What, exactly, are the origins of improv? We speak to a cast member of Whose Line Is it Anyway? to find out.
Whose Line Is it Anyway in the UAE
The concept of live, improvised comedy may sound relatively harmless, but this branch of the humour business is surprisingly rich with intrigue. Impro – as older UK acts tend to call it – has left a trail of cliques, furious comedians and contentious TV shows in its wake. They even argue about what actually constitutes improvisation.
“I’ve heard of some groups,” says Steve Steen, a stalwart of the British impro scene, “who will take suggestions from an audience then say ‘we’re just going to take a 20-minute break’ while they go away and work out the things. Well, excuse me, that’s not really improvisation: if you want to be spontaneous we need it to happen now. Which is what we do, anyway.”
Steen is at the InterContinental Abu Dhabi on Sunday night and in Dubai from Thursday to Saturday with the Whose Line Is it Anyway? tour, a successful spin-off from the long-running TV series. That show popularised impro in the UK, then in the US, then beyond and the format remains robustly simple: four or more comics playing silly games based on audience suggestions. Not that it always seemed destined to succeed.
Whose Line …? began in 1988 as a slightly flawed BBC radio show (“Radio is the worst place for it,” says Steen, “as they could be reading from scripts”), and the practice had previously been deeply unfashionable. “When I was learning my trade, improvisation was a dirty word,” the veteran performer says. “Actors said ‘Oh no, I only use that as an exercise to further my career’. That got it a bad name.” Undeterred, Steen took to improvised comedy in the 1970s, and even recalls performing it at a rustic UK festival with the future Austin Powers star, Mike Myers. The visiting Canadian comic was an influential presence on British impro, passing on the skills he learnt at Chicago’s famous Second City troupe, whose alumni also includes talents such as Bill Murray, John Candy and Steve Carell. Myers went on to co-found the UK’s best-known impro collective, the Comedy Store Players, in 1985, before heading to the US and superstardom.
Meanwhile many of the remaining Players also became household names, as mainstays of Whose Line ...? which quickly transferred from British radio to TV. Despite being a huge hit, neither the show nor the Players were universally popular. Other comics “hated the cliquey, sniffy, slight exclusiveness”, admits Steen, a regular on the TV version, and with the live troupe.
Sound reasoning actually informed that uncompromising selection process: not everyone can improvise. Steen recalls guest comedians who ruined sketches by shoehorning in polished material, whereas impro requires a different ethos. “When you walk into a dressing room full of comedians, you’re aware that there’s a certain amount of ego,” he explains. “We can’t afford to have that in a team event.”
Another criticism aimed at Whose Line ...? was its supposed smugness, as Oxbridge-educated comics showed off their cultural knowledge and alienated much of the audience. “They used to have the ‘authors game’, but it wasn’t necessary,” Steen concedes. “It’s a far more accessible form of entertainment for the general public than the TV show allowed. We’ve taken the show all over the world, for all kinds of people.”
The UK show ended in 1998, after which a US version began, featuring star guests such as Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg. That series was cancelled in 2003 but regularly repeated as the cast continued to tour and the show has now been recommissioned, to widespread approval. Impro remains a hot live ticket, meanwhile. Steen’s troupe travel the world, their regular guest Eddie Izzard has made improvised stand-up into a huge arena spectacle, and a new format is causing much excitement: Set List.
The brainchild of the US comic Paul Provenza, Set List is a live event and forthcoming TV show in which individual comics must instantly conjure a stand-up routine from random subjects. “I’ve done it and it’s fantastic,” enthuses Steen. “But I’ve seen people in the dressing room literally white-faced before they go on.”
Impro is not for everyone, but the specialists on this latest trip – Steve Frost, Ian Coppinger, Andy Smart, Carl Kennedy and Steen – enjoy the benefits. “It’s lazy man’s theatre, really,” laughs the latter. “No costume, no props, no rehearsal. We just turn up and do it.”
All they really need is an audience.
• Whose Line Is it Anyway? is at the Madinat Theatre, Dubai, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday (8pm, Dh195), and the InterContinental, Abu Dhabi, on Sunday (8pm, Dh150). For reservations, call 04 366 6546 or visit www.madinattheatre.com
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