In the UK, if we think of improvised comedy we normally think of Paul Merton. But, for the next six weeks, theatres up and down the land will have a chance to experience a new American improv export with a recognisably British cast that doesn't include Merton or his improv chums. Marcus Brigstocke, Phill Jupitus, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Hattie Hayridge are among a rotating cast who will be supplying new dialogue to old movies for a show called Totally Looped, putting a new perspective on idea that started out as prank at a US college radio station.
While one set of performers supplying dialogue or narration for another is an improv standard, and the idea of doing that with clips has surfaced before (including on the early Nineties TV show The Almost Complete History of the Twentieth Century), this live version focusing on film came from the playwright and author Vince Waldron, a veteran of Second City, the Chicago-based improv theatre whose alumni include Alan Arkin, Joan Rivers, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Dan Castellaneta, Mike Myers, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey.
"One night, I was doing a shift for this college radio station," Waldron explains. "There was never much going on so I could do whatever I wanted. On this particular night they had a PBS broadcast of a live in-concert show. This was before stereo TV, so the TV station arranged with our radio station to carry the soundtrack of this live concert, and when that went off I was supposed to start spinning my records. However, I got the mischievous idea to continue broadcasting the sound of the television and got people to leave TV on whatever was on we'd continue to 'simulcast' it. I think it was The Rockford Files and we just ended up dubbing that, and then we ended up dubbing the commercials."
The idea came back to Waldron years later when a friend was ill and asked him to send her some films to watch. Instead of just bundling together a bunch of rentals, Waldron and some of his Second City contemporaries and fellow film geeks (including Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson) dubbed entire old movies for her. Then, in 2003, the idea came up again when the Los Angeles branch of Second City was asking for ideas to fill a late-night show slot.
So Totally Looped was born as a stage venture, with performers putting their own dialogue over clips from the back of the room (in the UK, the performers will sit on stage) with the audience invited to supply ideas for title, plotline and dialogue. The results, as can be seen from Totally Looped's website ( www.totallylooped.com ), include a parody of a short scene between Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets so that it's in a brothel rather than a café; making a scene from Jailhouse Rock about alcoholism; and knowing references to Arnold Schwarzenegger's political ambitions in The Last Action Hero.
The show, on which Robin Williams has guested, came to the UK via a comedy play called The Bicycle Men, which transferred from the Edinburgh Fringe to London in 2007. Cast members including Joe Liss (the performing link between Looped's US and UK outings) and Castellaneta happened to mention Looped to the show's producer, Erica Fee, who thought it would make it in the UK, where she feels that "improv is emerging" again.
Waldron finds that Totally Looped does best touring away from Hollywood, where audiences are more jaded when it comes to film, and so is confident of its UK success. "The UK version will be the biggest, best, most polished version of it yet. You will actually see performers making the gyrations it takes to keep pace with the clips, none of which they will have seen before. It'll be like watching live sports."
Apart from Phill Jupitus, who has toured a number of improv shows, the British performers who provide the teams for this live "sport" are not all names immediately identified with improv, though inevitably they have had at least a passing acquaintance with the discipline at some point in their careers.
When I ask the Goodness Gracious Me star Sanjeev Bhaskar about his record in improv, he says it's pretty patchy. However, a reasonable amount of The Kumars at No 42 was improvised: "We never rehearsed the guests, and the best ones were the ones to keep the ball in the air. Not blocking is the key, really. Improv exercises a different part of your brain and after having done a musical (Spamalot), which I'd never done before, and conquered that particular fear, I thought, 'This sounds pretty scary, I'd better do it'." Bhaskar hopes that the tour will give him more range: "If they find 50 old Hollywood clips with Asians in them, I will be pretty disappointed!"
Hattie Hayridge, known chiefly for her stand-up and her role in Red Dwarf, used to knock about with The Comedy Store Players in its formative years and do improv at a class run by the American comedian Kit Hollerbach (the wife of Jeremy Hardy). Hayridge remembers attending with Paul Merton, Julian Clary, Mike McShane and Mike Myers (who, with Hollerbach, is credited with teaching British comedians the improv games they had learnt in the US, some of which had been devised for poor children in 1950s Chicago). "I was around before they found Josie Lawrence," Hayridge jokes.
Her involvement in improv faltered when the "theatre sports" innovation arrived, again from the US. "It was all based on competitive games and was a bit cheerleadery for me." Theatre sports essentially used familiar improv games such as the "word at a time story", where two performers would tell a story by taking it in turns to supply each word, and were awarded points. This was the basis of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, a rare – but significant – example of an improv export to the US.
Theatre sports was the form of improv Marcus Brigstocke remembers doing regularly at university: "It was good training for the comedy instinct and you don't burn up material for stand-up." Strangely for someone who's a dab hand at panel shows, Brigstocke (who has appeared in Thank God You're Here, ITV's improv show) is most worried about the panel format of Totally Looped. "However, I'm assured that it won't matter if we jump around a bit."
The UK performers, who also include if.comedy newcomer nominee Pippa Evans, the Fringe sketch favourites The Penny Dreadfuls and the Manchester comedian Toby Hadoke, will meet before the tour but there isn't much in the way of rehearsing that can be done.
They may find some guidance in the words of comedians who have done Looped before, though. "There was an improv game, created by Viola Spolin, called 'dubbing'," Castellaneta says. "You had four actors. Two would be onstage and two would be offstage. The offstage actors provide the dialogue, while the actors on stage would lip-sync to whatever the actors off stage were saying. We sometimes did it in the show, sometimes we did it to warm up. Before the show, we'd practise with a film clip or two. But we never knew what clip was going to be played when the show started."
Of the source material, Castellaneta says: "The best movies to improvise to are from the Thirties, Forties and Fifties. They are more dialogue-dependent and don't have as many fancy cuts or angle changes. That's why detective films like The Maltese Falcon or screwball comedies with lots of talking work great. We've found that action pictures don't work, nor do cartoons."
Characteristically, the "kooky" Maria Bamford, an American comedian with a UK following, gives me a sideways look when I ask what it's like to be a "looper". "As an American, I have always talked during movies," she says. "But now I feel, 'Bring a microphone and let the whole theatre know what I'm thinking.'"
We'll soon find out whether Totally Looped fits better with the American psyche than the British. Certainly, improv as a comedy discipline is more deeply embedded in the American comedy heritage.
Sanjeev Bhaskar encapsulates the discrepancy well: "Here, the roots of sketch comedy are older, and they are elements of construction we always had and are comfortable with. Second City and the whole American improv movement emerged out of something else. I suppose it's like jazz; you get a bunch of jazz musicians together and they just jam. We've never really had the roots of jazz here. In the US, they seem to have said, 'What's the equivalent for comedy?' and got a bunch of comedians together to jam. Improv is probably a more natural mindset for them – but that's not to say we can't do it."
'Totally Looped' tours to 15 March ( www.totallylooped.com )