Improbable improv

I still fondly remember the original British version of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, hosted by Clive Anderson, which aired for many years on Comedy Central in the U.S. That was followed, of course, by an American version, hosted by Drew Carey, which used many of the same American and Canadian comics who’d appeared on the British version.

While I will always love the Clive Anderson version the best, the Drew Carey version was quite funny as well, and it was rerun for years by the ABC Family cable channel.

Since “Whose Line” went out of production, there have been several attempts to produce improv game showcases in the same vein. There was “Drew Carey’s Green Screen Show,” on the now-defunct WB network, in which the improvisers worked in front of a green screen, and animators in post-production added whimsical backgrounds, props and other embellishments to their skits. More recently, there was “Drew Carey’s Improv-A-Ganza,” a Las Vegas-based improv showcase on GSN (nee Game Show Network). Carey also put together some pay-per-view improv specials, none of which I ever saw.

One problem with both “Green Screen” and “Improv-A-Ganza” is that they tried cramming too many improvisers into a single episode. The four-man format of “Whose Line” encouraged camaraderie, running gags and teasing among the improvisers. With the more-crowded rosters on “Green Screen” and “Improv-A-Ganza,” there just wasn’t space for that sort of thing. Many commentators also said the Vegas casino setting for “Improv-A-Ganza” contributed to this as well.

There were also some attempts that didn’t involve Drew Carey. One summer, one of the networks (NBC?) ran “Thank God You’re Here,” a format in which comedy stars (not necessarily from improv backgrounds) were pushed through a door and suddenly thrust into an improv skit, which always started with the title phrase. Jim Henson’s son Brian even produced a pilot episode of “Puppet Up!”, an improv show involving puppet performers. Supposedly, Craig Ferguson shot a game show pilot with improv elements, but I don’t think that’s ever aired. The new comedy game show “Bunk,” on IFC, isn’t an improv show per se, and it’s much more along the lines of alternative comedy. But even “Bunk” has occasional elements that make one think of “Whose Line.”

I’ve given up on anyone ever recapturing the lightning-in-a-bottle that was “Whose Line,” but a new show which premiered tonight is surprisingly funny and promising. It’s called “Trust Us With Your Life,” and even though it was bankrolled by ABC, specifically for American television, it was actually shot in England by the producers of the original British “Whose Line.”

It’s sort of like “Whose Line” with a gimmick. If you ever watched “Improv-A-Ganza,” you know they had a game called “first date.” A couple from the audience would be brought up on stage and asked to describe their first date. The improvisers would then attempt to act it out as the couple watched. The couple could ring a bell to indicate that the improv version was close to the truth, or could sound a buzzer if the performers got something wrong – in which case the improvisers would back up and try a different approach.

“Trust Us With Your Life” is like a whole show based on this game. The host, Fred Willard, interviews a celebrity guest or guests about various stories from their life. These stories form the basis for various “Whose Line”-style games performed by four improvisers – yes, four. Colin Mochrie, Wayne Brady and Jonathan Mangum are the three regulars, and “Whose Line” veterans like Greg Proops will be seen in the rotating fourth spot.

The show premiered tonight on ABC with back-to-back episodes. The first had tennis player Serena Williams as the celebrity subject, while the second had Kelly and Jack Osbourne of the Osbournes. Next week: Mark Cuban and Ricky Gervais, either of whom has great potential for humor.

You would think that the celebrity stories would lend the show a gimmicky aspect, and I guess it does, but the improv games themselves, and everything else about the proceedings, feel much more like “Whose Line,” and are therefore much more fun, than any other post-“Whose Line” project. I laughed a lot during the Serena Williams episode. I think this could turn out to be good, if ABC will give it a chance.

It’s interesting that Willard (who actually is a good improviser, as evidenced by the largely-improvised Christopher Guest mockumentaries) doesn’t take part in the proceedings the way Carey did. He, like Clive Anderson from the original British “Whose Line,” is content to host.