The percentage likelihood of strange things happening is almost always mis-quoted by the media. For example, the odds against any one specific person being killed by a pig falling on his or her head are VERY high. It is very unlikely ever happen to you yourself or to any specific, named individual. But the odds of some one person being killed by a falling pig somewhere in the world at any time during your lifetime are much lower. It is highly likely to happen
Shit happens all the time to everyone. All sorts of unique, bizarre, seemingly impossible shit. Which brings me to comedy improvisation.
I am a tad wary of improvisation groups perhaps because, when I was a student, I used to go most weeks to see shows called Theatre Machine supervised by Keith Johnstone at the Freemason’s Arms pub in Hampstead. Keith later went on to create Theatresports. His earlier Theatre Machine shows were so effective and so entertaining that it arguably ruined me for any other improvisation groups.
The other problem is that, by their nature, improvisation groups are often reliant on their audiences for inspiration.
On Tuesday, I went to see The Couch at The Miller pub behind Guy’s Hospital, near London Bridge. The venue has different impro groups each week and this week there were nine improvisers – possibly four people too many but all very good and – strange but true – they included Mensa’s former financial director Neil Goulder.
They were uniformly good as performers and improvisers, but two of their sketches showed the difficulties of the art. Two good punters suggested two good sketches, but one routine was doomed from the start by its very origin.
The successful one started with pulling one punter out of the audience and asking him about his childhood to provide the bare bones of the sketch. It turned out that, as a child, his hobby was, in all truth, keeping and breeding small creatures – principally snails, butterflies and wood lice. This was a pure gift for the comedy improvisers. It also turned out that the punter’s brother had accidentally trodden on and killed his favourite snail called (I’m not sure this can be true) Eric. Starting from those basic facts, the improvised comedy sketch could almost not fail. And it didn’t.
The other sketch, though, was doomed from the start because its original basis was so deeply bizarre that nothing the troupe could ever improvise could ever have made the story stranger. Funny haha stood no chance of outshining funny peculiar and it reaffirmed my belief that, if you pluck a punter at random from anywhere – a bus queue, a venue audience, the cheese aisle in Tesco – they will have the most extraordinary true stories in them. Because shit happens to everyone. All sorts of unique, bizarre, seemingly impossible shit.
This particular punter was asked what his most disastrous romantic date had been.
There was a pause before he replied: “Oh, there have been soooo many…”
The audience laughed.
He then talked about a date in which he had taken his prospective girlfriend to a restaurant. Halfway through the meal, she had an epileptic fit. He tried to help her as she writhed on the floor. But the other diners and restaurant staff thought he had been in some way responsible for what had happened – they thought perhaps he had given her Rohypnol or some other drug. The police were called and dragged him off into custody.
This sounds like the perfect basis for a dark comedy because it is so bizarre, but it was and is too bizarre. There was and is no way of exaggerating the reality into comedy. The truth was so beyond belief that there is no way of manipulating it and comedy usually requires the re-arrangement of reality. When the improvisers tried to recreate the event in three different movie genre styles it was partly successful but ultimately anti-climactic.
The improvisers had and have my sympathy. They stood no chance, through no fault of theirs, which exposes the odds against improvisational comedy being successful; by its nature, it is always hit-and-miss; you are sometimes totally dependent on the audience. The only thing that might have worked would have been to follow the late Malcolm Hardee’s Three Golden Rules of comedy as expressed on page 173 of his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake:
1. If in doubt, wobble about.
2. If that don’t work, fall over.
3. If that don’t work – knob out!
The third is, perhaps, not a practical option for everyone.