From The Times - October 22, 2005
Still making it up as they go along
For 20 years, the Comedy Store Players have made each other laugh. Which is why improv works, says Neil Mullarkey
I t began on October 27, 1985. The Comedy Store had never before hosted a show in which people just made things up — stories, sketches and songs. Now it is the longest-running comedy show in the West End of London. Yet you have probably never heard of it. We have not won any awards, apart from the Golden Whisk, created by Mo Mowlam, who became a fan after happening upon us one Sunday night. She felt we deserved some accolade to recognise our fifteenth anniversary, so she spray-painted a kitchen implement (that being the object most commonly suggested by our audiences) and glued it to a plate purloined from the House of Commons.
Where are the team from that first night? Kit Hollerbach is a schoolteacher. Dave Cohen is a successful TV writer. Mike Myers makes movies. And I’m still there, with Josie Lawrence, Paul Merton, Lee Simpson, Andy Smart, Jim Sweeney and Richard Vranch — aka the Comedy Store Players. Twice a week, without a script, we entertain an audience of 400 using their suggestions and playing the improvisational games taught to us by Hollerbach and Myers.
Actors rely on a script and stand-up comics rely on gags. But improvisers rely on each other and the audience. We are the chicken nuggets of showbiz, wafting a bad smell around the fillet steak of stand-up and the haute cuisine of theatre.
What makes a good improviser? Well, laziness for a start. Actors and comics agonise over their lines, but we just turn up, chat in the dressing-room, do the show and have a drink. Form and content are inseparable. The joke is that you do not know what you or another player will say next. If what emerges were to be written down it would be like describing a great party by marking out a floorplan of the furniture. Context is all. Maybe we’re not chicken nuggets — more like an impromptu picnic with double espresso.
What’s our trick? We embrace fully whatever our fellow players come up with. We make something work by assuming that it will work. It’s not about quick thinking. No, “thinking” would involve stepping back, evaluating the idea, rationalising its chances of working. We short-circuit that process. Our motto is, “Yes, and . . .” rather than, “Yes, but . . .”
Our group is the only one in the world with substantially the same personnel for nearly two decades. We are failing dismally in our succession planning, but why hand things over when we are having such a good time? We do invite guest performers to fill in when a player is off doing something else. How do we select guests? By a rigorous system of caprice tempered by favouritism. What about our audience? All ages, nationalities and occupations are represented. An ad man’s dream? No, a nightmare, for there is no demographic. These people, apparently, have nothing in common. We have no idea how they find out about us.
In the recent BBC documentary about 25 years of the Comedy Store, coverage of the players merited a mere two minutes, despite the best efforts of the presenter and director Paul Merton and that we fill the place twice a week. It is obvious why — it doesn’t make good TV. It is the ultimate “you-had-to-be-there” form. Whose Line is it Anyway? succeeded where other improv projects had failed because it put Clive Anderson right in there, his random interventions serving to remind the TV audience that it was done on the hoof.
We have been approached by TV people, but our collective shrug of incredulity has soon sent them packing. Perhaps this is the secret of our longevity. We are basically a bunch of mates who turn up and make each other laugh OK, it has paid our mortgages down the years, and we did two national tours in the 1990s — but they nearly finished us off.
I used to think that I had wasted my time doing throwaway comedy instead of sitting writing something more permanent. Then it hit me — I really enjoy it. Instead of feeling guilty, I should be doing more of it! So now I earn my living going into organisations, teaching improvisation as a leadership skill. I even did a show at a management consultants’ conference, sharing the stage with a handful of raw recruits. I had half an hour to teach them the basics. I told them that if they were still breathing when they got on stage, that was 99 per cent of the battle. They stormed. A professional comic next on the bill said: “Just shows how easy it is.” I couldn’t disagree.
One night at the Store a disgruntled punter left after ten minutes with the sharp riposte: “You’re just saying things and people are laughing.” True. Yet something more is happening. Our show is about celebrating and sharing vulnerability, collectively glorying in the possibilities that can evolve when you disable your normal editing facility. And it’s funny.
The Comedy Store Players perform every Sunday and Wednesday at the Comedy Store, London SW1 (www.comedystoreplayers.com 0207-839 6642)
The jokers on the Players
“I’m surprised by how casual they are before a show. There is no pacing around or anxious muttering, no false bonhomie or competitive tension. It’s as though they actually don’t care. Of course, they do. It’s just that the best frame of mind in which to improvise is a kind of heightened relaxation.”
“Quite simply, they are the best and most consistent improv group in the known world.”
“In stand-up, you're on your own, so it's nice to have a bit of company and a real laugh. The Players are all so bloody good you can trust them to get you out of a hole if you f*** up.”
“Sometimes you have to argue with TV people over what is funny: improvising with the Players you find out instantly.”
“They complement one another beautifully, and lack the isolating ambitions of comedy groups in America. They are masters of other talents, always busy, yet the Store is their unifying playground..”
“It was as if I came from another planet with some Beatles tunes nobody knew. I showed them how to do it. But before long they were writing their own tunes that were better than the Beatles. I thought: ‘Oh dear, they’re very good.’”
“No matter what job I’ve been working on, when I walk into the dressing room I feel as though I’m home. We adore each other, sometimes we infuriate each other, but we always make each other laugh.”
“Over the past few years the Comedy Store Players have created the most authentic performances at the Globe with their spontaneous, topical and surreal improv. Their ability to improvise Shakespeare’s plays from scratch has always been a highlight.”
Thursday October 27, 2005 - The Guardian
What's my line?
Twenty years ago, Mike Myers got his British mates hooked on impro. He left the UK - but they just kept going. Brian Logan catches up with the Comedy Store Players
The Mousetrap has been running 50 years, but it never changes. Woody Allen has played jazz in the same bar every week since the 1960s, but he doesn't make you laugh when he does it. No, there's no equivalent to the Comedy Store Players, the impro group who celebrate their 20th birthday on Sunday.
Performing twice weekly in a cellar off Leicester Square, they are one of comedy's best-kept secrets: a crack squad of ad-libbers launched on a sceptical public in 1985 with the help of Mike "Austin Powers" Myers. Myers left early, bound for Wayne's World. But his fellow founders are still at it: Neil Mullarkey, Josie Lawrence and one Paul Martin, who has since improvised a new surname - Merton - and seldom misses a Sunday at the Store.
"It is," says Merton, "one of the greatest jobs in show business." His first impressions, two decades ago, were less enthusiastic. "I remember watching Mike Myers from the side of the stage and thinking, 'How do you do this? This seems to be impossible.'"
What Myers was doing was impro, "the bastard child of theatre and comedy", a type of off-the-cuff comic performance popular in North America but barely known here. In Chicago, where impro developed from social work exercises with disadvantaged children, the Second City troupe launched the careers of John Belushi and Bill Murray. In Britain, says Mullarkey, improvisation "was something people did in drama studios - being very intense, gazing into their own profundities and devising heavy plays. It was a means rather than an end."
Enter the Comedy Store Players, who began as the double act of Mullarkey and Myers, alongside Merton and the American comedian Kit Hollerbach. They were soon joined by Lawrence, musician/comedian Richard Vranch and Jim Sweeney. The Players' early gigs were double-billed with straight stand-up, says Mullarkey, "because the Comedy Store didn't believe anyone would come and see an improvised show". Indeed, the group only really took off after Myers' departure. "Because then," says Vranch, "we Brits thought, 'What are we going to do? Mike's gone. We'll have to do it our way.' " According to Myers: "It was as if I came from another planet with some Beatles tunes nobody knew. I showed them how to do it. But before long they were writing their own tunes that were better than the Beatles."
The format of a Players gig hasn't greatly changed since day one. Depending on which of several regular "games" the performers play, the audience are invited to suggest theatre styles, household objects, starting positions (someone always says "missionary"), emotions. There are often guest stars, Nicholas Parsons and Julian Clary among them. It's a bit like Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the Channel 4 show that the Players' success inspired. But there's no Clive Anderson, no point-scoring and a lot less smugness.
Twenty years on, Britain is no longer scared of spontaneity. The country's most exciting theatre company, Improbable, is, as the name suggests, impro-based - it's also run by a Comedy Store Player, Lee Simpson, and one regular guest Player, Phelim McDermott. And the Players appear annually at Shakespeare's Globe. Impro has even penetrated corporate life: Mullarkey teaches it as a leadership skill to people in suits.
So what's so great about off-the-cuff? And why, after 20 years, are people still paying to see shows on which, by the Players' own admission, no prior work is done whatsoever?
On the one hand, says Merton, "it's like your favourite band bringing out a new song every week". The Players' audiences return time and again because the material is always new. And there is a joy, says Sweeney, in seeing it generated before your eyes, "in watching people create something out of nothing, and in knowing there's always the possibility they might fail".
For the audience, it's not a relaxing spectacle. You're complicit in the show's success or failure - and failure could be excruciating. "Freud said that pleasure is the release of pain," says Mullarkey. "There's a lot of pain in impro, so there's enormous pleasure: 'Phew, he said something! Phew, he hasn't tripped himself up.'" Every laugh is a triumph against the odds, every show a celebration of spontaneous creativity.
And every spectator identifies with the performers' struggle. "In life, we all do impro all the time," says Sweeney. "We don't get up in the morning and read our script for the day. We just get through life. Impro takes that essence and puts it on a stage." Maybe that's why the response it generates can seem so profound. "When you see it work well," says Merton, "impro has got a great joy and a great lift to it. The laughter just flows and flows."
It's a particular kind of laughter, too, because impro generates particular kinds of joke. According to Mullarkey, "funnier things happen when you improvise". Improvisers aren't in control of the material they generate, he says. "People say, 'You're so quick-witted.' But it's the opposite of thinking. You don't have time to think. You go straight to your subconscious." Not surprisingly, the uncensored subconscious comes out with inspired, embarrassing, improbable stuff that most writers wouldn't dream of putting on the page.
To do all this, says Merton, "it helps enormously if you know the person well that you're on stage with". The Players are close friends, and that's what has sustained the company years after they all - Merton most obviously - could have given themselves Sunday nights off. Such is their camaraderie, they perform together like a six-person double act. "There is a joy in seeing a group of people doing something together, all serving a greater end," says Mullarkey. It's a teamwork masterclass, in which even the constant piss-taking can't conceal the performers' mutual affection. So each show becomes about the team as much as the impro. "It's not so much an improvisation show," says Sweeney, "as a show about the six of us putting on an improvisation show. And about the good time we have doing it."
All the permanent Players will be present on Sunday for the group's 20th birthday knees-up, for which they can't, alas, promise a vintage performance. "Like any other Players show," says Sweeney, "it might be good, or it might not come off. What I've always loved about the Players is that for no reason that you can pin down, on some wet Wednesday in February, the show will just fly and be brilliant. The 20th birthday should be good, too. But there's no way you can guarantee it."