The Secret of Comedy

I was asked by a newspaper to write about the Secret of Comedy, summed up on one word, explained in 150. Here is what I came up with. What do you think?

The Secret of Comedy … is Listening

Whatever kind of comedy you are performing – solo or ensemble – you need to listen – to your audience, to your fellow player, to your director, to the writer, and to yourself. Why yourself? Because comedy is about cadence and rhythm. You can’t drift off.

Though when writing you need to listen to your unconscious.

In front of an audience you really need to sense them. I toured with Eric Sykes ten years ago in “Charley’s Aunt”. He is partially deaf (his spectacles contain no lenses, they’re a hearing aid) yet his timing was razor-sharp.

Mostly I do Improv, in which listening is ninety percent of the skill. That surprises many who attend my “Improvyourbiz” workshops. It’s not about generating lots of stuff yourself. It’s about using what is given you by others, whether or not you expect it or “like” it.

So who is the best listener I have ever worked with? Mike Myers.

Silly Music

Ten years ago I did a show called All That Mullarkey, about how I have suffered with my silly name. Here is the overture
01 Hallelujah – Neil Mullarkey

It was recorded by a very clever person multi-tracking me and a few friends. I think it’s out of copyright so I could tell you who but it might harm his/her career as a serious musician.

New York (Brooke T Allen)

I spent six days in the Big Apple. It was chance to catch up with some chums, eat some delicious food and be part of a great show at Webster Hall on June 2nd with Stephen Frost, Andy Smart, Steve Steen and special guests Eddie Izzard and Mike Myers. I will be writing more about that soon. With pics.
In the meantime, here are some links concerning a great guy I met – Brooke Allen – whose office overlooks Manhattan from just across the river in Jersey City. I spent a couple of hours chatting with him and his assistant Adrienne about improvyourbiz. He recorded part of the conversation. You can hear it here.
And he reviewed my book too. But his spelling leaves a little to be desired.

Why I've ended up here

Last week I did my improv workshops for three different organizations. This is what I do much of the time. I love it. I had a thought today about why I feel so comfortable spreading the message.

Improv is about listening. It explicitly recognises that we have different perceptions but that we can still work together. In fact, diversity feeds the collaborative process. To misquote Jean-Paul Sartre, Life is Other People. Accepting that means there could be much more creativity and fun in the world. Every time I run a workshop I feel there might just be a little more accepting going in the world, amidst the laughter.

That makes me happy, in a way that showbusiness never really did. The thing is, the feeling seems to be mutual. By the way, I regard the Comedy Store Players as outside proper showbusiness. We are in a parallel world, quietly amusing ourselves and 800 people a week, without frightening any horses.

So I have found my thang. I wonder if it is possible for everyone, no matter how late, to find their true calling. The strange (or not so strange) thing is, that I feel I receive much more appreciation for doing something I really love. BBC Radio recently covered my work.

With a complete lack of modesty, false or otherwise, I will share feedback from those three workshops. Though I acknowledge my enormous debt to those giants upon whose shoulders I stand – the people who developed improv (most especially Viola Spolin and Keith Johnstone) and those who taught it to me. But more of that anon.

Office Club

“Neil Mullarkey delivered (yet another) simply stunning seminar, using his immense experience and knowledge of Improv and its applications in commerce to delight all present. His charm, wit and graceful delivery were infectious; every delegate was captivated, enraptured, enthused and keen to participate, and throughout the rest of our conference the techniques (and games) that Neil introduced were enthusiastically practised in every corner. It’s rare to find a combination of commercial value and fantastic entertainment, but Neil delivers both these values to an extraordinary degree. Brilliant!”

RSA (Recruitment agency for interims)

“Thank you, thank you and thank you for your brilliant presentation and control of the crowd at last week’s interim event. The feedback has been excellent and it is clear that people found your slot insightful, fun, engaging and thought-provoking. Thanks again – you were superb.”

“Neil’s presentation gave me a lot of insights into controlling my verbal communication and listening skills”
“Neil was an absolutely fantastic talker – an inspiration in fact. Such a rarity…whilst I go to a lot of events, I find I rarely enjoy them as much as I did this one.”

“Thank you so very, very much for last night. You were fantastic and have really given our guests a few things to think about! One person has made a note on their feedback form to mark your slot as a ‘6 out of 5’!”

London Business Forum
“The session was a real eye opener for me and has got me thinking about what I do in a more structured way – thank you! I will certainly tell friends about the next one in September.”
“I really enjoyed it so wanted to say thank you. Much more enjoyable than many communications courses I have been on and still very relevant and applicable.”

The next one is on Sept 23

I am coming to New York

Hey, I will be over there with my friends Andy Smart, Stephen Frost and Steve Steen at Webster Hall Studio June 2nd And I will be able to sign copies of my alter ego’s book DON’T BE NEEDY BE SUCCEEDY.

Tea With the Economist

I did this video interview with the famous magazine in London. Starting out as L. Vaughan Spencer, then I become me. I normally avoid mixing but I think we got away with it…

L. Vaughan Spencer to Motivitalize the U.S.A

Press release from
H.M. Government’s Office of Motivation
Details at

Mike Myers

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.

[Here are some pics of us from a long time ago]

Neil in the CarPool

with Robert Llewellyn

OK Here we go

This blog is to let you into some of the secrets of what I actually do. Much of my time is spent with organizations, showing them how improv skills could be applicable in their day to day lives.

This work was recently covered in BBC Radio 4′s In Business and BBC World Service’s Global Business and even made it on to Tom Peters’ blog. This was very gratifying since I am immensely proud of it. I really enjoy it too, and feel much more comfortable in that environment rather than the world of TV and radio panel games.

After a decade, I have begun to understand what makes some organizations work well and some not. In improv, there are a few simple rules, which everyone knows and everyone follows. The same cannot be said of many organizations.

More info at