I want to give up smoking, I’ll say Why? Smoking is fantastic! It’s really cool – You should be smoking more! And then they go: Wait a minute. This isn’t what I expected and they begin to think Why DO I want to give up smoking?

“Frank Farrelly’s idea is that you hold up a weird hall of mirrors to people to make them look at themselves and think Hang on! What IS it I want?

Neil Mullarkey - inspirational businessman

Neil Mullarkey – inspirational and provocative businessman

“In improv, you basically treat what the other person has to say as an ‘offer’. You have choices of how to react to that offer. That works in the improv scenario. If you transfer that to business or organisational life and treat what your fellow employees or team say as an offer, then you have to figure out how you can accept their offer positively to say Yes AND rather than Yes BUT… It is an intent listening… Intentive listening.”

“Intentive?” I asked.

“It’s a word I made up,” said Neil. “It means you are listening with intent. You are so focussed on the other person that you pick up their threads.

“Provocative therapy is about accepting ‘the offer’ – like in improv – and almost taking it to absurd heights… How many cigarettes do you smoke in a day? 20 a day? No. You should be smoking 200. Can you make that a promise? 200? 

“Sometimes the client gets angry, sometimes they’re laughing. But what is going on is they are processing thoughts. They may be visualising themselves and thinking It’s absurd smoking 20 if I want to give up. Why am I not just giving up?”

“But surely,” I said, “if you use this technique with businessmen, they’ll think you are being sarcastic?”

“Well I do it. I am just teasing them. Frank Farrelly said you’re just teasing people back to mental health.

“I went to see him at his home in Wisconsin. then he came over to the Netherlands to do a workshop and I discovered all these people. What do you do? – I’m an executive coach – I had never heard of that. Loads of people from Belgium. I gradually found this other world of coaching business executives – as well as arts-based training in the business world.”

“Arts-based training?” I asked.

“Basically using theatre, art, music to help people do their job better. Whether it’s to work better as a team, to be more creative, to be a better leader, whatever.”

“It sounds like executives paintballing to bond with each other,” I said, “but indoors.”

“That’s what it is,” said Neil. “But my contention is Why go build a raft and do paintballing? – That has nothing to do with your job. Do something that is relevant to your job – and what is the thing you most do in a job? You talk to other people. So here is a ready-made philosophy – improvisation – which actually started in the 1920s in Chicago as part of the New Deal. Social workers helping children who were diffident in class, didn’t speak English as their first language… Exercises to enhance their confidence..

Comic Neil Mullarkey knows how to flirt and schmooze

Comic Neil Mullarkey knows how to flirt, schmooze, network

“That was done by a woman called Viola Spolin and, 30 years later, her son Paul Sills created what became The Second City theatre company that Mike Myers and I talked about.”

“So,” I said, “Provocative Therapy helps business people to schmooze.”

“You can use improv to flirt, to schmooze, to network,” said Neil. “Any word you want to use because – really – it is just listening with intent. When people are laughing, they’ll learn more. You can blindside them with funny.”

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Comedian Lewis Schaffer’s strange offer of Edinburgh Fringe show sponsorship

In Soho - Peter Goddard - He’s a nice guy!

Yesterday, I blogged about problems over free shows at the Edinburgh Fringe and quoted one of the most prominent free performers, London-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer.

He crops up in quite a few of my blogs.

I like to have subsidiary characters and plot threads running through my blogs so that anyone regularly reading the blogs can – or, if I were to turn them into an annual e-book, anyone reading the chronological collected blogs could – follow these threads as they develop.

I recently encouraged Lewis Schaffer to start his own blog, which means he occasionally mentions me in his blog.

I aspire to being a subsidiary character myself.

Yesterday, in his blog, Lewis Schaffer wrote about his show the previous night (pay attention, dear reader): “My personal blogger John Fleming was there last night with the ‘un-named’ woman who makes his presence bearable – actually he is a welcome sight for anyone who wishes to be loved and accepted as an artist.”

I think this has the semi-unfortunate side-effect of making me seem a little creepy but – hey! – a little creepy gets you noticed.

The other slightly odd thing Lewis Schaffer wrote in his blog yesterday was: “Peter Goddard – the man whose hair I was stroking – he’s a nice guy – told me afterward that I had the audience laughing many times but stopped them as if I didn’t like them enjoying themselves.”

Stroking a man’s hair during a gig where the comedian tries to stop the audience laughing may seem odd enough but what, you might ponder, is with the odd sentence construction: “Peter Goddard – the man whose hair I was stroking – he’s a nice guy – told me…”??

Well, this goes back to two nights ago, when I saw Lewis Schaffer’s ongoing twice-weekly show Free Until Famous in London’s Soho.

There was a man there who laughed throughout. It turned out he was this Peter Goddard.

After the show, Peter Goddard, his female friend, Lewis Schaffer and my eternally-un-named friend had a meal in Soho and Peter Goddard decided he wanted to sponsor the publicity  costs of Lewis Schaffer’s Edinburgh Fringe show in August.

Peter Goddard had thought the whole idea through before he came to the gig.

The only thing he wanted in return was that a picture of his head and his hand giving a thumbs-up sign should appear in the corner of every flyer and every poster for Lewis Schaffer’s show with the slogan “PETER GODDARD – HE’S A NICE GUY!”

He had loved Lewis Schaffer’s show that night. So did Lewis Schaffer. They both loved the fact it had been ‘uncomfortable’.

“Being in your show tonight,” said Peter Goddard, “was like sitting INSIDE The Office as opposed to sitting at home, watching The Office on TV. If you watch The Office on TV, you can laugh. If you were actually sitting inside The Office itself for real, you wouldn’t laugh. It would be very uncomfortable. Imagine going to a comedy club and not being sure if the comedian was David Brent or Ricky Gervais.”

That was what Peter Goddard said. And that was why he had enjoyed Lewis Schaffer’s show so much.

Lewis Schaffer was – of course – this is Lewis Schaffer, after all – indecisive about the idea.

“What do you get out of it?” Lewis Schaffer asked Peter Goddard.

“Nothing,” Peter Goddard replied. “It’s just funny… and I’m a nice guy.”

“It would have to be a photo of you with a cheesy grin,” I suggested, “like you were recommending a hamburger or a washing machine in some naff 1950s ad.”

“Yes, yes,” agreed Peter Goddard.

“I flyer for myself in Edinburgh,” Lewis Schaffer said. “People are going to ask me a thousand times – five thousand times – who you are and what you get out of it. It’ll drive me crazy talking about you and not talking about me. I hand out 5,000 flyers in Edinburgh.”

“You just say,” I suggested. “Peter Goddard – He’s a nice guy… That’s all I am contractually allowed to say.

“What do you do?” Lewis Schaffer asked Peter Goddard.

“I’m a project manager for banks,” Peter Goddard replied.

Lewis Schaffer looked at me. I looked at Lewis Schaffer.

“I think it’s a great idea,” I said.

Afterwards, I asked Lewis Schaffer, “How long have you known him?”

“I’ve met him twice but I only remember meeting him once. Maybe more. But I don’t remember. I don’t know why he chose me.”

I opened my mouth to say something.

“I don’t know,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“It’s a great idea,” I told him. “It will get you attention and get your posters and flyers talked about, like Cockgate. Well, not quite as much as that.”

“As what?”

“Cockgate.”

“Ah…”

Lewis Schaffer pondered this for a few long seconds.

“Do I want that?” he asked me.

“Yes,” I told him. “It’s at least worth two-inch pieces in three or four newspapers or magazines during the Fringe.”

“Ah,” he said.

We said nothing for a few long seconds.

“Even saying No comment to 5,000 people would drive me crazy,” he said. “I want to be talking to them about Lewis Schaffer.”

We said nothing for a few long seconds.

“Tomorrow I could contact MegaBus,” Lewis Schaffer eventually said, “They could be my tour sponsor. Peter Goddard could sponsor my Edinburgh Fringe publicity and MegaBus could sponsor my Free Until Famous tour…  £1 Until Famous.”

“But,” I suggested, “maybe you don’t get people with disposable incomes taking the MegaBus. Are they your target audience for comedy shows where you want people to give you as much money as they can at the end of the show?”

“You’re not going to see famous people take the coach,” said Lewis Schaffer “£1 Until Famous… In New York, I got free Oliver Peoples glasses for travelling by bus. They are the glasses of choice of American psychos.”

“Have you stopped drinking?” I asked Lewis Schaffer.

“I’ve stopped drinking,” replied Lewis Schaffer.

“What about Peter Goddard?” asked my eternally-un-named friend, as the three of us walked through Soho.

“He’s a nice guy,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“It’s a start,” I said.

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