I wouldn’t say I get scared exactly... more like focused” says Neil Mullarkey, mulling over my ‘how do you feel before a performance’ question with the good grace of a professional who has been asked these questions a thousand times.
We are backstage at the Comedy Store in Piccadilly Circus, where audiences flock to laugh themselves hoarse at the brilliant wit of improv group the Comedy Store Players. Neil has arrived early and potters around the small, wedgeshaped dressing room whilst preparing for the show. Photographs are blue-tacked randomly on one wall, opposite the performers’ radio mikes. It has a Spartan but friendly, lived in feel.
A founder member of the group, Neil has been performing here – and at the store’s previous incarnation the other side of Leicester Square – since its inception in October 1985, when he used to perform alongside friend Mike Myers, whose Austin Powers film Neil would later cameo in. The Players like to get in early to relax and get focused by playing a practice game. “We play the ‘Die’ game”, says Neil. “Which always goes terribly”. This game is one of several scenarios that the Players use as starting off points for their improvisations, making up a story based on audience suggestions. If a player slips up during this game, the crowd shout ‘Die!’ and they leave the stage. This continues until one player remains standing.
Neil explains that the current dressing room is rather more elegant than the old one. “It was a third of the size and there was no toilet, so we all had to pee in the sink – including the women.” When the team left, they took the old sink with them as a good luck charm.
At this point Richard Vranch arrives and joins the conversation to explain that, compared to Neil, he is a relative newcomer – having started in May ’86. Many people recognize Richard from the hugely popular UK TV show Whose Line is it Anyway? which is quite similar to the Players’ format. As Neil explains, “They both came from the same parent – a lot of the games originated in Chicago in the 50s; we were taught them by Mike Myers and others”. Richard adds that “Dan Patterson devised a neat way to make improv TV friendly, by making it a short timescale with the feel of a game show, even though it isn’t one really. It began on Radio 4, and we all knew him from doing other radio programmes”.
“The great thing about improv,” says Neil, “is that you don’t have to rehearse, you don’t have to get up early, you don’t have to work hard until you’re on stage”. “Sometimes,” Richard adds, “when you’re writing or devising comedy – which we also do when we’re in other shows in other combinations – although it’s great fun, you can write something and rehearse it and you don’t know if it’s funny; you have to wait until the first night to find out. With improv, you have the idea, you exercise it and you see if it works instantly”. “It’s a great buzz”, agrees Neil, “writing something, performing it and hopefully having it appreciated, all in the same moment. There’s nothing between us and the audience in terms of producers and editing and so forth.”
“And we don’t know what our colleagues in the show are going to say,” Richard adds, “so we’re hearing it for the first time too, which is why sometimes you see us cracking up... and we don’t have to pay!”
As for the downsides, Neil gets annoyed with hecklers. “Some people think the CS stands for yobbishness and heckling, and it doesn’t. Even stand-ups don’t really want hecklers, and we certainly don’t because we’re working out scenes and stories.”
“We’re more theatrical,” agrees Richard. “It used to be that audiences who had seen or heard about stand-up thought heckling was an expected part of it.” And the best thing about working at the Comedy Store? Neil says that “It’s a famous venue and we’ve been here 16½ years. The management have been very loyal to us, giving us two nights a week, and it’s our home now. This is where people come if they want to see comedy in London, and it’s good to be part of that brand.”
Since Sept 2000, the players have also been doing a weekly show in Manchester. “It’s a great spot, really nice audience and they’re getting used to us now,” says Neil. “Just like the early days when we started down here. We travel up in a big rock and roll bus with beds and TVs and toilets.” “It’s very Spinal Tap,” adds Richard.
Indeed, many compare the comedy lifestyle to that of rock and roll. Is this true? “We’re the Rolling Stones of Comedy.” says Richard. “I was going to say The Grumble-weeds,” retorts Neil. “Actually, some-times when we’re doing corporate events we’ll not be on till eleven, and our dressing room will be miles away, so we are doing the Spinal Tap thing, walking through the kitchens and getting lost. That’s fairly rock and roll.” Richard nods. “It’s a great job, doing comedy. Just as any rock band would tell you, to get audience cheers is fantastic.” Flicking through issue 2 of Mustard he notices the article on Vivian Stanshall. “Tony Slattery and I once played on Vivian’s theatre boat in Bristol. We stayed the night and had a séance with him.” “There you are,” laughs Neil. “That’s rock and roll!”
When I ask them what they’d do if they had completely free reign in their career, Richard’s answer is passionate. “This is what we want to do, but it’s nice that we all go away and do other things, yet always come back here and do this. One thing is that we’re all quite old now and the people in charge of telly are people we were knocking about with at college or in the early days. So actually, I think now more than ever they’re more open to ideas, especially with more channels and the Internet and so on; there’s more hours of comedy to be filled and I think there’s never been an easier time to get stuff on. I feel very lucky that I don’t have that frustration of not being able to do what I want to do.”
They also enjoy the plethora of comedy on TV these days. They both catch Frasier and Richard also cites Larry Sanders and Sex in the City as favourites. “The Simpsons I think is some of the best written stuff,” he says. “And I’m a big fan of Steve Coogan too.” “People Like Us,” says Neil. “That should be re-commissioned, immediately!” “And The Office is great,” adds Richard. “The League Of Gentlemen is brilliant.”
As for their influences, Richard says that “I think with the improv, we all learnt a lot from Mike Myers when he was here, but now we’ve kind of developed our own style.” Richard adds that “I’ve always been a big fan of Pete and Dud actually, and they used to improvise a lot.”
So since they’re making it all up as they go along, what do they do you if they simply run out of things to say? The answer is simple, according to Neil. “We just say ‘I’ve run out of things to say’ and it usually gets a big laugh. But then someone else will step in and say something and you’ll think of something else to say in the next ten seconds.”
This is another benefit of working in such a tight team; the Players know each other well, so they can rely on each other, know when to give each other space and when to jump in. “Quite often,” says Neil, “the best thing to say is a reference to something someone’s already said. Reincorporating, as I teach in my workshop. If in doubt, bring back a previous idea in a new format.” “It’s a team thing,” agrees Richard. “I don’t think solo improv would work particularly well. It’s a different dynamic. When you are working with someone else, the chances of all six of us drying simultaneously are small.” “Though it has happened,” says Neil. “And we just go ‘ichh urm uurem euch eeurm’... I don’t know how you’ll spell that.”
Is comedy better than sex or just synonymous? Richard says that “it’s the opposite of sex. Nobody’s ever made a really funny film with explicit sex in it. The two don’t go together.”
I ask them if they have any taboos: what isn’t funny? Richard answers passionately: “What’s not funny is hearing George Bush talk a lot of shit and the American people applauding him. That’s really serious.” “I think we try and avoid things when people have just died,” says Neil. This is certainly true; I went to the store the night after Princess Diana died and none of the players mentioned it. As Richard remembers, “When we were about to go on, I thought we can’t play the game ‘Die’; we can’t have people shouting that out, especially as her name was Di. In the end we decided to play the game but just use a different word.”
“There was certainly nothing said about September 11th,” says Neil. “It wouldn’t have been right.” “Oddly,” says Richard, “I was in another country, 12 hours ahead, when it happened, and people were finding out during the show. I remember the next night we were getting it as suggestions, but they weren’t doing it to be nasty, they were doing it because they were so horrified. It was like they wanted us to deal with it. Sometimes you get suggestions from the audience that sound callous, but I think there’s an element of them trying to exorcise something.”
Some people come and see every single CSP show, in some cases following them up to Manchester and back. “I’m always amazed by how loyal and nice the regulars are,” says Richard. “It’s nice to see the same faces sometimes, because the shows really are different every time. Often, first timers will think things have been rehearsed, but people come back week after week and get to see new stuff every time.”
So has anything gone spectacularly wrong during any of the shows? Neil remembers an event at their tenth anniversary show. “For some reason it was necessary... for us to take our trousers off.” “It was a Shakespeare sketch,” says Richard. “Trousers and Cressida.” “It was fully justified M’lud!” continues Neil. “Anyway, Richard had forgotten to put on underwear. I think a T-shirt was pulled down to cover the particulars. Let that be a lesson to you.” Richard nods sagely. “Always wear pants.”
Summing up life in the Players, Neil reflects that “It’s all enormously good fun. It’s absurd that we should get paid for it. It’s absurd that we should still be doing it at our age. But nobody’s found us out. And I see no reason why we shouldn’t carry on until people stop coming, and they do still seem to come.” Richard’s final thoughts are that “the great thing about doing comedy is that people laugh. It sounds obvious, but when you get the laugh back you know it’s working, you get that feedback, so you know you’re on the right track or not. It seems to be working right now and that’s fantastic. And the great thing is, when you come in you never know what to expect”.