Prove your humanity

The Long Goodnight is a charmingly titled show, a pun based both on the fact that it is a long-form improv comedy, and that it is performed by Sam Longley and Esther Longhurst. When the opportunity to review The Long Goodnight first came up, I have to admit I was more than a little intrigued. I’ve always been a fan of improv comedy—I grew up with Who’s Line Is It Anyway? and this performance sounded like it would be something similar, just longer.

Okay. No more long puns.

Before the show I got the opportunity to interview Longley and Longhurst. It was a fascinating insight into both the show, its co-stars, and the history of improv.

Both Longley and Longhurst are veterans in their field. Between the two of them, they have an improv career spanning an impressive 38 years—a career nearly double my own age. Upon hearing this, I was floored and I remarked that they had enough years between them for their improv experience to have a mid-life crisis. That got a chuckle.

When I asked what had drawn both Longley and Longhurst to improv, and why they had kept at it for so long, I got two very different answers.

Longley, the elder of the pair, had been doing improv for 30 years. He’d participated in everything from improv stand-up to theatre games to Theatresports, something he had first encountered while studying in Chicago. When I inquired as to what exactly Theatresports was—I had never heard the term before—I was given a quick history lesson.

Theatre games had been started by an actress named Viola Spolin; they were quick, improvisational exercises done during rehearsals to help her actors get out of their heads. It got them to shake off typecasting, try different roles and learn to be flexible. From these humble beginnings, the practice became quite popular, and was later adapted into Theatresports by Keith Johnstone, a competitive take on short-form improv. I must confess, I was more than a little bemused by the idea of improv as a sport, but no, it is very much a thing.

Earlier, Longley had jokingly remarked that if given the opportunity, The Long Goodnight would be comprised entirely of him explaining factoids for an hour. After my crash-course in the history of the theatre games, I understood what he had meant. Not that I minded—I said I would be more than happy if it were— because I got the distinct sense that he and I had the same kind of geeky encyclopaedic tendencies.

Longley went on to say that, for him, improv was both fun and challenging—in improv, there is no homework involved but a great deal of skill.

Longhurst, on the other hand, had a much shorter story. Once a director, she had started taking improv classes as a way to help her actors cope with problems on-stage. But she’d fallen in love with improv through those classes, and now she has 8 years of improv experience under her belt. For her, the joy lay not in the challenge but in the little moments. She spoke of the way that, in a good bit, watching her scene partner’s eyes light up in response was all the thrill she needed.

So, naturally, I asked if either co-star had any stand-out memories or performances, any particularly good jokes or bits they had enjoyed performing. Both shook their heads. It was then that I learned that improv is a bit like getting black-out drunk. When I said as much, they both laughed—though Longhurst was quick to point out that she could hold her improv better, as she remembered a fair bit more than Longley was able to.

The reason they couldn’t remember their performances, Longley explained, was that when they stepped on-stage, they did so in a state of total attentiveness. He said that in this state, their minds were blank slates, primed and ready to start generating ideas. Being so focused on the moment meant that their performances completely slipped out of their heads.

With my curiosity peaked, I finished the interview a little more knowledgeable about improv, and more than a little keen for the night’s performance.

And I was not disappointed. As Longley and Longhurst had said, the show started out with a conversation, a three-way dialogue between the actors and the audience. There was a delightful bit involving a prop that Longhurst had brought on-stage—a small take-away container containing vegetables, which she delightedly offered to not only her co-star but to us as well.

An audience member’s tale of making a jackfruit burrito bowl inspired a discussion on veganism, which then naturally morphed into a discussion of lies, Santa and Christmas traditions. Technically, the show hadn’t started—but it was downright hilarious all the same.

But then the lights dimmed and the show started. And oh it was one hell of a show.

From a sadistic little girl who was definitely going on the naughty list, to an Uber driver with some opinions about online dating, to a passive-aggressive house husband and his 75% vegan wife, each scene was a different kind of hilarious. As Longley had explained to me, all the scene ideas came from the first initial conversation, but that sometimes it was hard for the audience to see the connections. Now that I knew to look out for them, I had a great time connecting the dots.

Each scene transition was beautifully slick—the two actors would lock eyes for the briefest of seconds before moving with practiced ease into the next bit. Earlier, I had asked about this; how did the two coordinate? Longley had let me in on the secret—that they operated on what seemed to me like a theatre equivalent of a trust exercise. All they did was treat each other as if they were the smartest person in the room. Anything one suggested was the best idea ever in their partner’s eyes. And, watching them perform, I could see that in action.

The scene transitions weren’t the only parts of the show that were smooth—everything from the comedic timing, to call-backs from earlier jokes and scenes, to the way Longley used an audience member’s phone ringing in a scene—everything spoke of the kind of practiced ease that I would expect from a duo with 38 years of improv experience between them.

The call-backs never got too repetitive and in particular, I was quite amused by the return of the vegetables—which Longley used for a bit of excellent foley work.

I was impressed then too by the way the pair were perfectly comfortable even when one scene became less comedic and quite bleak—it gave the sense that yes, they were committed to exploring their characters and their arcs, not just for comedy’s sake but for the sake of the story itself.

While The Long Goodnight won’t be on again until after the Fringe Festival (a most unbearably long wait) I do very much recommend popping it into your calendar for next February. It is a masterclass in improv comedy—and an affordable one, to boot. But, in the meantime, head down to Lazy Susan’s and check out the other shows on offer—like the Big Hoo-Ha, a weekly regular that features both Longley and Longhurst; or Shapiro Tuesdays, an open-mic night held in the same location.

And though the wait is long, make sure to set that reminder and I’ll see you next February for another round of The Long Goodnight.

The Long Goodnight was on November 20 at Lazy Susan’s Comedy Den. For more information visit their Facebook page.