Another rant with a televisual bent

One of my bugbears has long been bad improvised comedy – and this is where having a shared blog comes into its own, because James Senior certainly has all the same opinions as me on this subject. We were both treated to an expensive display of tedious dicking around on stage in Edinburgh this year, also known as Paul Merton’s Impro Chums, which is exactly the kind of thing that makes discerning artists think improv is basically shit. Yeah, Merton said some funny things, but his chums were mostly there for him to walk over for comic effect, and the only chum with any of the give and take needed to create genuinely good improvised sketches was Richard Vranch (sadly, due to his generosity as a performer he was on stage rather less than the others).

It is apodeictic that the programme which hammered the last nails into the coffin of improvised comedy (from which Merton and chums had somehow managed to escape) was the infamous Whose Line is it Anyway? – but equally, I remember that as far back as my school days people would talk reverently about “the early days” before it got a bit rubbish. It ran for ten series, after all, it must have been good once, surely?

Thanks to 4oD (that’s Channel 4’s on-demand service for lay people) you can now go and check those glory days out, and episode 3 of the first series is particularly exciting because it has the line-up of Stephen Fry, Peter Cooke, John Sessions and Josie Lawrence, all of them extremely talented men. Apart from Josie Lawrence who is not a man and is of questionable talent from what I’ve seen (though do prove me wrong if she’s been especially brilliant in something at any time).

The episode is a revelation: it’s dismal. I mean, the whole programme is obviously about as ill-concieved as it could be – the way the performers lounge on conference seats at the back of the stage and saunter forward for each skit in a kind of apathetic, mock-reluctant way… or the way Clive Anderson really seems to have no idea what is going on and certainly has failed to explain the games to the actors before and during the show… or the games themselves, in many cases – but leaving that aside, surely the brilliance of Cooke, Fry and Sessions combined can only be heart-stoppingly hilarious?

Uh-uh. Watch it if you don’t believe me. Fry comes out with the occasional prepared jokes (“my name’s Richard, but I’m more of a Dick”), when Cooke is left alone to talk in character there is more than a shadow of his early greatness in evidence, and Sessions, as always, gives virtuosic displays of verbal dexterity. Even Josie Lawrence comes up with a funny costume. But this is not a Stephen Fry monologue, or Peter Cooke sitting on a bench extemporising, or the John Sessions show (though he clearly thinks it is): the performers are given situations to act, stories to tell, things to achieve, and they singularly fail every time, as if doing a funny voice and remembering the scene you’re in are totally incompossible. They take long pauses while they try to think of something funny to say; when they think of something funny to say that fits neither the scene or the character they are playing they go ahead and say it anyway; they fail to end sketches, talking long after Clive Anderson’s impotent buzzer has heralded the end of what they’re doing (usually way too early or way too late). Similarly they talk over each other like it’s a big upstaging contest, and don’t listen to what else has been said in each scene as if they’re all acting in individual soundproof boxes.

Put succinctly, all they’re doing is lazily showing off, and whilst it yields the occasional chuckle when somebody does say something funny, the rest of it is car-crash television of the worst order. Indeed, it even redeems Paul Merton and his chums a little, because with one notable exception (that’s you, Andy Smart) they did at least seem to know what they were doing and attempt to hold scenes together a bit. (Nor did they broadcast it on national television, though they did charge me fifteen quid for it.)

There are plenty of books written about good improvisation – obviously it’s a bit late to push any of them towards the Whose Line team, but in any case it’s not rocket science – did nobody think to explain the games to the actors, or to practice them a bit? Is teamwork such a bizarre concept for someone who likes to ad-lib?

Before anybody accuses me of being a snob about my own “field of performance” (as the UK comedy guide Chortle once did) – damn right I’m a snob about it, and that’s not even remotely to suggest that any of the shows I have been involved in have neared the kind of brilliance I believe is possible in improv, it’s just to say that there’s no excuse for lazy, shoddy improvisation, especially the kind that costs £15. A student of mine was showing an interest in the subject the other day and I showed him one of the brief video clips on the Uncertainty Division website; again, far from perfect, but he thought it was scripted. It’s hard to imagine somebody making the same mistake about the antics of Messrs Fry, Cooke, Sessions and the other one.

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