Yeah, I took an improv class in college. It was fun, as I recall. I think I had to do (a shamelessly awful) Shatner one time, and the devil another (neither was my idea); you never quite knew what you were going to get — which, I suppose, is the point of the thing. Someone would be all, "First time at the zoo?" And you’d be all, "Yep. First time in the country." And then you’d both try to come up with something entertaining to happen to a tourist surrounded by wild animals. Deportation, mauling, alien-abduction-plus-probing, whatever. Again: fun. Then, one day, this guy made an improv "choice" that I don’t think any of us really thought twice about (and I no longer remember). When our teacher came to class the next time, she informed us that she’d been really upset by it, and felt the “safety of the space” had been violated, and that we’d probably be doing book work for the rest of the semester. Freaked me out a little. Things eventually calmed down and went back to normal, but I think I started skipping after that.
My intended point, which I’m not sure I’ve quite reached (I’ll press onward nonetheless, though, in the immortal and noble spirit of the theater), is that improv can be tough/complicated/scary/unpredictable, even when the stakes are relatively low. They say comedy, all about specificity and timing, is the most difficult sort of performance to pull off — so impromptu comedy’s gotta be the worst, right? Well, yes. And then, in a way, maybe kinda no.
We’re about five episodes into NBC’s new, unscripted-laffs foray Thank God You’re Here (Wednesdays, 8/7c); the last installment was my first full taste. The format’s fairly straightforward (and faithfully lifted from the Australian show that served as inspiration and namesake): four celebrity guests, one door — the former sent one at a time through the latter by a host (David Alan Grier) into a scene (populated by TGYH improvisers and initiated with the eponymous phrase) for which they’ve received no preparation. They then sink or swim, their performances rated by a judge (Dave Foley of News Radio, The Kids in the Hall). After a final, “all-in” scene, wherein all four contestants perform together, Foley announces the winner and everyone goes home.Wednesday’s guests: Tom Arnold, Fran Drescher, Angela Kinsey (The Office), Fred Willard. (Past contestants have included Jason Alexander, Tom Green, Shannon Elizabeth, and George “Mr. Sulu” Takei.)
Improv, pretty much by definition, is gonna be hit-and-miss. It was that way with the late, great Whose Line Is It, Anyway? (comparisons to which are inevitable); it’s that way with Here. Winner Arnold, as a cornered, belligerent chef, and Drescher’s soulless, exquisitely condescending resort developer fared best; Kinsey seemed nervous but scored a few laughs (she’s also adorable, it turns out), while the always brilliant Willard, saved for last, somehow fizzled. A quick-on-his-toes Foley holds up okay — his worst and most painful moments are shared with Grier, who (God bless him, he seems nice enough) I’ve just never found very funny.
Thing is, since they’re making it up, you cut ’em some slack — and really, except for the horrid, horrid Grier-Foley interactions and awkward-banter moments (which all involved seem to hate, as well), TGYH doesn’t need all that much. The rotating-guests thing is a decent hook, and there are enough laughs to warrant tuning in again. Next week: Paul Rodriguez, Nicole Sullivan, Ana Gasteyer, and Clarence Boddicker.
Brian Villalobos lives in Austin, Texas (practically), writes on film and TV, and totally cried at Stuart Little.