On February 13th, Oxford’s colossal New Theatre will be aglow as remarkably fresh-faced comedians gather to mark the 10th anniversary of the Oxford Imps: the University’s best-known improvisation group. Featuring stand-ups, magicians, musicians and self-described ‘chaos comedians’, all of them Imps alumni, the two-hour anniversary show may have some interest in itself but, like all anniversaries, it's an opportunity to reflect: on the important role Oxford has played in comedy in recent decades, and on how the Imps stock-in-trade of improvisation has quietly taken the comedy world by storm.
The first point may seem the more obvious to make. After all, from Alan Bennett to Josie Long; from Stewart Lee to Armando Iannucci; from the creators of QI and Blackadder, to two fifths of the members of Monty Python (another, rather more illustrious, reunion this year), the number of comics with a link to Oxford University is truly impressive. They were nurtured by student drama, by sketch group the Oxford Revue, and for the last ten years, the Imps themselves.
While Cambridge might historically have had the slight edge for comedy (its main centre for comedy, the Footlights, can trace its history back to 1883, Oxford having to wait until the 1950s for an equivalent), its students have been entertaining visitors by messing about for centuries – not least Queen Elizabeth I, in her two royal progresses to the city in the 16th century. It is open to speculation whether Her Majesty was amused.
Moreover, Oxford the town has played a vital role in more than a few comedy careers. For instance, Ronnie Barker grew up in Oxford and cut his comedic teeth at the Oxford Playhouse; visitors to the Imps show at the New Theatre may spy a pub down the road – The Four Candles – named after Barker’s most famous sketch. Further afield, the Pegasus theatre in East Oxford has been a safe harbour for a huge range of experimental theatre and clowning, such as Theatre de Complicté. Today, with its host of sweaty pubs and club nights across town and, of course, the New Theatre, the city is a regular part of the UK comedy circuit. However, it is improvisation – through sketches, songs and jokes made up entirely on the spot – where the City and University might be claimed to offer a distinct contribution to the art of making people laugh. (It's worth noting that the Imps is not, in fact, a solely university group, being a third town rather than gown).
When the Imps first stepped onto an Oxford stage, during the Bush administration, Britain was something of an improv wasteland. Stalwart groups such as the Improverts in Edinburgh and the Comedy Store Players in London were known for being funny impromptu, but if asked, most people’s contact with improvisation would be the show Who’s Line Is It Anyway (which last recorded a UK show in the mid 1990s) and funnyman Paul Merton’s flights of fancy on Have I Got News for You. The word ‘Improvisation’ would likely draw a blank.
Since then, the situation has changed remarkably. Not only has the number, variety and quality of improv acts exploded, but audiences now have a taste for the form, as demonstrated by the ever-larger venues improv plays to. Whereas once it was a novelty to see ‘comedy made up on the spot’ at major comedy festivals in the UK, now a flick through any respectable fringe programme will see improvised Austen, Shakespeare, B-movies, silent films, Downton Abbey… and so on, to the limits of imagination. And taste.
The Imps are hardly the sole progenitors of the revival of improvisation in the UK – regional centres such as Bristol and Brighton ought to claim equal credit as well as a small, passionate network of London-based teachers – but, perhaps, in fostering a culture of taking comedy seriously (every imp requires six weeks of training before taking to the stage), they might have made a small but important dent in the way improvisation is performed and understood. Through shows such as Austentatious and Racing Minds, former Oxford Imps have been at the forefront of popularising improv in broadsheets, literary festivals, and the occasional Radio 4 appearance, and in their role as Jesuits of Improv, the Imps have spawned a series of new groups across the country, run by former members of the company.
The UK remains, and will remain for years, in the shadow of the United States when it comes to Improv comedy: most of the best-known American comedians are alumni of improv groups such as Second City in Chicago (home to comedians such as Stephen Colbert, Bill Murray, Joan Rivers and Steve Carrell) or UCB in New York (home to Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman … and the occasional former Imp). However, a look at the line up on February 13th may suggest that the UK is taking small steps towards the American model– with Oxford in the lead.