Mike Myers taught them what they know. Eddie Izzard has sparred among their ranks. And after twenty-five years, London’s Comedy Store Players are still making audiences chuckle with their surrealist brand of improv comedy. This past Sunday, the Players celebrated their 25th anniversary with a special show and party that honored all of the comedians who have joined them onstage.
Co-founding member Neil Mullarkey (photo right), whom I spoke with last week, calls what the Players do “short form-improv, which are the games you see on Whose Line Is It Anyway?.” Whose Line, of course, is the British TV comedy classic that Drew Carey remade for the U.S. Many of Whose Line‘s cleverest participants – including Richard Vranch, Paul Merton, Steve Steen, and Stephen Frost – have also performed with the Comedy Store Players.
The Players’ act differs from the “long-form” improv made famous by Second City, in which you might see a whole story unfolding over a night’s performance.
“Purist improvisors might find our shows a bit too ‘gaggy”,’” said Mullarkey. “Proper improv would stick more to character and more physical work. We break the fourth wall, stepping outside the scene, because we trust each other, and we know we can come back to the scene or the story when we need to.”
Relying on audience suggestions to create scenarios that the on-stage participants then act out, the Players have kept the same improv games since 1985. During a show, the performers will exhort the crowd to shout out odd jobs, film and theater styles, and emotions. Suggestions might be “pig farmers,” “1920s silent film,” and “lustful,” and the game onstage performers will have to incorporate those ideas into their onstage tomfoolery. I witnessed some of these games during the Players’ British Comedy Invasion show, which came to New York’s Webster Hall last month.
There’s also another game called “Guess the Job,” in which the group takes suggestions on totally bizarre jobs while one performer remains offstage out of earshot. After the Players select one particularly obscure job, the offstage performer returns and must correctly guess the occupation based on clues that his cohorts randomly pepper at him.
In the beginning, Mullarkey says, audiences would shout out things like “police officer” or “accountant.” However, the Players have gotten so good at the clues that they require greater challenges.
“The jobs must now be something like ‘the person who widened the River Thames during the month of February using a badger borrowed from the French accountant who only worked on Valentine’s',” Mullarkey says.
You might think that voracious consumption of news and pop culture would be necessary for improv. But you’d be wrong: the Players avoid covering the topics du jour, like the Chilean miner’s saga.
“For the last couple of weeks, when we’ve asked for a location, someone will say ‘a mine in Chile,’” says Mullarkey. “But we say no because you can’t do much with that because it could look tasteless or it’s ‘Hey guys, we got out of it.’ We tend to only look for things that are more everyday.”
Due to the rigors of the Players’ brand of improv, Mullarkey says they’ve intentionally kept shows at the Comedy Store to two nights a week, Sunday and Wednesday. “With improv, you think, ‘What did I do last night? I can’t do that again.’ Doing an improv show every night is exhausting because you’re having to re-invent the wheel every time. You want to try and keep it fresh, so that’s why you want to try and do other stuff and take some time off. “
And taking time off has required bringing in guest performers like Izzard and Myers. Myers, in particular, is an improv genius, and “the funniest person I’ve ever encountered,” says Mullarkey. Before he was Mr. Saturday Night Live, Wayne’s World, and Austin Powers, Myers helped the group hone their skills. “He’s a real purist,” Mullarkey says. “He taught us how to do it properly, to really commit to character, and even when the scene feels like it’s going nowhere, to stick with it because something great will emerge.”
Mullarkey himself now provides consultation and training to major corporations using improv techniques. “Improv is about listening, it’s about co-creating, it’s about collaborating even with divergent points of view,” he says. “Certainly in terms of being a leader, you’re like an improv director, so you let people create their scene. You may lead them in some direction, you may say ‘A bit more of this, a bit less of that.’ Input a third idea or a third person into a scene. But you have to have a light touch. As a leader, you are not in control but you are in charge.”
With all of their outside projects, will the Players still be performing in 25 years? Mullarkey laughs and quite emphatically says yes. “Certainly, 25 years ago, I wouldn’t have thought I’d still be doing this,” he says, “and I’ve come to conclusion that I love this. I really, really enjoy this. I’m not going to give this up.
“But when I’m getting my old-age pension, will I still be able to do this physically? Will I still want to do it? Yes. Will audiences want to come and see us? Who knows. Doing jokes about Zimmer frames and catheters and false teeth? We shall see.”
How much do you enjoy improv comedy? Do you prefer it to standup?
by Kevin Wicks