This blog went live on March 1st but I’ve been rather busy with the two things that take up nearly all my time – improv and fatherhood. My intention was to write regularly on the former, and the insights I gain when working with organizations through ImprovYourBiz.
But today – 31st March 2010 – is the 25th anniversary of my first performance with Mike Myers, the man who introduced me to improv, that wondrous form of theatre which explicitly demands you focus on what is really happening, what others say and do, that you don’t deny your own unconscious, and allows the audience to share and even delight in your vulnerability.
I had met Mike the month before at a tiny theatre above a scuzzy pub in London. He was sitting in a wheelchair (we had used all spare chairs for our set) huddled in coat and scarf (he never did get to grips with the non-ubiquity of central heating in Britain), selling tickets for our show. He had helped to paint our set too. I was performing a play with my cohort of recent graduates from the Cambridge University Footlights. It was set in a social security office because we that was what we knew well. With a nod (we hoped) to Dario Fo, the Italian anarchist farceur, it had played at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe the previous summer. Mike lived nearby and, seeing Footlights on our poster, asked the theatre if he could help out in some way.
Arriving in London, knowing scarcely anyone, he found it hard to make any headway, despite having an impressive track record in his home town of Toronto. He had been a child actor, appearing in commercials in Canada and the United States. I think it had started when they needed a ginger kid who could tap dance. Mike had then been the youngest male to join Second City Theatre, the famous improv & revue troupe. But it wasn’t famous in London. I was one of the few people Mike met who had heard of it. I knew it had produced so many greats of American comedy, including Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi.
Mike made me laugh. He remains the funniest person I have ever met. He told me he was writing sketches when not navigating the intricacies of being an impoverished outsider thespian – putting coins in a meter to get hot water, finding an agent, taking lessons in how to speak proper “Queen’s” English. Nobody was doing old-fashioned sketches, I assured him.
Alternative comedy was on the rise – stand-up comics, variety artistes and ranting poets. But first you had to get a try-out spot – five minutes in which to impress. We started work on something based on his schtick of walking the other side of a car and making it appear as if he were walking down some stairs. How many gags could we come up with that involved us being behind a waist-high barrier? We used a sofa in rehearsal.
Somehow we wove them together into The Story of The Rise and Fall of Dr Wicked [view left], a mash-up of cartoon and B-movie clichés. I played Dr Wicked, disguised with a tea towel and spectacles on my head.
So on March 31st 1985, we turned up at the Open Heart Cabaret, which on a Sunday night took over the dingy back room of a pub in West London. It was run by someone who took the persona of Mad Jock Macock. He MC’d wearing a Zorro mask and a blood-stained waistcoat. In a less-than-passable Scottish accent, he harangued the audience between the acts, sometimes even facing them. The headliners were some worryingly handsome guys called the Jockeys Of Norfolk. One of them was Hugh Grant. They had a beautiful girl in tow, who distributed flyers for their forthcoming shows around town. They did “old-fashioned” sketches. The audience loved them.
Dr Wicked was not ready to be unleashed. So we did a song. Unaccompanied, we sang, “Tequila”, doing our own “Dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah” bits. After a few rounds of “Tequila” we started shouting other words that began with T, such as “tea cosy”, “Tony Gubba” (a sports commentator at the time), and finished by opening our jackets, in which we had taped pieces of paper saying, “Tequila” in large letters. It didn’t stay long in our repertoire. Then, to fill the rest of our allotted five minutes, we improvised. I had not done this before. My head was swimming so much I nearly passed out. Mike kept things together. We did well enough to be invited back the following month, with a full twenty-minute act. Mad Jock Macock was impressed.
There were many more shared adventures to come…. Starting the Comedy Store Players (which nearly folded a year later), auditioning at midnight (behind a sofa) in a penthouse flat opposite Harrods in front of an actress from the sitcom ‘Allo, ‘Allo, being marooned at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots, taking our act to Liverpool and staying with Mike’s Auntie Molly, buying a suit for Mike’s first appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, stumbling into a society lunch in Washington DC at Winston Churchill’s daughter-in-law’s house, struggling to put on a reindeer head (including antlers) for a running joke that flummoxed audiences in Toronto, and bumping into Mike in Santa Barbara on the opening weekend of the film So I Married an Axe-Murderer.
Those are for another day. I just want to thank Mike for being my friend. Thank you for introducing me to improv. My head is still swimming – but in a good way.