Riffing, for those who don’t know the word, is used across many realms including comedy and music, and especially jazz.

Why am I thinking so much about riffing this week?

This week I had the honour to join Maria Quiban in a Google Hangout with Sir Ben Kinsley, and we chatted about comedy and he mentioned riffing.

Ben Kinsley talks comedy with Martin Shervington


Riffing is natural. It is just what you do when you are relaxed and playing. It is what you do with your best friends, and quite possibly when you get your biggest laughs.

Why is this interesting timing?

Well, this was a synchronistic follow up to a conversation that began with David Amerland here just a couple of days earlier:

There really has been a riff in the air.

As I mention in the comments, riffing is a spontaneous flow of engagement; and you need faith that being ‘you’ being you is funny enough without any gags, without a script.
I’ve just returned to stand-up school for 5 weeks, and the teachers often say your script, your set, is what you fall back on when you are not simply being yourself in the room (well, something like that).
I am still VERY amateur and know riffing is when just relax into our playful selves.

The psychology

In terms of psychology, and you can see this in hangout and on threads too, riffing creates strong engagement as it is natural. It is quick. It grabs attention.
Riffing is when someone just ‘is’, just ‘says’, just ‘does’ that thing spontaneously.

When we run a script, often people feel it is false, just delivering jokes. But when we tell stories naturally, we can include a fresh spontaneity, making it ‘new everytime’. This is when our material and our natural desire to connect with the audience start to work together.

A few self-indulgent examples in the last 24 hours

I was in a coffee shop today and whilst I am sure this joke is not original, someone mentioned there star sign. Then they asked me mine. I responded with “I don’t believe in Star signs. I’m a Cancer and we are very skeptical.”
Last night one of my best buddies, Chris Tabish, said “We need an audience member in the hangout as even though we sometimes laugh at each others content, we are both generators.” I said “Yeh, yeh that’s the reason I don’t laugh at your material.” How we laughed.

In the UK, we call this banter. It is playful, fun and engaging. And it generate laughs.

What next?

Over the coming months I’ll experiment with ‘Hangout, Standup!’ – something I’ve been planning for almost 2 years now. The time has come. We shall riff!

In fact, we have a pilot this evening so I will report back soon…