Television

Comedians without a net

Improv comedy, long popular with live audiences, is crashing the TV mainstream

Andrew Clark August 9 1999
Television

Comedians without a net

Improv comedy, long popular with live audiences, is crashing the TV mainstream

Andrew Clark August 9 1999

Comedians without a net

Improv comedy, long popular with live audiences, is crashing the TV mainstream

Television

Andrew Clark

On a miniature hockey rink in Montreal, two teams, one from Eastern Canada, one from the West, are locked in heroic battle. But there is not a puck or skate in sight. That’s because the rink is a stage and the “players” are comedians. They are competing at the World Improv Championships—where the ultimate goal is laughter. The threeday contest, part of the recent Just for Laughs Festival, features five-member teams of comedians performing improvised scenes inspired by random suggestions. As the crowd cheers him on, Vancouver’s Dean Haglund, an X-Files cast regular who also does stand-up, confronts a four-armed monster, played by two teammates. As an extra challenge, the performers must act their scene in Shakespearean style. It is a vintage comedy moment—no scripts, no net—and 34-year-old Haglund rises to the occasion. He steps back and declares: “Two hands or not two hands? That is the question.” The quip wins him a chorus of applause.

These days, scripts are out and wit is in. In the 1980s, stand-up comedy was the hot ticket; in the early 1990s, it was sketch comedy. Now, improv is crashing into the mainstream. One of the most popular forms, Theatresports, in which teams compete by improvising before a panel of judges, is performed on every continent except Antarctica. In Canada, which has five official Theatresports leagues, improv is especially popular with teenagers and university students. This year’s High School Improv Games drew 1,200

fans to the finals in March in Ottawa.

Despite a long-held belief that improv is a ratings killer, it is also making inroads on U.S. network television. The half-hour-long Whose Line Is It Anyway? became a surprise ratings winner when ABC introduced it as a summer replacement last year. The series, which stars U.S. comedian Drew Carey and Canadians Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie, draws one million viewers in Canada each week. In Quebec, the Ligue Nationale D’Improvisation (.National Improv League) is entering is 10th season on Quebec television. There are also TV improv shows in Italy,

Sweden and Belgium. The Toronto-based The Comedy Network, which broadcasts the World Improv Championships, is set to launch a new improv show, Not to Be Repeated, this fall. It is also planning a second season of Improv Heaven and Hell, starring the Canadian duo the Devil’s Advocates (Albert Howell and Andrew Currie). Comedy Network vice-president Ed Robinson says it only makes sense to tap into the genre.

“It’s hugely appealing to young viewers and it also works for the older demographic,” he adds. “Kids and their parents can watch it together.”

As recently as a year ago, talk like that could seriously damage a North American television executive’s career. “Television audiences aren’t as forgiving as theatre audiences and for that reason improv on TV is a tough nut to crack,” maintains Andrew Alexander, founder of Toronto’s Second City and executive

producer of the 1977 to 1984 comedy series SCFV. Tough, because the qualities that make improv so compelling live—its celebration of chaos, the risk the performers might tank—make it a potential disaster on television. “You lose control,” says 31-year-old Vancouver improviser Kristina Agosti. “That’s the exciting part.” But it traditionally

worried television producers, who prefer the predictability of scripted comedy, which can be neatly packaged, testmarketed and given a laugh track if necessary. “I pitched American producers for 10 years,” says Dan Patterson, the British creator of Whose Line Is It Anyway? “They would get excited, but then they’d back off. It scared them.” The producers’ apprehension sprung

in part from improv’s counterculture roots. In 1966, Keith Johnstone, an associate director with the London-based Royal Court Theatre, began experimenting with improvisational acting exercises. It was an attempt to revitalize the theatre by blending the populist appeal of wresding with conventional acting. But the British establishment loathed Johnstone’s work. “The audience sat like whipped dogs watching a bunch of articulated zombies onstage,” says Johnstone. “Improvisation was a calculated insult to normal values.”

The “insult” hit Canada in the late 1970s. Johnstone, by then a professor at the University of Calgary, formed the Loose Moose Theatre, and in 1977 he created Theatresports. At the same time, other forms of improvisation, such as the Improv Olympics, were taking shape. These styles were even closer to sporting events. They featured judges awarding points and referees penalizing performers for obscenities or cheap jokes and the audience was encouraged to cheer or jeer—just like crowds at a hockey game. Johnstone credits the Canadian “enthusiasm for anything connected to sports” for improv’s initial success. Of course, Canada already had a history of improvisation. Second City, the Toronto the-

atre company had been using it in its shows since 1973. Alumni, including John Candy Joe Flaherty and Andrea Martin, went on to star in the critically acclaimed SCTV series, which, in its early years, sometimes used scripts developed through improv.

Theatresports quickly spread to the rest of Canada. Then in 1979, Johnstone published Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. It became a bible for improvisers, who used it to form Theatresports leagues around the world. In turn, the leagues nurtured many talented comedians. The Kids in the Hall, whose TV series of the same name was a counterculture hit in the early 1990s, sprung from the merger of two 1980s Toronto Theatresports teams. Mike Myers of Scarborough, Ont., cut his teeth in London working with the improv troupe the Comedy Store Players.

In 1988, Patterson crafted improv into a television-friendly format in which the best skits taped during a two-hour live show were edited into a half-hour program. The result, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, became a cult hit on British TV and ran for 10 years. In 1998, he tried to take it to Hollywood. The producers he met with, however, wanted a hipper American cast with celebrity hosts, such as Jenny Mc-

Carthy so he declined the offers. Then, Drew Carey star and producer of the popular ABC sitcom The Drew Carey Show—urged on by his co-star Stiles —decided to back a U.S. version of the show. Soon after its première, TV critics were hailing Whose Line Is It Anyway? as the sleeper hit of the summer. “Up until then, you never thought you could make a living from improv,” says Mochrie. “Now, people are seeing it can be done.”

Back in Montreal, Haglund and his West Coast teammates have done their job at the World Improv Championships. It has been a strange event. The victors have been pelted with rubber galoshes (provided by the producers) and showered with adulation (some fans took photographs during the action). As he sits backstage and savours his team’s victory, Haglund is already planning on taking improv one step further. He has an online Internet improv Web site in the works. Viewers plugged in around the world will be able to send skit suggestions to the comedians. Cyberspace, the actor hopes, will ensure that the immediacy and interactivity of improv survive. And with good reason, says Haglund: “It’s a chance to create something with someone else—other than a baby” [¡3