Four Comedians and Improvised Humor

Several years ago I stumbled across this weird British game show. I didn’t exactly know what it was, and at first glance it looked pretty cheesy. British television is always different from American, and unless you live in the culture, a lot of it doesn’t even make full sense. So I expected this show to be the same. But the audience was laughing, so I thought I’d give it shot and watch for a few minutes.

As it turns out, I loved it. I hadn’t heard anyone really talking much about it, so apparently I hopped on the _Who’s Line Is It Anyway?_ bandwagon before it really started to gain popularity among American viewers. Improv comedy can be such a flip of the coin – some of it can be _really_ funny, and some of it can be _really_ dull and lame, depending on the quality of the comedians involved. _Who’s Line?_ hit the high quality nail right on the head. Some of the games were kind of dumb, but some of them had me laughing so hard there would be tears pouring out of my eyes. I was an instant fan and watched every time I was fortunate enough to find it on the dial.

And I was still surprised by how few of my fellow Americans were aware of this show. I’d mention it to people, and most had never heard of it. I think it might have been exclusively a PBS show at the time, or possibly A&E; I can’t really remember. After a while, though, I noticed that it seemed to be gaining some momentum because more and more people were talking about it.

And then suddenly it exploded onto the American scene – and like so many things, once the Americans get their hands on something, they invariably screw something up. I was bitterly disappointed when Drew Carey took over hosting of the show from Clive Anderson. Personally, I think Drew is crass, dirty, and awesomely unfunny. He’s got one brand of humor and one brand only – the dirty joke – and he tries far too hard at it, which only makes him that much less funny. Clive was a much better host with a much drier, but much funnier, sense of humor, and I think it was a misjudgement and a gross error to not bring him over to the Continent with the show.

One of the things that Drew does that most annoys me is revealing right from the outset of each episode that the points don’t matter. It’s common knowledge that anytime you have to explain the punchline of a joke, that’s when the joke ceases to be funny. It took me a couple of episodes of watching the British version of _Who’s Line?_ to discover that the points were, in actuality, irrelevant to the outcome of the show. They were a running gag, and once that was understood, they became quite amusing because they were a _quiet_, subtle joke between the host and the players. Carey’s blundering on this point may cater to Americans who have little grace where it comes to subtlety, but takes this particular running gag and completely undermines the whole point of doing it. It makes me wish the British had kept this particular gem of a TV show – they did it much better than we do.

Of all the games in the show, however, the one I enjoy the most of “Scenes from a Hat.” This game is the one that most represents my own sense of humor. It’s taking any of one of a million strange scenarios and acting out a quick one-liner of what that scenario might look like in real life. This is something I tend to do all the time, but most of the time people don’t seem to ‘get’ it. I earn a lot of strange or puzzled looks whenever I act something out the way it appears in my head, I think maybe because people don’t really expect it and so aren’t geared to see or hear humor pop up right in the middle of a conversation. People watching _Who’s Line?_, however, ‘get’ it during this game. They know that the comedians are going to be acting something out, they’re prepared for humor, and so react positively when the joke is delivered. The antics here are outrageous and hilarious, and “Scenes from a Hat” will probably stand as my all-time favorite game in this show.

I don’t generally appreciate it when the games turn bawdy and course, but overall _Who’s Line_ is a fantastic show with some really great talent to drive it. The British did a good thing in getting this comedic ball rolling. It’s just a shame that American TV had to go and take some of the fun and enjoyment out of it.

3 thoughts on “Four Comedians and Improvised Humor”

  1. I remember stumbling upon the British version at something like 3am a while back — and staying up, still, to watch two episodes.

    Do they have the British episodes on DVD? Hm.

  2. This has happened with a number of British programmes I believe, and may reflect the differences in attitude across the Pond. Over here usually we take the US programme as it is and screen it. The US on the other hand seems to think its viewers won’t be able to cope with the British humour and so remake it with American actors or whatever. 9 times out of 10 the remake just isn’t as good. Personally, I don’t quite see why they can’t just screen the originals, the same way we do the US ones.

  3. I don’t know if they do, Eric. I’ve not seen them, but then again, I’ve not really looked that hard.

    I agree with you, Stephanie. Personally, I like British humour (and British spellings), but Americans seem to like remaking things in their own image and then saying it was all their idea in the first place.

    I don’t sound _too_ cynical, do I?

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