Podcasts made me an improviser, and improv made me a podcaster.
Improv has become a turning point in my personal journey that I never saw coming. It changed the shape of my career. It changed the way I interact with people. It might seem like a trite sentiment, but improv has changed my life. And during the pandemic, I’ve been reflecting a lot on what is important to me about improv, now that the art form hasn’t been available to us in the form we might be used to. It’s adapting to the online space, evolving in the Zoom format, but I regret to say this revolution has left me behind in some respects. I don’t feel comfortable on Zoom at the best of times. I find it exhausting and the joys of performing improv there seemed like an unwelcome half-measure at the start of the first lockdown.
My initial attitude was that I would just wait it out. So, I waited… and waited… and while everyone got on with it and my FOMO raged, it left me with a lot of thinking to do. And seeing my friends and fellow Maydays embracing and utilising Zoom so joyfully, I even wondered whether I really wanted to improvise if I wasn’t willing to do it online.
I know these thoughts boil down to insecurity and anxiety, which the pandemic only amplifies, but I ultimately asked myself, “if you are not willing to improvise online, what are you willing to do?” And that led me to ponder how and why I discovered and embraced improv in the first place. And the answer, paradoxically, was that I embraced it online. But Zoom wasn’t a thing back then. I mean, it feels like Zoom was barely a thing in 2019! The online platform on which I embraced improv wasn’t a visual medium at all. It was audio. I discovered improv through podcasts.
Or should I say rediscovered? Like lots of us, I watched Whose Line Is It Anyway in the nineties, avidly. I was amazed, entertained, and I would not stop telling my friends about it. But I thought “this must be the kind of fun that other people get to have.” Then it left Channel 4, and any idea that it could ever include me went with it.
Spin forward to my twenties, and I was absolutely committed to my career in the film industry. I told myself it’s all I ever wanted, even though it was slowly making me miserable. My relief outlet was watching comedy. Sketch comedy, sitcoms, stand-up comedy, and a more recent development of the time, podcasts!
In particular, I’d search for my favourite comedians and writers and I’d start listening to any podcast, radio show and audiobook I can find. Ricky Gervais, Kevin Smith, Dave Gorman, Danny Wallace and the (already) hours of content become a support system I would gleefully fall down the rabbit hole of. And when I’d run out of content from one of their shows, I track down a podcast they guested in, then I follow that podcast, then their guests, and then their podcasts and so on and so forth.
Smodcast, Hollywood Babble-On, The Nerdist, Stuff you Should Know, Doug Loves Movies, No Such Thing as a Fish. My laptop reached memory-overload more than once from downloading episodes.
I still listen to them while I cook, while I work, while I exercise. I’m listening to one right now (the Improvised Movie Director Podcast, FYI).
I started listening to character comedy podcasts like Comedy Bang Bang, and they were so delightful. I loved the spontaneity of the comedians I was listening to and the way they painted the scene for the “theatre of the mind” (if you’ll forgive a slightly pompous turn of phrase).
But they keep mentioning this “UCB” place when plugging their other stuff. I googled it, and… well, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I had been listening to improv the whole time! And the UCB? Well, you’ll never guess, but that stood for The Upright
And just like when I was a kid watching Whose Line is it Anyway, I blabbed endlessly about it to my friends. And when I took improv classes and started my first improv group (shoutout to Giggle Loop’s Ellie Grice and Natasha Walker) one of the first things I suggested in order to give us and our “brand” something different was that we should have a podcast! But the truth is, we didn’t have a brand. We were building one as best we could, but based on what? We had been on stage as a trio no more than twice. The truth was that I was dying to have the kind of fun that had introduced me to improv in the first place. The kind of fun that comes from riffing with friends in a safe and positive space, like so many podcasts have. It seemed like the fun that looked so distant to me when watching Whose Line Is It anyway as a kid.
Thankfully, Ellie, Natasha and our producer (Podcast Pioneers’ Katharine Kerr, who has since written a book about podcast branding!) indulged me, and a few weeks before Giggle Loop were hosting their first improv night at The Miller we were recording episodes. I loved it so much. There was so much joy and laughter in those recordings. If it were up to me, we’d still be recording The Giggle Loop Podcast. But the workload of podcasting is vast compared to the actual, tangible reward you get from the output.
It so rarely pays, and the hours you spend preparing, promoting and editing rack up quickly, and you never get them back. Then people can get bored of that process. And much like improv, if the appeal of the process dwindles and it stops functioning as “its own reward”, it’s easy for the joy of it to slip through your fingers.
And eventually The Giggle Loop Podcast, and every other podcast I was involved with subsequently came to an end as a result of heavy workloads, burnout of interest or other, more personal reasons. The one exception is Dead Drunk Detective, which I helped start with Brendan Way and Katharine Kerr and is, as far as I know, still going strong without me. And like I said, I miss making them. I love appearing in other people’s shows, when I can.
There was even a time when I would regularly improvise characters on the Jon Holmes Show on Talk Radio and then BBC Kent. And I still to hours of podcasts a week. And the thought would occasionally enter my mind to start a new podcast, but I never took the plunge. Making podcasts is a special process. I love the brainstorming, the branding, the hours spent on Adobe creating logos and trailers. But I was a bit burned and tired when I stopped.
I loved the collaborative nature of the projects I’d had, but life happened, and I wouldn’t have known whom to turn to if I did have an idea to pursue. And, frankly, I was afraid to do something on my own. There are others that have done that with great effect, but I didn’t feel confident enough. And looking back at it, I don’t regret a thing.
Of course not! What’s to regret? Podcasts showed me how much fun improv could be, catalysing a whole new lifestyle where I am no longer torturing myself in the film business, but instead enjoying collaboration and travel as a performer with a degree of fun and adventure that I never thought I would get to do. Like I said, I thought improv was the kind of fun other people got to have. Now it’s fun that I get to have. And that’s just marvellous.
Now I’m lucky enough to be a part of The Maydays, a team that I’ve always admired. The only problem is that a few weeks after I officially joined The Maydays, the whole damn country went into lockdown. And we, as a company and as a community generally, have taken to online improv like a duck to water. However, I’m struggling with it. And no one has to do online improv or anything they are uncomfortable with under these circumstances. And I first fell in love with improv online in the form of podcasts, so why do I hesitate with Zoom?
I wondered if maybe it was all happening again, that the joy could slip through my fingers because the process wasn’t enough for me in this new form. And the improv over Zoom is not so different from podcasting. It asks you to suspend your disbelief in much the same way as it does on stage, forgiving a lack of set or props. It utilises the “theatre of the mind” so that you can imagine these people in the same room. They’re really not that different. All I know is I have to do something. Something I can enjoy for the very sake of doing it. Something that feels like the work and effort that it takes is its own reward. And preferably something with The Maydays, because for goodness’ sake I’ve been looking forward to working with them for years at this point.
One thing that improv, and life, teaches us is that the best way forward is so often found by looking back at where you’ve already been. I look back at what I love about podcasts and there’s so much in common with the improv format we use now, and it means I understand so well why Zoom has worked for us in the COVID-19 pandemic. But for me, personally, streamed video is not the answer. Audio, however… Maybe podcasts can be the same creative, collaborative, entertaining platform that made me fall in love with improv in the first place. And if I picked up podcasting again, maybe others would enjoy it, too. I guess we’ll see…
By The Maydays, Ed Fargher
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