Everyone has (or should have) that pair of deliciously comfy, frayed, overlarge sweatpants, the kind you wear around the house when you’re sick or it’s a rainy day and you don’t have anywhere else to be. You wouldn’t wear them to a cocktail party or to impress anyone, but they’re made to curl up with a novel and a cup of hot cocoa. You know what sucks? Losing those sweatpants, particularly in the vast dismal depths of the back of your closet where you haven’t found anything since Carter was president. Or worse, having your mother tell you that you’re not a hobo and you should have better clothes to wear, like didn’t you just buy those nice new jeans that won’t make the neighbors stare?
That analogy fell apart a long time ago, but the point is that “Drew Carey’s Improv-a-Ganza” is like finding the comfy sweatpants of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” all over again. In other words, it’s good. Really good. It’s funny and clever and the performers have some of the sharpest, quickest minds in the business. It’s like Whose Line mixed with Green Screen show (full series runs of both can be found here and here in what probably isn’t a totally illegal manner) covered with sprinkles of really, really hammered audience members. So, basically, a dream come true for a Whose Line geek like me.
But I guess I do need to consider why I like Whose Line so much in the first place. I mean, it’s funny, of course. But it’s what I like to think of as “comfort food” funny. I mean, Anton Chekhov and Orson Welles are funny, sometimes hysterically so, but it’s humor that makes you work for the laugh, humor that requires a fairly extensive knowledge of history and politics and economics and gender studies and religion. For a more contemporary example, “The Daily Show” has a tendency to do this as well (it was only in attempting to explain the hilarity of a joke in America: The Book to my younger brother that I discovered the worth of four years of American history, economics, sociology, politics, and literature.) Whose Line never did this to you. Sure, the references could be obscure, but the nature of improv does not allow for these dexterously crafted jokes which require a bachelor’s and a few years of grad school to comprehend.
My problem, though, arises when I see people referencing this as a flaw of Whose Line. Yes, they resort to slapstick and pointing out their own deficiencies (“fourth wall” isn’t really a concept which has occurred to them), but it is absolutely, hysterically funny. This video showing Colin’s and Ryan’s difficulties with accents is hilarious, and while we’re laughing, we don’t stop to consider whether it is their talent or the fourth wall breaking that we find funny.
Because, yes, these guys are improv geniuses (check out this clip if you don’t believe me), but a large part of the humor comes from the natural pleasure derived from watching funny people hang out. (Watch Jon Stewart and Ricky Gervais discuss that here.) The humor comes from their talent, obviously, from their skill in playing with words and expectations and physical expression, but also from the fact that they clearly like each other and what they are doing. It is very, very hard to see people having fun and not have any goodwill towards them whatsoever. Whose Line, and its spiritual successors in Green Screen Show and Improv-a-Ganza, isn’t trying to be earth-changing; it’s just trying to be funny. Because it only has that goal, I’m willing to give it a lot of leniency in the places it goes to achieve it. If I laugh because Ryan notes that his Spanish character has some Italian in him before even beginning the scene, I consider that laugh just as worthy as one that comes of Arrested Development’s three months of set-up.
But in terms of Improv-a-ganza in and of itself, there are a few things worth noting. First, it’s not as though these performers crawled into holes after Whose Line was canceled and only came out a few months ago to film Improv-a-ganza; they have been working the entire interim, most often with each other. So, they have been honing their craft and their chemistry to the point where I’m pretty sure that they can read each other’s minds and predict the future in the form of audience suggestions. Second, the audience’s role is slightly different; games like “Weird Newscasters” or “Let’s Make A Date” have been removed due to the lack of producer input. All suggestions come from the audience, which gives the show a more organic feel and seems to have removed some of the limitations on the performers. Third, like I mentioned before, at least three quarters of the audience are totally, astoundingly drunk. In the first episode, Colin accidentally chooses one of these inebriated individuals to participate, which leads to a hilarity perhaps only matched by Ryan’s dedication to his Carol Channing impression.
Ultimately, this show is nothing earth-shattering, but then niether was Whose Line. That’s not why we watch these shows. We watch them because they are funny and the people are smart and likable and having fun. Maybe these shows don’t quite have the hipster cred of Arrested Development, but they are enjoyable and worth setting aside a half an hour to watch.