John Walker's Electronic House

Television: Thank God You’re Here – NBC

by on Apr.19, 2007, under Television

Televised improv has only ever worked once. And then, it only worked a bit. Whose Line Is It Anyway is an interesting creature, beginning on Radio 4 as a faux intellectual nonsense, then transfering to Channel 4 with the same crew – Stephen Fry, John Sessions, etc, before wading through Tony Slattery and Sandy Toskvig and then finding its best fit with a near all-American cast. It was then natural for a US network to pick it up and start making it for themselves. However, it couldn’t go that smoothly, and naturally changes were made. Clive Anderson’s falsely befuddled nature, and quick-witted cruelty provided an excellent straight man for the hyperactive silliness on stage. Drew Carey’s desperation to be involved created a constant tension, peaking when he leapt from behind his desk to shout along with the rest. But worse, far worse, was the programme’s desperation for you to know that it wasn’t scripted. Yes – we know – it would be a lot funnier if it were.

It’s as if improvisation is some sort of mystical paranormal ability that the audience is deeply skeptical about. “They couldn’t possibly have made two words rhyme if they hadn’t had a team of writers working on it for weeks! This must be FAKE!”

Thank God You’re Here is an Australian import that NBC has no idea how to handle. It’s a simple improv game – take an actor or comedian, put them in a costume, and have them walk through a door into a scene they know nothing about. They have to cope with whatever the cast do or say until the klaxon sounds. It’s a good concept, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t work. Were it not for the desperation to boast that they have “no idea, you’ve no idea, no idea at all…” about what’s going to happen. Constant declarations of how “dangerous” it is, how it’s “an actor’s greatest fear”. As if not knowing what was going to happen next, or what everyone else was going to say, weren’t how real life works. The real pressure, the real fear for those participating, is to be funny.

This needy nature spreads to host Dave Allen Grier, who if given free reign can be fantastically funny. It’s the good old irony of having an excellent improviser constricted by trying to remember his awkward lines. Trying so hard to create an atmosphere of tightrope walking over rabid sharks, Grier generates an all-permeating insincerity that drags the potential of the show down with it. Co-hosting, and psuedo-judging the performances, is the lovely, cuddly Dave Foley. Far better, he cracks wise after each sketch, but then says that everyone was “hilarious”.

The show finishes with all four in one scene, which until the third episode was a completely unfunny disaster, suddenly made hilarious by the complete descent into crazed kissing leaving DAG clueless about what to do. Which is not a criticism, really. He can’t have been expecting Shannon Elizabeth to start smooching one of the regular male cast, only to be upstaged by George Takei doing the same, then upstaged once more by Dave Foley leaping from behind his desk, rushing the stage and kissing the man while Elizabeth began snogging Tom Green, and then eventually poor, confused DAG. (Shannon Elizabeth then realised her mistake and kissed Foley, remembering he was the judge).

Er, so impromptu orgies aside, it’s as hit and miss as improv always will be, and only enjoyable if you can swab the treacle of gushing bravado from your mind and enjoy each sketch alone. It’s interesting who copes well. The choice of guests has been intelligent so far, picking people with a decent background in either comedy or improv. Both Jennifer Coolidge and Jane Lynch from Christopher Guest’s improv film troop have appeared, as well as Jason Alexander, Brian Posehn, and Tom Green. However, oddly, none of them did particularly well. Coolidge resorted to her Best In Show character when asked to be a beauty queen, and copped out of most moments for genuine improvisation (but for one exellent moment – when asked what she would like to eradicate from Earth, she replied immediately, “dry ice”). Lynch was given a poor scenario, as a teenager rumbled for having a party by her parents. Posehn couldn’t cope at all, and it’s a real surprise they left his scenes in the show, with him standing still looking terrified, then giggling. Green and Alexander were both fine, but each resorted to type, Green shouting and climbing the sets, Alexander crowbarring in a reference to Seinfeld.

Far, far better, and perhaps unpredictably, were Bryan Cranston, Wayne Knight, Chelsea Handler, and Joel McHale. Knight was surprisingly quick, and constantly funny. Chelsea Handler was almost too confident, slick and rude, scaring the regular cast. McHale, who seems genetically designed to be hated, was really very funny as an Egyptologist, and controlled his scene impressively. But best so far has been Bryan Cranston (which is a bit of a shame, as he was the first to go in the first episode), who shedded any Malcom In The Middleness he might still have, and was absolutely hilarious. And not just because he too smooched every member of the cast.

So you end up with a hit to miss ratio unfortunately balanced the wrong way. When it hits, it’s great, but the rest of the time it’s flaying awkwardly, especially without the support of a confident host. (Which makes no sense – DAG on anyone else’s programme will take over completely, dominating normally to humourous ends). Bumpering the sketches are a couple of pre-taped scenes which are used to “warm up” the contestants the previous day. These are edited together well, each of the four taking part in the same scenario, one after the other, the funniest moments cut together to create a single run through of the scene, jumping between each actor’s take. This trims the lack of laughs out completely, and so far all six of these have been very funny. They, bizarrely, are the model for how television improv should be produced, but instead are used as throwaway moments between the over-hyped and less funny live sketches.

2 Comments for this entry

  • RodeoClown

    Have you seen the original Australian skits?
    They have a bunch of them up on youTube – the makers put them up after each weeks show.

    Some very good ones – they generally only put the best bits online, so it’s better to watch them there than on the TV (coz you miss the boring bits – I think the whole show would be better done like that).

  • DAT500

    Isn’t the whole premise of improvisation simply that you should actually be there? Not according to BBC America, of course, which constantly re-runs Whose Line is it Anyway, as if it’s some secret government conspiracy to cause mental illness – not actually far from the truth.

    The truth is that American television is plumbing the depths so low that any new set or costume seems like a revolution. Just think of all that money,

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  • bothererblog » Thank God You’re Here - UK

    […] Four hundred and sixteen years ago, I wrote about the NBC micro-series Thank God You’re Here. The model is: guests are dressed in a costume and sent into a room they know nothing about, and have to improvise there way through a scene with the regular cast. It ran for only a few weeks, and hasn’t been picked up since. Dave Benson-Phillips was a hopeless host, with the wonderful Dave Foley wasted as the so-called judge. Where it did succeed was the regular cast’s ability to cope with the guest changing things, quick to adapt the scene appropriately. […]