Friday, 17 February 2012

Interview: The Tourists meet ComedySportz

Comedy is an untameable beast. Who knows when it’ll strike? It is a meta-morphing, metaphorical animal whose teeth may be sharp and succinct, blunt and brutal, polished and clean or all of the above.

It is a chat about these various forms of comedy (without so much nonsensical metaphor) that recently brought The Tourists and ComedySportz together over an audio recording device for Now Then Manchester. With a combined personnel in double figures an all-inclusive scene would be a little too crowded, so it fell to The Tourists’ Kate McCabe and ComedySportz’s Sean Mason to represent their respective groups.

Without being too divisive, there are key distinctions between their chosen disciplines. On the face of it, Kate should favour sketch and Sean should favour improv, but both can see the benefits of the other’s field.

So, sketch or improv?

“That’s so difficult!” agonises Kate. “Every time I think about eliminating something from my schedule, I think: I would really miss that. The easy answer is that there are aspects of both that are rewarding. Improv is infinitely useful just as an exercise in itself but also in sketch writing, so improv might actually edge out sketch, but sketch benefits from good improv, so there you go.”

“I love improv,” adds Sean, “but one thing I love and hate equally about improv is that once you’ve done something you don’t necessarily ever see or hear of that thing again.”

Kate agrees: “That is definitely the advantage of sketch. We did a really short run in Edinburgh this past year and it really was fun for the two and a half weeks to be able to celebrate the material we created time and time again and with improv the magic is in the moment and then it’s gone.”

Kate has been with The Tourists in its various incarnations for roughly four years and is a valued member of the group – not least for the differentiation she brings as the only American: “I’m often left to play policeladies and idiots!”

But in general she doesn’t think there is a lot to distinguish British and American humour: “It’s mostly about what the influences are because I do think the question of British versus American humour is over-analysed – I think we laugh at quite a lot of the same stuff but that our influences are much more varied. The British are inspired more by groups like Monty Python whereas in America it’s all about Saturday Night Live.”

While sketch shows from The Fast Show to Big Train are commonplace on the television and as such are a familiar set-up to most audiences, the diversity of group improv is less frequently displayed so its variations often need an introduction. Even within the ComedySportz template there are broadly two types of show. Sean initially distinguishes these as “our family-friendly show [where] ‘family-friendly’ just means we don’t swear” and “our non-family-friendly show which is all about swearing and jokes,” but both require elaboration.

He continues, “the short form is sketches, essentially, that we are just making up that go on for two or three minutes, whereas long form can be circular, it can be one character for the entire hour-long show.”

The shorter format is more games oriented, games which ComedySportz aim to differentiate from those of other improv specialists. “When we do short form it’s kind of more game based,” Sean explains. “Whose Line is it Anyway? is our [point of] recognition. For everyone who doesn’t quite understand what improv is or what it can be, you say Whose Line... and everyone goes ‘oh right, yes’.”

“But that’s the problem I have with TV improv at the moment; people going ‘oh, well it’s not Whose Line... or it’s trying to be Whose Line..., so why don’t they just call it Whose Line...’ and there’s lots of reasons why we can’t do that. But we try to be different; every improv troupe will play a variation on similar games.”

Sean admits to a constant inner turmoil with the throwaway nature of improv but with a longer format during some shows they can at least develop ideas a little more, even if it still won’t be repeated in the same way again. “All the time we think argh we really wish we could do that again. And it is mostly in the long form one when [an idea] breathes a little bit more.”

Improv is something with which live comedy sketch groups undeniably benefit from being comfortable and which Kate believes the third main act on the Now Then Sunday Soirée bill, Him & Me, have mastered: “their bantering with the audience is at a really high level for somebody who normally does sketch.”
It’s a skill The Tourists strive for as well. Rohan (Shenoy, of The Tourists), who joins the conversation late, adds that an increase in ad lib fill ins is “something we’re looking to do a lot more of ourselves. A lot of us are from a lot more of a theatre-y background.”

Their sketches are a diverse smorgasbord of the satirical to the surreal, as Kate describes: “we all write very differently. I write sketches that are very parody and satire based. And then there’s members of the group like Tony who writes very surreal sketches; Maggie writes very situational based comedy and then Rohan is kind of the odd ball out – what he writes is a mixture of them all.”

Edinburgh review website Three Weeks concurs that they "take on a wide range of characters from the hapless robot File-Tron to the menacing Maria, the nun," so if nothing else their show promises to be quite a mix.

Words: Ian Pennington
Images: Courtesy of the groups depicted
Poster design: Hattie Lockwood

The Tourists and ComedySportz will both perform at Dulcimer in Chorlton on Sunday 26th February. The show has an early evening start time of 5pm and they’ll be joined by fellow local acts Him & Me (sketch) and Greg O’Toole (stand up).

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