“On The Spot,” The Answer to the Question Nobody Asked

I think it is fair to say that no one has heard of On the Spot. It was an obscure show on the WB in 2003 that only lasted for five episodes, and really only appealed to Whose Line obsessives like myself. But, to be honest, I’m kind of surprised it even lasted five episodes. Not that anyone ever asked, but this show was a direct response to the question, “Why has no one ever tried to improvise a television sitcom?” Taking place in the fictional Sun Spot Hotel, this show mixed familiar sitcom tropes (new manager, played by Jeff B. Davis, has to figure out how to run a failing hotel on the fly) with an improvisational flavor created by beginning with only half a script, performing with a host (Chip Esten) and live studio audience, and forced ad libbed line changes throughout the half hour. It was creative and ambitious, but ultimately, I think, too weird for network television.

The only reason I found this show (I was actually only able to find a video of the pilot, here) is because I have a frightening and unhealthy obsession with Whose Line Is It Anyway, and I have a habit of spending hours looking up obscure clips on YouTube of whatever the performers were doing in the late nineties and early aughts. So it’s not like this show ever has or will make any impression whatsoever on the zeitgeist; I just got a bit of a kick out of seeing that two of my favorite Whose Line performers were actually working together long before I thought they were. But even though this program is painfully irrelevant, I still can’t help but find it kind of cool. I mean, it had the ambition to take on the sitcom, and that deserves recognition in and of itself.

Look, a sitcom is sort of the television equivalent of mashed potatoes. You know what you’re getting with mashed potatoes. They’re potatoes, and they’re mashed. Maybe they’ll have a little butter or salt on them, but when you start eating mashed potatoes, you know exactly what’s going to happen the whole time you’re eating them. Everyone pretty much makes them the same, and, sure, some Arrested Development types might try to throw in bacon or cheese or broccoli or something, but, in the end, mashed potatoes are mashed potatoes. Now, you can have bad mashed potatoes (that powdered stuff is just weird), but still, if it’s the choice of bad mashed potatoes or no mashed potatoes, you’re probably going to sit there, mindlessly eating the lousy mashed potatoes on a Nick at Nite marathon or something.

The point is, at its core, the sitcom is unremarkable. It’s 22 minutes of comfort food, and no matter how you try to embellish it, you’re still going to have mashed potatoes underneath. But that’s why I found On the Spot to be so cool, because instead of trying to embellish the sitcom, they changed the nature of what they were working with. It was like they used yams or something, like the difference between regular potatoes with butter and salt and sweet potatoes with butter and cinnamon and sugar. It felt similar, but the experience was entirely different.

Which is why I’m so disappointed that I could only find the pilot. The potential was there, screaming to get out and knock around this overused and tired genre. But the performances were still a little raw, and the whole thing felt a little scattered. I could see what the show might have been, but what it was – a sort of amusing experiment – was unremarkable. Nonetheless, it’s worth watching, whether for the innovation or to satiate your Whose Line obsession. At any rate, based on the fact that you put up with my mashed potatoes analogy, it’s probably more productive than anything else you’ll be doing for the next half hour.

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