Saturday, 15 January 2011

Slow and Tight

So Fast and Loose happened. Impro is finally back on mainstream TV, at least for 8 weeks anyway. We had an impro-watching party around the main event, watched some made-up-on-the-spot telly such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and Reno 911, and we watched some YouTube clips of brilliant groups like Beer.Shark.Mice and the amazing Upright Citizens Brigade (video below). which were all magnificent, but by far the central reason for our evening was Fast & Loose.

There has not been a mainstream British impro TV show since Whose Line Is It Anyway? about 15 years ago, so the expectations amongst the impro community could be felt like a build up of silence before a tidal wave hits...

So did the wave hit with the full force of a 15-year surge and a burgeoning contemporary impro scene? Well, um,... -ish... sort of like... sort of.

The twitterverse was lit with swathes of commentators. I would say it was mostly positive. Interestingly, the good complimentary stuff seemed to come from the 'normal' TV viewer. Lots of people thought it was hilarious. That is great. The dissenters, however, appeared to be people from within the improv community. There was a noticeable voice from improvisers all over the country that was disappointed and unsatisfied.

I am mixed. I thought the show was okay, but felt very calculated and safe. One if the most joyous aspects of doing impro is that the audience call out suggestions. This does two things:
1. proves that it's improvised.
2. gives the improvisers completely bat-shit crazy unexpected suggestions to work with.
There was no audience interaction whatsoever on Fast & Loose. Why the hell not? They managed it 15 years ago with Whose Line? so why take a backwards step now?

The cast list included Pippa Evans and Humphrey Ker. These are two perfectly decent improvisers who could cope with any suggestion the audience could muster. Future cast members for the series include Ruth Bratt and Dave Reed, who are also off-the-cuff masters. The Fast & Loose decision-makers are happy to use less-well-known but entirely capable improvisers, but it appears that due to some wet fear of risk-taking they also had to go down the danger-free route of stand-up comedians and a fail-safe format. The name of the show ended up being quite the opposite of the truth.

My lady-cohort observed that if you wanted to broadcast a show about mime, you would go and talk to some mime artists; find out if there was a community of people who do mime and which performers those mime artists respect most. You would work with those maestros to form the best mime format you could for your TV show and the best mimists for your cast.

Why then, didn't Fast & Loose work more with prominent people in the improvisation circuit? There are people out there who've practiced incessantly on the art of improv for years and years and are regarded as figureheads in the community. Dylan Emery is one of the creators of Showstoppers, performs in Grand Theft Impro, runs the Crunchy Frog Collective, part of the astounding School of Night and is well regarded as a bit of a powerhouse in making existing improvisers work harder and be better since he took up the mantel that Alan Marriott left behind when he moved back home to Canada.
Steve Roe almost single-handedly runs Hoopla! and you won't find anyone battling harder to get improv out of dingy pub cellars and into the public eye. He is also a brilliant improviser himself.
Katy Schutte is just about one of the best improvisers I've ever worked with and imparts the knowledge she has gained from training in (impro-Mecca) Chicago to our little island.

Any one of these people could have given Fast & Loose a list of incredible, reliable, hilarious improvisers (including themselves) who would have astounded the audience. They'd have had some pretty brilliant ideas about show formats too, that certainly wouldn't have felt as stale as F&L did for a lot of it. These are people that trust in the abilities of fellow improvisers, and prove it by performing in front of real-life audiences with them. 'Them' includes me, and I'm a long way away from the best improviser in town.

When you perform live you don't even get to edit out the poorer bits in post-production like they can with TV. If F&L producers were scared of going the whole hog and committing to impro, why didn't they learn from the success of Whose Line.. and allow the performers to fly?

Fast & Loose just didn't seem to stray that far from the sterile safety we see in Mock the Week; a show that willfully gives the impression it is impro, but is not even close:
Exhibit A It doesn't really have improvisers in it.
Exhibit B It is mostly made up of stand-up comedians.
Exhibit C Everything just looks, well.. rehearsed.


Wow. that's all pretty negative. There are positive things that came out of the Fast & Loose series debut. For a start, with the above list of evidence you can now delete Exhibit A.
F&L did actually have improvisers in it... It's a start.

Also, there were some bits that were actually impro. The dinner scene was a TV evilution of a 'Scene Replay' impro game, albeit rushed through.
The sideways floor thingy near the end was pretty much a classic 'Genre Swap' but with an added aspect you can't easily do live on stage in a room above a pub, with no budget because it's hard to get a decent-sized audience because no-one knows about improv because TV execs have been too scared to put it on TV even though everyone EVERYONE liked a show that was on 15 years ago. That game worked really well and the twitterverse was almost unanimous in it's appreciation.

So, I guess in summary; it was frustrating for improvisers or impro-fans who've seen just how good impro can be; and what can possibly be achieved live on stage. Those who have seen entire musicals and shakespearian style plays created in a moment, those who have been whisked along an intricate weave of intertwining storylines and characters, those who have seen skilled actors work together to create miraculous and hilarious things on stage... will have been rather underwhelmed.

But for anyone who doesn't know about improv and hasn't been exposed to it, well, it may have opened their eyes to a whole new form of performance that isn't the standard vanilla 'much-repeated one man stand-up routine with the same jokes coming up time and time again but with slightly different delivery'. Which can only be a good thing. It's a tentative toe-dip in an improv pool that can only be improved by a braver jump into the shallow end. And then a doggy paddle.

For impro virgins with a whetted appetite, there's so much to discover (shortform, longform, musicals, theatresports, impro soaps, harolds). If you want to discover more, don't limit yourself to a TV show that's controlled by TV executives, seek out the good stuff:

in London:
music box
grand theft impro
school of night
horse aquarium

in Brighton:
the maydays
the noise next door

anywhere else:
start from the London Improv website, and work outwards.

and then demand that TV execs allow this kind of thing to happen:

If you would like email updates, send a message to saying so.