On NBC's new series Thank God You're Here, an adaptation of the Australian improv-TV hit of the same name, low-grade celebrity guests—Tom Arnold, say—are given outlandish costumes and props (a chef's hat, an apron, a toilet plunger), shoved onto flimsy-looking sets (a fancy restaurant), and forced to respond to wacky scenarios they know nothing about (Tom Arnold: angry chef!).
Unlike shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which improvisation is used as one tool among many to create scenes that are later honed in the editing room, Thank God You're Here presents itself as a pure improvisational contest. The show it most resembles is Whose Line Is It Anyway, which Drew Carey hosted on ABC from 1998 to 2004. But viewers who got a taste for improv from Whose Line should steer clear of Thank God You're Here. It's not just that the show (which just moved to Wednesday night) is less funny than Whose Line, which coasted for years on Wayne Brady's singing voice alone; it's that what passes for comedy on Thank God isn't really improv.
That's not to say that the celebrity guests are cheating or something. I don't doubt that none of them has seen a script. But the supporting performers in the show clearly have seen a script, or at least a list of setups, gags, and plot points to stick to. Which means Thank God You're Here isn't improv, not in any true sense. Its conceit requires its performers to ignore the immutable law of comedic improv, the one every aspiring improviser is taught on her first day of Improv 101: "Yes, and ... "
In a good improvisational scene—whether a short-form game like those played on Whose Line or the long-form performances seen every night on stages like Chicago's Improv Olympic or New York's Upright Citizens Brigade Theater (where I performed for several years)—the action is driven by one character accepting another's offer ("Yes … ") and then launching it in a new direction ("and … "). A partner of mine once started an improv scene by pretending to stir a pot of pasta on a stove; I joined her, assuming we were co-workers in a restaurant. But when she turned to me and lovingly said, "It's so special to me that you came over for dinner," I discarded my assumption—because sticking to my restaurant idea would only have created confusion onstage. Instead, I patted her on the back and replied, "I know, dude—you're like the kid sister I never had!"—accepting her offer (we're in her kitchen, she's making me dinner, she's in love with me) and adding information (I'm totally blind to her feelings).
My response wasn't particularly witty, but it laid the groundwork for a scene that quickly became very funny as she went to greater and greater lengths to convince my character of her devotion. Through agreement and elaboration, improvisational performers invent relationships, emotional stakes, and dramatic and funny scenes out of nothing but their own teamwork.
Contrast that principal precept of improv with Thank God You're Here, in which the celebrity guests are placed in scripted scenes and forced to vamp their way through. The series regulars—talented improv vets deemed so unimportant their names don't even appear on NBC's Web site for the show—do not improvise at all; instead, they ruthlessly proceed from hoary setup to hoary setup, instructed, it seems, to ignore the celebrity guest's responses. In one scene, Seinfeld's Wayne Knight plays a quack doctor narrating a slide show. When he identifies the handsome, smiling man in one slide as a successful user of his products, the host brushes his assertion aside in order to get to the preplanned gag: "This is actually a 'before' picture of him, taken before he took your longevity supplements, and we have him here right now." Enter, of course, a wizened old man in a stained T-shirt—the punch line the show's writers intended all along, Knight's responses be damned.
And Knight is one of the lucky ones whose offers are merely ignored. Consider poor Mo'Nique, a guest in the show's second episode, who is contradicted over and over in a manner seemingly designed to make her look and feel horrible. Placed onstage as the co-host of a game show, Mo'Nique is asked what special event Rachel, a contestant, is celebrating. She gamely guesses that Rachel is marking two years sober. "Actually, it's my birthday," snipes Rachel.
That's not "Yes, and … "—that's "No, and also, screw you." Leave aside the fact that Rachel's denial of Mo'Nique's offers hangs the celebrity guest out to dry. Which is the scene you'd rather see: someone celebrating her birthday on a game show or someone celebrating her two-year AA anniversary on a game show?
A guest's success on Thank God has less to do with his talent at improvisation than with how willing he is to take charge of a scene and grub for laughs despite the lack of support. Jennifer Coolidge, a veteran of Los Angeles' legendary Groundlings improv troupe and Christopher Guest's films, seems flustered by her scene partners' refusal to run with any of her offers and, denied the opportunity to develop the scene organically, settles for the occasional lukewarm joke. Meanwhile, Malcolm in the Middle's Bryan Cranston, who (as far as I can tell) has taken some improv classes but never performed improv comedy, dives headfirst into his scene as a leather-clad rocker—ripe British accent, deep kisses for every single co-star—and comes out the other end the winner of the show's pilot episode. (The show is arbitrarily "judged" by a wan-looking Dave Foley.) Cranston is not unfunny, but his go-it-alone performance ignores all of the things that make improv not just funny but astonishing. It's funny to see someone come up with a quick-witted joke; it's astonishing to see a team invent an entire well-structured, hilarious scene from scratch.
It's no surprise that posters on improv-comedy message boards are already grumpily complaining about the show, with one calling Thank God You're Here "pimprov" and another declaring, "Improv just got set back 20 years as an art form." But they're not the only ones getting shortchanged. Real improv should make for great TV; seasoned improv performers can cook up 30-minute scenes onstage that are wilder, funnier, and more emotional than most sitcoms can dream of being—and sitcom actors don't have audiences rooting wholeheartedly for their success.
So, even though Thank God has thus far posted solid if not spectacular ratings, I think it's due for an overhaul. In addition to the poor trodden-upon supporting players on Thank God, the airwaves are full of accomplished, inspired improvisers who are only rarely given a chance to shine: I've seen miraculous live improv shows starring Jack McBrayer of 30 Rock, Rob Huebel of MTV's Human Giant, Amy Poehler of Saturday Night Live, ubiquitous commercial actor Ptolemy Slocum, and half the talking heads on Best Week Ever. Why doesn't NBC ditch the scripts, turn on the cameras, and let these performers do what they do best? Why won't TV say "Yes, and … " to some real improv?