Q: Why are atoms so good at improv?
A: Because they make up everything.
Absurd joke aside, improvisational comedy is truly one of the most exciting forms of live entertainment, as the players are taking the audience along with them on an odyssey straight into the unknown. Like seeing freeform jazz happening right before you, swept away in the rush when something magical transpires, snatched from out of the ether, and created there and then in front of you.
It can be a breeding ground for raw, hungry new talent. Look at The Second City, one of the most famous of all the improv troupes, which has seen such names rise up from its ranks as John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Amy Poehler, Mike Myers, Tina Fey, and many more besides. Improvisation can act as a fertile Petri dish for nurturing brilliant comics, with lightning-fast mental reflexes and razor-sharp wit, plus the daring spirit required to experiment, let go of all inhibitions, and play fast and loose on the limit, knowing each moment is an opportunity to potentially snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
READ MORE: Star Trek Annual 2023 – Comic Review
Real seat-of-the-pants, edgy, nerve-racking stuff, for both performers and audience. Comedy duo The Electric Head – otherwise known as Cy Henty and Alan Ronald – met in an asylum. No, really. Not as inmates, but when they were both working on a horror film, and they realised they had similar comedic tastes to each other. Starting out as sketch-based podcasts, the pair moved onto more narrative-led material, before branching out into live performances. It seemed that the logical next step in their comic evolution would be going into the realm of improv, and the chaps would seem to have flourished and embraced the chaos beautifully.
Perhaps the best way to describe The Electric Head’s improv would be calling it the mutant offspring of Whose Line Is It Anyway? and The Goons, co-parented with The League of Gentlemen. In equal turns silly, absurd, anarchic, dark and downright daft, The Electric Head takes their various comic influences and synthesises them into something fresh and vibrant. You can tell that Henty and Ronald – compadres in giving Head since 2007 – are enjoying the new freedom by abandoning the pre-scripted skit and just plunging right in off the deep end with each new show, while merrily cocking an almighty snook at the rules and morays of the form.
As with all improvisation, each show is crafted right before your very eyes, but rather than just playing the short game, they weave an entire single narrative to fill the time, based upon interactions with the audience. Doing sketches is one thing; building an entire, hour-long story from nothing and sustaining it is something else entirely. Having trust in your partner is absolutely critical to making things work when in this kind of scenario, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t still on occasion lay down the odd trap, partly for their own – but mostly for the audience’s – amusement, and the flash of danger is truly a delicious thing to watch unfold.
With each show being completely different, it would be hard to try and give an accurate overview of what to expect, other than – paradoxically – the unexpected. In their recent show at the Canal Cafe Theatre in London, what had seemed like a reasonably benign tale from an audience member saying he was looking forward to getting a dog and moving into a new place with his partner turned into an epic saga of matchstick houses, axolotl farms, scientific dog sperm manipulation, a boyhood pet dressed up like a Nazi, an impromptu wedding ceremony with a canine sphincter, and a ridiculous amount of slapping. And that only just about scratches the surface of all this inspired lunacy.
Some shows can be painful to watch; this one is painful from packing so much laughter into around an hour, and carrying on afterwards when reliving the absurdist feat which you’ve just witnessed. The Electric Head are a surreal, mirth-laden, epic flight of fancy which you simply have to experience for yourselves. And seeing as how they make everything up, this must mean by default that they’re atomic. But definitely not a bomb.
The Electric Head presents: Improvised Head is playing at the Museum of Comedy on 8th June, 13th July, and 14th September, and at the Canal Cafe Theatre on 1st July and 30th August, with more dates and venues to be announced.