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

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.

On this week’s Off Topic podcast, Laurence Mackin and Patrick Freyne wanted to learn about this forbidding art, so they invited a few practitioners to The Irish Times.

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”.

To find out more, listen to our weekly arts podcast Off Topic. It’s embedded in this article and available in soundcloud and itunes.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.