This week we are very lucky to have not one show of the week but TWO! That is right! This week Fat Penguin Improv in Birmingham is playing host to two very different shows. I sat down with Ben Hall to find out all about the shows that are happening!
Hello Ben. Tell us about Fat Penguin Improv who you all are and a little bit about yourselves?
Fat Penguin Improv have been teaching and performing longform improvised comedy in Birmingham since 2015. We are resident in 2 venues, we have a weekly show every Thursday called ‘based on a true story’ where we invite a guest in to perform a section of their act then answer a few questions before we improvise the rest of the show inspired by their premises. We currently teach workshops 4 nights a week and we run a show every Thursday in our venue plus anything else we book at other venues.
How did you come up with the name?
The name ‘Fat Penguin’ comes from a very old joke about ‘breaking the ice’ – we inherited the name when we joined an existing stand up comedy show by the same name.
Tell us a little bit about the shows that are happening this week?
Last week we had 2 shows, our foundation group showcase on Tuesday the 3rd and our weekly show on Thursday. We have had A range of guests in since we started, and this week we have got another local stand up comic to join us. The format is simple, they do 10-15 minutes of their act, followed by an hour or so from our house team, Bunkum Factory creating a montage of scenes. After the main part of the show we have a public jam which goes on late until we are kicked out of the venue (around 11).
What sort of style Of improv can people expect?
Fat Penguin Improv and our house team Bunkum Factory lean heavily into comedy, and we have very little interest in musical or theatrical improv. If an audience isn’t laughing then it might well be because they are deeply moved – or it might be because they are asleep. We don’t want to take any chances, we know when our audience are enjoying our comedy because we can hear them.
Our venues both serve alcohol and we don’t expect to see any children in our shows, sometimes performers swear and sometimes performers cover topics that children would find uncomfortable. We also invite audience members up on stage for jams regardless of their experience, because our house team have always got their backs.
What’s the highlights of some of your previous shows that you have hosted?
So many! One of our performers came out on stage and the rest of the show was instantly about that. We’ve hosted live tinder dates on stage, we hired Santa Claus to get on stage and get members of the audience to sit on his lap. We try and do something a bit mad every week.
Tell us about the lessons that Fat Penguin do – what sort of styles of Improv can people learn from you in Birmingham?
We focus on long form with a heavy lean into comedy, other types of long form are great, but its not what we do. We are aiming to build and integrate with the next generation of comics. We have trained and performed stand up, clown and improv and we take lessons from all of these. We have a 3 level syllabus, our foundation level is aimed at being fun, noticing your own tendencies and managing your anxieties. Level 2 is very technical and looks at laughter as an evolutionary trait, we also focus heavily on the rules of creating and maintaining comedy. Level 3 is focused on structure, turning scenes into a show, we start by teaching you lots of long forms then we encourage the group to make up a new one. Each level assumes knowledge of the level before so there are no skipping levels unless we know you and you have got relevant knowledge and skills from a school that does what we do.
One thing I have noticed about Fat Penguin, that a lot of Improv companies do not have, is a shop with branded items! What a great idea! How did that come about?
Fat Penguin has been my full time job for almost a year now, we take it very seriously and branding is a big part of that. Despite the best efforts of so many people in Birmingham, and despite 2 major improv festivals, the market research we have conducted from street interviews, suggests that very few people even know what improv is. Some people remember ‘whose line is it anyway’ and we love that, we grew up on that, but its not really what improv looks like now. We also firmly believe that audiences don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it. Our audiences love comedy as much as we do and it took us a long time to build our audience. Our t-shirts are a way to show we are proud of that tribe.
We think that anyone can make porridge, it is bland and uninteresting. A lot of people would eat it but nobody would ever really ‘love’ it. My favourite meal is a spicy curry, frankly, a lot of people would hate what I eat, but I love it. Other people not liking my favourite food doesn’t make me like it any less, people have different tastes. A good chef wouldn’t change the entire menu just because one person thought what you produced wasn’t bland enough for them. Same with comedy.
(Note from The Editor, Holly to the reader – If you want to see the merchandise on offer click here)
A lot of people at the moment are trying to transition improv into video to post on social media channels – do you think this works for improv or do you think the art form is lost in the transition?
I haven’t seen it done well, but I’ve seen some brilliant sketches. A joke has 2 parts, a set-up and a punch. In my opinion the problem improvisers are going to have is in the set up.
If you don’t tell people it’s improv then it just looks like bad sketch, and if you do tell them its improv then they might not watch it in the first place. Personally I think we need to ‘yes and’ where improv is in the public eye a bit more and maybe ask yourself ‘what is the smallest audience I would be prepared to make this video for?’ and make it more specifically for those people. If they like it then they will share it for you and maybe even explain why they like it to their friends.
What have been some of the most unique and different improv sets you have seen this year and why?
John Timothy and Alan Starzinski nearly made me p*** myself, they don’t seem to back away from anything. Also the Free Associations new house teams are awesome.
If people want to find out more about you where can they follow you on social media?
What do you think 2018 holds for the world of improv – what would you like to see happen in the next 12 months?
For the wider community I’m unsure but I hope the focus is on noticing your own style and doing that well. For us, we are focusing on growth to meet the demands of people who want to get involved. We currently run 4 workshops and one show per week across our venues, plus anything we book elsewhere – but we have been approached by businesses and schools who want us to come and run bespoke packages.
And Finally – Why should people come and see you?
We are funny, and you learn something about yourself every time you laugh.
QUICK FIRE ROUND
If you could buy any type of food (right now) what would you buy?
Fillet steak x 2 with some mashed root veg. Mmmm Protein
What is one of the things you would put on your “bucket” list?
1. Write a bucket list
Who do you admire the most and why?
Donald Trump – how the hell did he manage it?
Describe yourself in 3 words.
Keep changing mind
When I dance, I look like…?
Arnold Swarthmore on stage
What is your favorite T.V. channel?
If you could get a yacht what would you call it?
What TV sitcom family would you be a member of?
Rick and Morty
Last item you purchased?
Details about Speedo Futura BioFuse Flexiseal Adult UV Anti-Fog Swimming Goggles, with Pouch
If you could win any award what would it be, why?
Nobel Peace prize for services to Improv, then I could probably a few days off and have a holiday