Culture

Why You Should Give Improv A Go This Comedy Season

It's not all bad. Trust us.

American improvisers dominate the podcasts we listen to, the films we watch and the TV we binge. Say the word “improv” to someone in Australia, though, and you’re more likely to be met with an eyeroll than a show of support. But that’s about to change.

Would you believe me if I said that some of the best shows at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival weren’t scripted? Some of the very best comedy being performed over the next couple of weeks will be fully improvised — not rehearsed and never to be repeated, comedy as ephemeral as a vape cloud.

Improv is more of a fixture than ever in this year’s MICF Guide, and its growing popularity across Australia seems to be following our usual pattern of replicating America’s trends a decade or three late. Improv is on the precipice of explosion here in Australia, just like it was in the States all those years ago.

Contrary to what you might have heard, the rise of improv in Australia is actually worth being excited about. Because not only is it very funny when done right, it’s also a proven hunting ground for the next generation of award-winning comedic talent.

America’s Improv-to-SNL-to-Hollywood Conveyor Belt

Pop quiz: what do Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey have in common, apart from having lots of awards and featuring heavily in my vision board?

If you guessed that they all did improv then your ability to pick up context clues is on point. But the point stands: improv has produced some of America’s finest performers this century. In fact, an article published in Splitsider found that of the 115 cast members to have been on SNL between 1975 and 2013, nearly half of them were cherry-picked from improv schools like Second City, Groundlings or UCB.

Improv has also proven itself as a jumpstart for underground and indie comedy success stories. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, the performers behind Broad City, met at UCB improv school — working on it as a self-funded web series and even performing a version of the show (called Broad City Live) on the UCB stage before it got greenlit by Comedy Central.

It doesn’t matter if it’s comedy blockbusters, niche web series, podcasts — it’s hard to deny the presence of improv training and sensibility at almost every level of America’s entertainment industry.

So when will Australia’s industry follow suit? For some of this country’s most exciting writers and performers, it already has.

The Aussie Improvisers Taking Over Our Screens

Hayley Tantau — better known by her “high-kicking, glass-smashing” character, Cindy Salmon — is one of the comedians poised to follow in the footsteps of improv greats like Amy Poehler.

After a successful turn writing and performing as Cindy Salmon for Foxtel’s sketch comedy series The Slot, Tantau was a recipient of the coveted Moosehead Award this year, given to exciting comic performers to help fund ambitious show concepts. She’s putting the money towards Empowerful, her hour show as Cindy Salmon at this year’s festival.

But Tantau is also a regular improviser at Melbourne’s The Improv Conspiracy, and she credits improv as a cornerstone of her success across live performance and television.

“Improv has helped me so much as a creative — it’s writing, acting, editing, and directing all in one scene, on the spot — without all the utensils” says Tantau.

“There is so much more improv in the US — if you’re very talented, lucky and hardworking it can take you into writer’s rooms, acting in sitcoms, or it can take you to Saturday Night Live. It seems like a huge part of comedy communities, whereas in Australia it’s still picking up steam”.

Ben Russell — known for ABC’s Aaron Chen Tonight, Comedy Central’s Gocsy’s Classics — knows firsthand the difference between Aussie and US improv, having graduated from prestigious improv programs at The Second City and iO in Chicago. Russell describes Chicago as a place where “improv and sketch is king”.

“[Whereas] Melbourne is the stand-up comedy capital of Australia, so improv is very much the underdog” he says. “But it’s changed a lot even from when I first moved here from Chicago nearly five  years ago. You have a dedicated longform improv theatre like Improv Conspiracy which just seems to be getting more and more popular.

“I think improv is becoming less of a punchline in Australia and taken a little more seriously.”

And it’s not just the Melbourne scene producing some exciting new talent. Improv Theatre Sydney and Giant Dwarf Theatre are developing the next generation of Sydney improvisers and from Perth’s Just Improvise to Brisbane’s ImproMafia, improv schools are popping up across the country, nurturing a slow-but-sure takeover of our TV screens.

So, Who Do I See This Comedy Season?

Okay, so we’ve established that seeing improv shows gives you your best chance to clock the next Tina Fey, Amy Poehler or Donald Glover. The only question remaining, then, is who do you actually go see?

The show that gets the big tick of approval from both Hayley Tantau and Ben Russell is Snort, “Auckland’s favourite comedy improv troupe”, who are performing late into the night at the Victoria Hotel in the CBD.

Hayley gives an additional shout-out to The Level Sevens, a team of Improv Conspiracy-trained performers who invite famous/semi-famous storytellers to their shows and use their personal anecdotes to inspire an hour of improv. The Bear Pack and Victorian Avant-garde Artists Society both perform critically-acclaimed improv, and to catch Ben Russell and Hayley Tantau (as Cindy Salmon) improvising on the same line-up, catch Crowdwork at midnight on April 7th.

Sydney Comedy Festival begins the day after Melbourne International Comedy Festival ends, and its guide features an amazing selection of improv shows like Impro Australia’s Battle of the Champions or Post-ITS’ Boom Time.

These recommendations only scratch the surface of the great improv happening in Australia right now. Just remember — when you’re putting together your stand-up show itinerary, say yes to adding an improv show in there. Yes and.

Alistair Baldwin is a writer and comedian. Follow him on Twitter at @baldwinalistair for content with a much smaller character count than this article.