You couldn't make it up!

Sean Mason despairs of the way improv is treated on TV

Improvisation on TV doesn’t need gimmicks, it needs trust.

First, let me qualify that sentence. I am part of an improv group and we have a gimmick. We play our show like it's a sport and we wear a kit. But that's just a framing device that has no impact on the actual improvisation.

Another thing I’m going to get out of the way, this isn’t one of those ‘bring back Whose Line’ rants. It was a benchmark and it was fun but for the most part we’ve moved on.

TV producers like the idea of improvisation. They keep on trying to put it on TV. But they are also terrified of improvisation because they are not in control of it. Like an improv troupe needs to be able trust its players to support each other and make the show work, TV producers need to trust their cast.

The other thing improvisation on TV needs is, and this may surprise people, performers with some improv background. It certainly doesn't seem to be something that TV producers realise as they continue to (mostly) hire stand-ups with no improv background.

The original webpage for Dave’s new Improvisation My Dear Mark Watson pilot –since edited – claimed that stand-ups should be good at improvisation as they should be good at responding to hecklers. This is a gross misunderstanding of what improvisation is.

In the BBC press release for Fast And Loose (which turned out to be neither) Hugh Dennis described the show as ‘half an hour of controlled improvised silliness’ and this sums up more or less everything that was wrong with the show. The producers were so scared of not being in control that they didn’t trust their audience to come up with good suggestions and then they chose scenarios designed for optimal laughter.

Watch Wayne Brady roll his eyes when he is asked to play Michael Jackson because he’s American and black. Rarely was a scene allowed to play out as a good piece of improv. Whenever a scene threatened to develop, Hugh Dennis would panic and throw in a new scenario which led to a string of disjointed, cheap one-liners.

Stand-up comedy and improv comedy are two very different disciplines. They work differently. (Most) comedians who actively dabble in both know this. TV producers desperately need to learn this.

Then, for fear their new show may be compared unfavourably to audience favourite Whose Line Is It Anyway – and it inevitably will be anyway, so get over it – they have to dress up their show in a hokey, woefully used gimmick. In fairness there’s fun in a gimmick round, but a gimmick does not an entire show make.

Dave was quite happy to boast that the awfully titled Improvisation My Dear Mark Watson, which airs this Saturday, was the first time an entirely green-screen improv show had been made. This is not true. And when Drew Carey did it in America a few years ago, the images worked better with what was on screen, they used actual improvisers and it still got cancelled. Fast and Loose overused its Sideways Scene round to the point that the initial idea was so run into the ground it became tiresome. And it had been done before. Better.

When ITV attempted their version of Australia’s Thank God You're Here they were so scared of any actual improvisation that the actors involved stuck doggedly to a script. It is one of two times I have ever thrown something at a TV. Now, that format has been successful elsewhere but that is because the producers have had the faith in the performers that the show can work.

What is so terrifying about just hiring a venue, getting a good cast, filling the crowd, using audience suggestions, and filming it as a live show – not as an ill-conceived TV format.

TV producers need to trust their cast – good improvisers will get laughs, bad improvisers will flounder. TV producers need to trust their audience – we have attention spans, we want it to be funny, we want to see it done well.

It’s been done before. I don’t understand why TV producers are trying to reinvent the wheel when they’ve forgotten how to use it in the first place.

Published: 7 Jul 2011

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