The set resembles the typical middle-class drawing room from the 1990s – warm, orange-yellow lighting, satisfactorily broken-in sofas with rustic throws draped across their back, and even a kitchenette housing a DJ (okay, so there might have been one instance of dramatic licence taken). Four people are in the midst of a familiar urban interaction – a heated argument between neighbours.
Presiding over this scene is the doggedly good-natured Kaneez Surka, the host, keeping the show moving and its ragtag cast in check. She is watching the normally acerbic Biswa Kalyan Rath, a popular name on the Indian stand-up comedy circuit, voice sweet-faced Jahnvi Dave in Cross Talk, a game in which Dave is not allowed to talk. Rath is playing a cantankerous old man out for blood in a domestic spat with a mild-mannered neighbour, played by Rahul Subramaniam. The room sparkles with energy as the comics try valiantly to stay in character instead of laughing along with the audience at the absurdity of the charade.
This is Improv All Stars: Games Night, Amazon Prime’s latest offering for Indian comedy fans. The performers are familiar faces to anyone who has been following stand-up comedy in the country – joining Surka, Subramaniam, Dave and Rath are a mix of fellow comics and improv artists, such as Danish Sait, Radhika Vaz and Aadar Malik.
This family-friendly programming is no happy accident. Surka has been working to bring improvisational comedy into the mainstream for nearly a decade. She founded The Improvisers – an improv collective – with Kanan Gill, Abish Mathew and Kenny Sebastian in 2015. Their extensive countrywide tour resulted in Amazon Prime’s first improv special Something From Nothing earlier this year. A fast-paced and free-flowing show, it was more in line with straightforward improv than her latest endeavour, Improv All Stars: Games Night. But it didn’t catch on due to a seeming lack of awareness about this form of comedy – one that straddles both theatre and comedy with an inherently loose structure.
A visit home in May to Cape Town in South Africa for a family holiday gave her the idea of creating a more relaxed, low-pressure atmosphere. One where classic improv techniques could be parlayed into games that would catch the attention of millennials looking to entertain their friends at a house party. Thus was born the idea of Improv All Stars: Games Night, a one-hour special that Surka is hoping to convert into a series, starring a rotating cast of comics and entertainers.
The show features two teams – Cutting Chai and Filter Coffee – competing in a series of games that are based on popular improv formats. These include verbally restrictive games, wherein players exchange rapid-fire dialogue in an alphabetical format, as well as crowd-work-based games, where the audience defines the qualities portrayed by the players. In a matter of minutes, players run with these often nonsensical premises to build a story on the fly. Often, they falter – veering more towards caricature than comedy. Sometimes they shine.
This unevenness is more a byproduct of the nature of improv, rather than poor performances from the artists. Improv works on the concept of “Yes, and”, which means that performers are beholden to accept the premise sprung on them, and build on it without hesitation. This attitude is not limited to the performers, however – the audience needs to be willing to go along with the premise as well.
“It’s not about making jokes on the spot, it’s about making comedy,” explained Surka. “I am not going for laughs per minute like a stand-up comic would. Improv is about creating a scene, where people work together to create something funny. It’s not about trying to get a laugh, but really committing to the scene. And you’ll get that laugh if you commit to the scene. I told [the performers] to not go for the joke – trust the players and [the] process.”
The payoff for placing one’s trust in the process comes through on the show. The bits that work are the ones where the performers’ enthusiasm for their characters, their role, or the premise itself shines through. Unlike stand-up, there are no moments where a comic lands hard with a punchline that has been built up for the previous 10 minutes. Nor is it revelatory storytelling couched in a joke format, made popular by Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. Instead, audiences need to be willing to accept a whacky premise, be patient through the setup, which hopefully leads to comics riffing off of each other, leading to amusing results. It is a high-stakes game, where genius reveals itself in the moment – whether it’s Sait going full Rihanna at a press conference, where he has to guess the crime he has been accused of, or Radhika Vaz at her bougie best playing a long-suffering French chef in a Malayali household.
On the flip side, when it fails, it fails hard. When comics are unable to commit to their characters, or are unwilling to break out of the most predictable outcome a premise leads towards, the comedy rings hollow. But they are also dealing with the barrier of an audience unfamiliar with improv, resulting in performers wanting to connect by reaching for the easy laugh, by leaning on a stereotype instead of trying for a joke that everyone might not be interested in. It is this unevenness that might put off viewers accustomed to stand-up. There is an impetus in improve on the audience to buy into the inherent corniness of the format, instead of looking to being shocked by a profound revelation.
“It’s not for everyone,” said Sait. “And that’s fine! With stand-up, you deliver the same content to the audience whether they like it or don’t. But improv allows you to steer the show in the direction the audience wants to go.” The fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants nature makes it an adrenaline rush for performers and the audience. “Improv is suspense,” he said. “We don’t know what can happen on stage. We all go in blind, and sometimes magic can happen.”
Improv All Stars: Games Night seems like the first step towards building inroads into an audience saturated with stand-up. Its deliberately wholesome appeal, familiar branding (the dress code is distinctly Miami Vice colour blocking, and the opening credits call back to Family Ties), and non-competitive nature encourages the audience to engage with something that is more collegial than competitive. This is in direct contrast to everything audiences have been taught about comedy by stand-up – when a comic kills it on stage, echoing a secret thought the audience has had, it is a form of victorious validation. Improv works in direct opposition to this. As Saturday Night Live star and improv legend Amy Poehler declared in her biography Yes Please: “If you are afraid to look stupid [while doing improv], you should probably go home.”
This deliberate lack of one-upmanship is what makes Improv All Stars: Games Night accessible to non-comics, or comics hoping to get more comfortable on stage. At the minimum, it could push a viewer into hosting their own game night – a result Surka is really hoping for. “I want to recreate that warmth I felt,” she said. “Where you are hanging with friends you love, building off of each other’s jokes, feeling comfortable to be silly with each other – just like I did with my family back home.”
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