Improv on TV

For this week’s blog, I searched out improvised content on TV.  “Improv on TV” is a contradictory statement. Television is an edited medium and improv is spontaneous. As a result, the two don’t seem like a good pairing. Putting good improvised comedy on TV can be problematic, but when it works, it’s something really special. (If you need proof of the magic, skip down to the review portion of this entry where there is a clip of a talking monkey.)

When live improv is good, the magic of performers creating funny and cohesive stories right in front of you can be thrilling. When it’s good, the audience experiences a push and pull between getting lost in the moment and thoughts of “Wow! I can’t believe they are making this stuff up!”

Improv actors talk about an audience being “on their side” before the show starts. In other words, the audience wants the performers to succeed. When people go an improv show, they are expecting two things. 1. That the performers will try their best and that 2. the show will be funny. Sometimes improv scenes bomb story-wise, but if the above criteria are met (the actors were committed and provided laughs) then audience will be satisfied.

Improv on television is a whole other thing. The expectations are so, so much higher. Not only does the show HAVE to be funny, the performers must be clearly talented, and the show itself must also meet ALL the other criteria of being a “good TV show” ie. Having a good story flow, having nice production design, having appropriately preportioned commercial breaks, etc. etc.

It doesn’t seem fair really. The audience doesn’t get to experience the joy of watching good performers make funny stuff up, like they would at a live show, because because we suspect that the funniest stuff was probably written or edited in.

Despite the inherent issues involved in creating improvised TV shows, there are a handful of pretty great improvised shows out there. The longest running, Curb Your Enthusiasm, has been on since 1999. Created by Larry David (one of the creators of Seinfeld), Curb follows Larry David’s fictional life in LA with his wife Cheryl. While each episode has a loose story structure, the dialogue is improvised, and the show is shot in a multi-camera format, as to preserve the improvised nature of the show. It’s also on HBO, so the performers are free to go as “blue” as they feel necessary. Spoiler: they go blue often.

I’ve been a fan of Curb for a long time, so it’s hard not to be biased. I really find it funny. But one problem the show has (and a lot of improv has – on TV or live) is dependency on repetition. Larry fighting with his manager’s wife Suzy is hilarious, so it happens often. Larry raising his eyebrows and squinting to question a person’s truthfulness is also funny, so it happens pretty much once an episode. Also the reliance on the word “fuck” can be a bit tiring. Fuck isn’t funny every time, people.

Overall though, the fact that the show has been on for 8 seasons is pretty darn impressive. They manage to have funny episodes while maintaining a solid arc for Larry each season. It’s good improv and good TV.

On a totally different end of the improv spectrum are shows like Whose Line is it Anyway?, Drew Carey’s Improv-o-ganza, and Fred Willard’s Trust Us With Your Life. Unfortunately, due to Fred Willard showing his peeper in a peep show, Trust Us With Your Life was cancelled after only a few episodes in 2012.

Short form, game-based improv is what all these shows have in common. They are fast paced and focused more on jokes than story. It must be a tough gig for these performers as they are expected to be world-class funny while also maintaining network-level appropriateness. Many episodes of Trust Us With Your Life can be found on YouTube. I found the show to be… well… not good. The premise is Fred Willard talks to a special guest celebrity about their life and the improvisers make up scenes about what the guest just said. Overall, the show is unfortunately a bit stiff and a bit silly, but one game in particular was innovative in it’s silliness. The game is: the performers go backstage and act out a scene while laying down on the ground. The scene is filmed and projected to the audience so it looks like they are standing up.

When the show gives it’s performers a chance to be amazing, the show is enjoyable. Unfortunately, most of the time it’s Fred Willard talking to a confused celebrity.

The last show I want to talk about is the reason why this entry isn’t a comprehensive article about all the improv shows on TV. I got distracted by Family Tree early on in my “research.” Family Tree was created by Christopher Guest, who is known for his improvised movies. The main character, Tom Chadwick, played by the utterly charming and delightful Christopher O’Dowd, is recently unemployed. When his aunt dies and leaves him a box of family treasures, he takes the opportunity to research his family tree. What follows is a series of encounters with crazy relatives.

Like Curb Your Enthusiasm, the dialogue is improvised, while the story ideas are written beforehand. Actually, the improvisation taking place is more invisible in Family Tree than Curb, mainly because of the shooting style. Family Tree is more composed (and all around better looking.) The scenes are also shorter and perhaps less ramble-y. Since the show is more composed, there is less visible spontaneity (and therefore less visible improvisation.) And although the audience is perhaps deprived of the joy of thinking “wow, these performers are doing some great improv!” the show makes up for it by being just darn funny.

Family Tree shines in its character details. The first season is basically Tom’s rambling trek through a parade of funny and well meaning weirdos. My favourite weirdo is Tom’s sister, Bea, who talks to a stuffed monkey puppet that she wears all the time:

Nina Conti’s performance in Family Tree is mesmerizing. Her ventriloquism is nearly flawless but more impressive is the fact that she is improvising two characters at once, who are constantly interacting with each other. Monk says what Bea is really thinking but can’t bring herself to say. There are some lovely touching moments, along with a lot of really funny ones.

In one of my favourite scenes of the season, Monk skypes Tom in the middle of the night:

Again, like Curb, Family Tree can fall victim to repetition (Tom encounters again and again a lost relative who just happens to have a special family relic for him to awe over.) But both shows manage to fulfil the two most important expectations of improv on TV: both are funny and both are well made TV shows.

I realize I’m only talking about a few examples of improv on TV here. Like I said, I got distracted. Between now and next blog entry I promise to watch more improv and report back.

One thought on “Improv on TV

  1. Pingback: Clip Show | The Golden Age of Television

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