I am so excited about next month’s premiere of a revived version of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”
I’ve been a fan of the show, an improv comedy showcase, ever since episodes of the original British version ran on Comedy Central.
Here’s a typical episode from the British version. I’ve embedded part 1, or you can find the whole thing in tabs by clicking here. As you can see, three of the four comics are North American. The UK version started with mostly British comics, but as time went on Ryan Stiles, Greg Proops and Colin Mochrie started to appear more often:
Eventually, when Ryan Stiles was working as a supporting player on Drew Carey’s ABC sitcom, the two of them became involved in bringing “Whose Line” to the U.S. Drew was the host of the U.S. version; I liked him well enough, but I will always love Clive Anderson’s dry wit the best of all. Drew Carey started the show by telling you that the points he awarded to the players after each game didn’t matter. Clive Anderson would never have spelled something like that out; you had to figure out yourself that this wasn’t really a competition and that the points were just another comedy bit.
Originally, Ryan and Colin were to be the two regulars and the other two seats were to rotate, but Wayne Brady became such an immediate hit that he was immediately added as a third regular, leaving only one seat for the pool of guest performers.
Here’s a typical episode from the U.S. version, linked here and with the first part embedded below:
“Whose Line” had the unenviable task of competing with “Friends” on Thursday nights, and eventually with “Survivor” as well. But it was cheap to produce. At one point, when there was a threat of a writer’s strike, the cast and producers were asked to produce two years’ worth of the show in a few months, and they did. Eventually, the show ran its course on ABC, but it was rerun for years on the cable channel ABC Family.
One secret of the show is that they overshoot – for a half-hour episode, they shoot 90 minutes or two hours of material, and then they cherry-pick the games that turn out the funniest. The British version was a little more open about this and would sometimes run compilation episodes throwing together segments that turned out well but were cut from their respective episodes simply due to time. The closest the American version came to this was a few “Too Hot for Whose Line” specials, which ran at a later hour and included slightly more risque material which had been cut from episodes due to content.
I’ve also read that Wayne Brady is given a short list of musical styles or impressions that he might be called upon to do at a given taping. That doesn’t help him improvise lyrics, of course, since he doesn’t know what a song is about until the game is announced (and often until an audience member shouts out some sort of suggestion). But he can at least have some idea musically of where things might go.
There have been numerous attempts, many of which I’ve blogged about here, to recapture the show’s magic. These included:
- “Drew Carey’s Green Screen Show,” with many of the “Whose Line” regulars, in which the participants played improv games and then animators were brought in after the fact to augment the skits with whimsical backgrounds, props and so on.
- “Drew Carey’s Improv-A-Ganza,” a Las Vegas-based improv show.
Both of these suffered because they had more than four performers on a given episode. I think the four participants-plus-host on “Whose Line” worked a lot better. With six or seven performers, there’s less chance for trash talk, callbacks and running gags.
- “Trust Us With Your Life,” from the producers of the original show, was shot in the UK even though it was being made for a US audience. It had Colin, Wayne and Ryan but was hosted by Fred Willard. The premise was that Willard would interview a celebrity guest, getting them to tell stories from their early life or career, and then those stories would be re-enacted by the cast in the form of improv games. I liked it, but it was a little gimmicky – and Willard got into legal trouble right around the time the show aired.
There were also improv shows that had no direct connection to “Whose Line,” such as “Thank God You’re Here,” in which a comic performer was thrust into an unfamiliar scene on a set he or she had never seen before. One of the other improv performers already on stage immediately says “Thank God you’re here,” and that begins the scene. Jim Henson’s son even tried to launch an improv show for puppet performers, called “Puppet Up,” which aired as a special on, if I recall correctly, TBS.
Some of these other shows had fun moments, but none could ever capture the exact formula that made “Whose Line” such a success.
Now, “Whose Line” is being re-launched by The CW, the minor broadcast network formed from the remnants of UPN and the WB. Ryan, Colin and Wayne are all going to be regulars – although the preview clips at the new show’s web site seem to imply you might not have all three there every week, since some clips feature more than one non-regular. Aisha Tyler will host instead of Drew Carey. You may or may not know the name, but she’s been on a million shows you’ve seen, with extended guest stints on “Friends,” “CSI” and “24,” among others. She was also a host of “Talk Soup,” the predecessor to “The Soup,” and as a cartoon voiceover artist she’s the female lead on one of the funniest shows on TV, “Archer.”
I have high hopes that this show – which brings back the original producer – will succeed where some of the other efforts have failed. I’m really looking forward to it.