Amazon Prime Video | 1 hr 9 min | Released: September 2018
Improv comedy is a treacherously difficult form to pull off. It makes some of the demands of stand-up comedy: you have to get a steady stream of laughs and you have to respond to the energy of the audience. But since everything is made up, it does not give the performer the chance to practise anything before getting it right. If a joke bombs, it bombs and there are no second chances. Improv also makes some of the demands of theatre: to be good, you have to have a keen awareness of body, voice and space. But again, it removes the usual advantages of theatre, such as a script that you can sink your teeth into and extended rehearsal time to develop an onstage rapport with your fellow performers.
Indian comedians are pretty good at the first part of the form. They know how to get laughs, and to respond to an audience. The top comedians know how to command a stage totally when they are performing long sets, and carry the audience’s energy with them. But improv isn’t about one person commanding attention; it’s exactly the opposite—a group must work together, listening and watching each other, giving and taking energy.
Improv performers also need a very specific set of skills. Knowing how to use your voice and body when you’re alone on stage doing standup is one thing (and it’s very difficult). Knowing how to use them when you’re on stage with six other performers takes an entirely different kind of training.
This shortfall is very evident in the Amazon Prime Video special Improv All Stars, hosted by Kaneez Surka, and featuring Radhika Vaz, Aadar Malik, Danish Sait, Rahul Subramanian, Biswa Kalyan Rath and Jahnavi Dave.
But improv isn’t about one person commanding attention; it’s exactly the opposite—a group must work together, listening and watching each other, giving and taking energy.
Surka is an able host, who is skilled at making sure that the energy of the performance never dips. She takes two teams of three performers each through a series of games. In one, they have to speak only in questions, in another, one performer has to voice another’s lines in a scene, in another, two performers have to work together to play a two-headed Tinder date.
The games are fun, and the actors are quick-witted enough to ensure that the show doesn’t sink. But most of them do not know how to command the stage as actors, how to hold moments, how to build scenes—all essential to good improv. Of all, Aadar Malik stands out as the one performer whose prior experience in improv shows. While the others’ improvised lines tend to circle around the same thoughts, Malik has the ability to come up with lines that push a scene forward and give his co-actors new material to work with. Similarly, when he acts out a moment or a scene, he has the ability to hold a moment and build a joke around it, rather than dive straight for a punchline, as all the other performers do.
The live audience laps it up, mostly because of the star power of the comedians. But because the form is new to the scene, they tend to roar with appreciation for their favourite performers, rather than for any skill that is displayed on stage. This throws off the timing and flow of the show, dragging out improvs that should proceed swiftly and smoothly. While Surka’s efforts to introduce improv into India are laudable, the unfortunate truth is that standup comedians do not necessarily make good improv performers. And if audiences come just to see their favourite standups, and cheer as adoring fans, the form will only stagnate. If it is to grow, we need new performers with specific skills and experience, who are committed to building an audience for it.
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