Improv Games & Stand-Up by Chris Head

Chris Head has directed, taught and coached stand up for over ten years both independently and as lecturer for Bath Spa University. In this blog, he talks about his upcoming course of how to use improv to develop your very own stand-up routine.

Improv to Stand up with Chris Head (Weekend Intensive) is on Saturday 7th September & Sunday 8th September 10am – 5pm and you can book a space here

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I teach a stand-up comedy weekend for improvisers at BIT. (The next one is coming up
29th/30th June). We begin by getting you on stage playing various solo stand-up games
that help find your voice and angle. This leads to you developing an act to perform, but
even in the prepared material leaving a little wriggle room for spontaneity on the night.
There are in fact entirely improvised stand-up nights, the best known of which is Set List.
In this blog, I'm discussing the use of "games" in stand-up improvisation – and I'll consider
how improv thinking can be applied to writing material. (Here I'm thinking about finding the
game of a scene rather than short form improv games).

At Set List, the stand-up only discovers the subjects they are to talk about when they go on
stage and they're flashed up on a screen. At the night I attended, a comic told the
audience that he had an idea for a start-up business. He then turned round to discover the
topic on the screen. It was "domestic electric chairs". He then riffed on this as his business
idea. What the comedian had here was a game. He knew that whatever the topic he'd
frame it as a business idea. He got lucky in this case in that the idea readily fitted into the
business frame. But it really doesn't matter if the subject is not a neat fit for a business.
The more unlikely the subject is to be a business the better.

I've been working with a new comic who was due to take part in an improvised stand-up
show not unlike Set List. I suggested to him that he go on stage with a number of 'games'
in mind. I suggested: giving advice to the audience, being strangely angry, being utterly
baffled and indeed trying to sell something. So rather than going on stage with nothing and
having to pull something out of thin air when you see the topic, you have a game in mind;
a stance, attitude or angle on the topic. Also, of course, you might be inspired in the
moment and take an entirely different approach, but the advantage is you're not reliant on
that.

Comedy is full of games – but we don't usually talk about comedy in those terms outside of
improv. But they are also to be found in written material. To give an example, I met with a
comic yesterday who had some material where she talked about dating using the
language of work recruitment and job interviews. Although it was a prepared routine, this
was the game of the piece – to speak about dating using the same concepts and language
as a recruitment process. And comedians have typical games that they play that suit their
style or persona. For example, Eddie Izzard often plays the game of confidently describing
something technical or historical without all the knowledge and terminology required. He
fills in the blanks with whimsical speculation and surreal guesswork.

What games are funny for YOU to play will be tied in with your persona. In the case of the
new comic I was working with, he already has some funny material where he earnestly
gives absurd advice to the audience, so it makes sense that this would be one of the
games he has up his sleeve. When writing stand-up, choosing a 'game' to play with the
topic you are working on can give you a headstart. What might these games be? Well we
have seen that trying to sell something can be a funny angle as can giving advice to the
audience (usually bad or absurd or inappropriate), being unreasonably furious about the
topic, being strangely confused, being forgetful, being contrarian. Comics typically have a
selection of games they often play. For example, Rhod Gilbert regularly plays the game of
being unreasonably angry or Amy Schumer often plays the game of being shameless.

With the aforementioned new comic, to help his writing, I suggested to him that he turn on
the "stand-up app" in his brain that is monitoring the world for stand-up material. All comics
have this metaphorical app turned on. As you go about your day (and night) you're looking
for anything that could be material. To help identify possibilities from the great mass of
daily experience, look for things that are (1) absurd in some way (2) that confuse you or (3)
that irritate you. Of course there is overlap between those categories but it's helpful to look
at them as three angles.

As well as passively monitoring your experience for stand-up material, you can also
actively seek it out. For example, I often recommend to comics who are stuck with their
writing that they do something they'd never normally do: for example have a massage,
place a bet, go to a football match, go to an opera, watch daytime TV, go to church… Then
you go through the experience with the app set to its highest sensitivity looking for
absurdities, confusing things or irritants. You can also do something simple like buy a
newspaper or magazine you'd never normally read. Once you have observed something
that has potential make a note of it. You don't need to have a 'funny' idea in mind at this
point, you're just gathering starting points.

Now… where do games come into this? Well, the next step at some later date – a day, a
week, a month later – is to review items on your list and pick some that you feel might be
worked up into something. If you have identified some games that suit your persona, you
can now start playing them with that topic IN YOUR WRITING. And recall that writing could
be on a laptop but equally could be talking around the subject into a voice recorder.

So if you have observed for example (as I have in Stroud where I live) that there are an
absurdly large number of barbershops, you could then discuss it playing a game you've
identified. I like the idea of trying to sell something to the audience. Here I could be trying
to convince them that a small town absolutely needs a dozen barbershops and in fact I
want them to invest in the new one I'm planning on opening. The comedy could come from
my increasingly absurd or desperate attempts to make this untenable argument. This
could be a much funnier angle than simply taking the 'what's that all about?' stance.

So come along to my stand-up weekend at BIT, discover the games that work for you and
how to go from there into stand-up material.

Chris is the author of "A Director's Guide to the Art of Stand-up"

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