My first night in London the struggle was real with some serious jet lag but I ended up in a 16-person dorm at my hostel in Russell Square, thus catching up on sleep was pretty much a non-option. Off I went in search of some entertainment and ended up stumbling upon a comedy theater called The Top Secret Comedy Club. The venue is a roughly 300 capacity, two-story, tucked away gem with a laid-back atmosphere and cheap beer. I couldn’t have asked for more! I purchased a ticket to see a supposed "hot, up-and-coming" comedian, who shall remain nameless, and grabbed a spot in the back row of the upstairs room. In front of me was a ridiculously obnoxious patron who laughed louder than anyone I’d ever encountered in my life, to the point that I jumped out of my seat a few times. It’s my personal opinion that this dude was getting paid to laugh at the lackluster quips about the relationship between the comedian and his very vegan girlfriend, but I digress…
Having chugged through my first pint rather quickly in order to dull the bad jokes, I snuck out the door in search of another. I heard a commotion coming from below me and wandered down to the basement to check things out. There on stage were four guys enacting a Game of Thrones improv skit that had me rolling even though I only caught the second half. The bartender informed me that the show was free and to grab a seat to join in on the fun. Done and done!
I’ve seen a lot of stand-up over the years but, to be honest, I think the last experience I had with improv was in high school drama class. After one night with the Shoot From The Hip troupe, however, I’ll most certainly be on the lookout for more. I was in stitches throughout the duration of their show with topics ranging from the jaded squirrels of Buckingham’s St. James Park, to the proper dining table centerpiece for dinner with your in-laws, to Islamic State counter-terrorism tactics. I shook hands with the guys on the way out and later followed up with performer, Tom Mayo, for an interview.
How did the group initially come together?
We all met at Royal Holloway University, where there was a club called ‘The Holloway Players’ that did improv comedy. We all really enjoyed it and after graduating, with nothing else coming from our arts degrees, we thought we’d have a go at doing it in the real world. We did our first gigs all over the place, then started our weekly residency at The Top Secret Comedy Club one cold Tuesday night in November 2011, after a couple of hours flyering in the rain. We haven't missed a show yet!
What’s the story behind the name, “Shoot From The Hip” ?
We were in a university bar, called Medicine, we had a deadline for printing flyers for our first show, we didn’t have a name yet. No-one could agree on one and we were slowly getting more stressed/drunk while trying to choose. Luckily, ‘Shoot From The Hip’ was eventually suggested by one of our original members, Ellen Gould, who is now a fantastic set designer, and we all loved it; to 'Shoot From The Hip' means to act without thinking... which seemed pretty apt for an improv group. We still can’t agree if there’s a ‘!’ at the end of the name.
You guys have great chemistry. Did that take some finessing or did you discover the right combination of people and hit it off from the start?
It’s like a band; off-stage there may be artistic disagreements, one week someone is disillusioned, but on stage it’s all about performing and having a good time. SFTH's chemistry comes from knowing each other well, being friends, and trusting; without trust the whole thing breaks down.
Is it truly all improvised or is there some pre-show collaboration to ensure that things go on without a hitch?
It’s completely improvised; some people find that hard to believe, but if we planned any of it, it simply wouldn't work. So it’s the audience coming up with the bulk of the ideas. The only thing we know going on stage is who is opening the show. And then we get a suggestion of, say, ‘frog’, so one performer starts a scene of a boy catching frogs, so the other one becomes his scuzzy pal, then the first one tries to protect his frog from scuzzy pal, etc., etc. It all snowballs into some sort of sense.
What’s your favorite exercise to get the ball rolling with the audience? Any particular topics you fancy?
There is a game we play called 'Hand of God' which involves the crowd shouting 'DIE' at us if we get something wrong, they seem to love that. It’s a good stress relief for them. When it comes to topics, we like ones we haven't done before: we’ve probably done over 100 bakery scenes, so if someone shouts out 'Robot relationship councilor' that's exciting. There’s always someone shouting ‘dildo’, too; no more dildos needed.