Comedy Spotlight: The Trip

Photograph: Phil Fisk/BBC/Revolution

Improvisation in comedy can be a double-edged sword. It opens the door to inspired moments, but there is often a fine line between inspiration and indulgence. There are a number of good examples of improvisation used well in comedic TV and film - Curb Your Enthusiasm's dialogue is famously improvised, but the solid story structure of each episode allows for a purpose to the scene that plays well off of the looseness of the improvisation. This Is Spinal Tap's improvised dialogue makes the faux-documentary feel more realistic (it is probably a large part of the reason many thought it was a real documentary when it first came out), realism that plays well off of the comedic/musical setpieces of the movie. Nathan For You requires improvisation, because it is for all intents and purposes a comedic reality show. The scenarios that Nathan Fielder presents are well-thought out and comedic in and of themselves, but the real-time reactions by real people – and Nathan's real-time responses to those reactions – are a large part of what makes the show so funny.

The Trip, the first film in a series directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as heightened versions of themselves, is another movie that I would put in this category. The film takes the form of a travelog, in which the two comedic actors take a food tour of Northern England. The movie centers around Rob and Steve's relationship and interactions, but the development of their personal and professional lives is also a large theme. The course of the food tour, and the movie itself, is built around improvised scenes between Rob and Steve – scenes that define the comedic sensibility of the movie. 

The Trip's setup echoes that of many comedy movies/TV, whether improvised or not – that being a series of comedy scenes. While this can often be a recipe for a tiresome experience with diminishing returns, this movie somehow manages to maintain its comedic momentum throughout. Ultimately, I think this comes down to the interplay between the comedic, improvised scenes, and the more serious moments of the movie. I think it is the reason that The Office (US and UK) were so effective comedically. Without the romantic subplot, and other more serious themes, of these two shows, there wouldn't be the emotional depth that makes the inanity of the boss (Michael Scott/David Brent) and his lackey (Dwight Schrute/Gareth Keenan) that much more entertaining. Similarly, without the more dramatic scenes and themes of The Trip – which, although they do not become dark enough to make the movie a drama, are serious reflections on career, relationships, and life in general – the funny scenes where Rob and Steve are taking catty swipes at one another's career and lives and doing dueling impressions would not be as welcome nor as funny.

This movie is a very unique comedy creation – in no small part due to its use of improvisation, but also because of its Britishness, its faux-reality, its beautiful depictions of Northern England's landscape and cuisine, and certainly its serious tones – that manages to maintain momentum and rewatchability. I would highly recommend it!!


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