By Steve Bennett – Chortle: The UK Comedy Guide – July 30th, 2011

      Explaining the demanding concept of Set List, producer Paul Provenza borrows a quote that goes: ‘Asking a stand-up to improvise an entire set is like asking a magician to do real fucking magic.’

      Nonetheless, that’s the task he and his co-conspirator Troy Conrad set the four willing victims in this experimental format, which transfers to Edinburgh next week. The guest comics are given a set list just 15 seconds before they take the mic, and have to spin a routine around the half a dozen or so phrases it contains; chapter headings that could relate to genuine bits – ‘Bacon Syndrome’, ‘Forget The Penis’ etc – but don’t. A couple of audience-suggested wildcards are added for good measure, too.

      Provenza is probably best known as the director of the film The Aristocrats, which wasn’t so much about the titular filthy joke, but about exploring the concept of a comic voice. So you can understand his interest in seeing his colleagues squirm, observing and recording how their individual comic personalities react differently to the pressure like some sadistic vivisectionist. And no surprise, either, that some of his subject’s approaches fare better than others.

      Jackie Kashian came a cropper as she genuinely tried to improvise material from the meaningless phrases. That she forgot to dip into audience suggestions, so getting out of sync with the set list headings projected behind her, added to the bafflement with which she was received. As opener she said she would be ‘milking all the goodwill of the audience’ – and that was possibly closer to the truth than she would have liked.

      TJ Miller hit a much more fruitful seam, the suggestions prompting a couple of genuine personal anecdotes which were just rough enough around the edges to suggest they weren’t part of his usual set, while he also successfully riffed around such unlikely-sounding concepts as The OK Pumpkin, winning respect for hitting the mark as well as laughs for some genuinely funny tales.

      Ari Shaffir, who’s done a sex-themed show in this very same strip-club venue, showed he had a greater range of bedroom stories to suit almost whatever title was thrown at him; not to mention even nastier material on paedophiles and abortions… thought that last one was handed to him on a plate with the suggestion ‘Gallagher’s abortion clinic’, immediately conjuring up horrific images of the melon-smashing comedian at work.

      Finally, Greg Proops showed exactly what this format was capable of – as well he might, given his 437-year career as a top improviser. He weaved prepared material around off-the-cuff comments, showed off a surprising knowledge of Canadian politics, and called back to other comedian’s sets – all the while keeping the laugh rate high. He complained the audience, post-1am and in an airless room, were more sluggish than he thought he deserved – which may be true, as this was an impressive display in anyone’s books.

      This shows the full possibilities of Provenza’s idea, great comedy given an edge by improv’s potential to fail – although there’s always some fun in seeing comics under pressure, even when it doesn’t quite come off.

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