Thursday 17 December 2009

Genesis – The primordial ooze from which Peter Gabriel came

In which Peter discovers impro.

Sometime in the mid 1990s, when I was working as a programmer on some of the biggest, most-stupid, commercially-available computers of the time, a programme came on TV that opened my eyes to a form of funny called "Improvised Comedy."

At the time I had no ambitions to ever perform. In fact I was shy and awkward and the thought of appearing before "the public" terrified me. My ambition at the time was simply to write a best-selling novel, retire to a small cottage and have great difficulties with the follow up. I had known I was funny since school, where I developed my humour as a defence mechanism. But defensive was one thing. It's quite another to wilfully and openly go on the attack. Despite this, I did think, “that looks fun.”

Shortly after this, I saw an advert in Time Out advertising a “beginner’s course in Improvised Comedy” – showing you how to do it just like they do on Whose Line Is It Anyway? I had no idea such a course could be open to the general public and not a secret skill passed on only to selected actors.

The class was organised by a group called Roving Imps. The name meant nothing to me, but later on I would come to realise this was the first of many, many groups I would encounter with the word "imp" in the title. Later, I will devote a later section to why this should be avoided after your first three groups.

I signed up and waited for the weeks to roll by. The day before the class finally arrived and I was excited, but also daunted. Would I be any good? Would I be out of my depth? Surely I would be the only normal person there surrounded by a great ooze of actors all covering each other with ‘dahhhhhlings’ and making me look terrible because I did not want to act – I wanted to stand there and say funny things like my favourites on Whose Line...? In fact, I very nearly didn’t go. I was a gnat's eyelash away from writing off my fee and staying in the safe world I knew. In the end my flat-mate convinced me I should go, probably to stop me bothering her about it.

Far from being a bunch of luvvies, the people on the course were just like me. Some very much like me: they had IT jobs and were trying this out because it looked like fun. Others were actors, but not the horrible self-obsessed stereotypes that non-actors think actors are, but normal people trying to eek a living out of their creativity. Still more were stand-ups. I soon realised that stand-up comedians are not the super-slick joke-merchants they appear on TV, but are just like me, only more neurotic.

So there in a first-floor (upstairs) dance studio in London EC1, my impro virginity was lost and I fell in love. Since then, improv and I have grown older together. I have changed country, changed jobs, altered my wardrobe (slightly), but still Improv and I have this great thing going on. If only she’d stop seeing all these other people!