The secret to comedy improv, with Alison Spittle, Neil Curran and Danny Kehoe
Practitioners of the toughest gig in comedy talk us through the secrets of improv on this week’s Off Topic Podcast
Alison Spittle describes the Set List improv show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as the most exhilirating thing she’s ever done. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
What do American comedians like Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler and Stephen Colbert have in common? They’re effortlessly funny, they never seem “on the spot”, and they all have a background in comedy improvisation.
Never as popular here as in the US, comedy improv in Ireland is gaining a following, says Neil Curran, an improv teacher and performer. And it’s what gives the best comedians their superhuman ability to withstand the spotlight.
“It’s the fear factor. Really when you’re learning improv, what you’re learning it to not care what other people think of you, and just to lose that fear of being on the spot.”
Alison Spittle, currently performing in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, describes doing its Set List night as “the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done in my life. I was so scared I was eating so many Beroccas. With improv, the relationship between the audience and the performer is very important. They have to trust you. Once you get your first laugh there is a contract of trust there and you can go whatever way you like, and they trust there will be a laugh at the end.” Her set that night? It was a riff on “jellyfish complaints”.
Getting on stage and making up a funny story is certainly daunting for most of us. But the first rule of improv club, says actor Danny Kehoe, is: don’t try to be funny.
“I liken it to the person at the party. We’ve all been at a party where there’s someone trying to be funny. And what happens is you avoid that person like the plague, don’t you? Because they’re just trying to be funny, you’re not really there, you’re not listening. It’s just waiting till they stop talking, till it’s my turn to say something.”
Curran agrees. “It’s meant to be an egoless art form. We’re there to serve the team and the show as opposed to serve ourselves. As an improviser you spot someone who’s going for the gag straight away.”
So if you’re not trying to be funny, what’s the point? Selflessness is the key, says Danny Kehoe. Set up your partner, so they can get laughs.
“If I’m listening to you and all my energy is ‘I’m going to give him a big laugh’, and you’re thinking the same thing, we can’t possibly go wrong”.