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The Best of Whose Line Is It Anyway?

(ABC / Comedy Central; US DVD: 9 Jun 2009)

Once upon a time there was a British television comedy that was wildly funny and seemed to break all the rules. Some bright producer thought that it would make for an excellent import to the Stateside market.


Of course, there would need to be some changes. Fewer UK accents for one, of course. And the subject matter? Well, that would need to get tweaked, but just a bit. Not, of course, in a way that would dilute the impact of the near-classic original.


It’s a well-worn path, this translation of British comedic product to the American televisual sausage grinder. The results range from the good (The Office) to the catastrophic (Coupling). In a few very instances, though, the studios manage to take a fresh and imaginative kind of show and change as little as possible. One of those instances was Whose Line Is It Anyway?.


The British original was something of a mock improvisational comedy contest in which the host (the droll Clive Anderson, who always seemed to be impersonating a BBC news reader) would throw out challenges to a cast of comics and award them utterly meaningless points based on their performance.


Depending on the scenario being devised two, three, or all four of the comics would gamely troop down to the main stage from their chairs and create something (hopefully) funny out of nothing more than an audience suggestion or rubber foam prop. The results were, more often than not, small gems of comedic chaos that frequently threatened to overflow the show’s chintzy set.


Arguably one of the funniest shows ever to come out of Blighty (and unlike many of the country’s comic exports, instantly translatable), it ran for ten seasons from 1988 to 1998. At that point, Drew Carey, riding the height of his sitcom’s popularity, brought it over to the US and changed hardly anything besides installing himself as host.


It was a kind of comedy-business putsch, and one that was mostly a plus for the show. While Anderson’s underhanded wit was certainly missed (Carey got off his share of zingers but cleverness was never really their hallmark), having ABC’s star of the moment as the show’s ambassador certainly didn’t hurt things.


Though it was never exactly the easiest to find on the schedule—ABC made it something of a sport to find out when the show was actually on—the American version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? did moderately well, running for some eight seasons before getting exiled to Comedy Central and ABC Family. It wound down around the same time as Carey’s sitcom, which he’d been pulling double-duty on for years, marking the end of Carey’s time as prime-time comedian and leaving him plenty of time to contemplate the pros and cons of taking over Bob Barker’s job.


During its run, “the show that Nostradamus didn’t see coming” (as Carey put it in one of his intros) fulfilled most of the (unstated) aims of the British original, to bring some of the fresh anarchy of early, vaudeville-inspired television back to the airwaves. Whose Line Is It Anyway‘s American showrunners were smart enough to keep crack improviser Colin Mochrie and reedy goon Ryan Stiles as the show’s backbone, and rotating a solid set of pinch-hitters (most frequently silver-tongued crooner Wayne Brady and the sardonically Wildean Greg Proops) in and out of the remaining two chairs.


What ABC ended up with was a reliably hilarious show (the sugar-amped studio audience certainly helped) where wit mixed quite nicely with the base—and when all else failed, two of the guys would make out. There was a reason, after all, that Carey says in one episode, “Just when you thought Will & Grace was the gayest show on TV.”


The newest DVD collection, The Best of Whose Line Is It Anyway? Uncensored! is a decent package of ten shows that doesn’t quite live up to either of its selling points. For one, the selection of episodes is fairly top-heavy with celebrity guest turns.


While David Hasselhof, Florence Henderson, and Jerry Springer are definitely good sports (as Carey rather obsequiously keeps mentioning), these are for the most part duds that simply get in the way of a quartet of fantastic improvisers. (The great exception would be the set’s first and best episode, show #521, in which Richard Simmons manhandles his co-stars to the point of sexual harassment, leaving a good segment of the audience gasping with laughter.)


As for the set’s supposed naughtiness, it’s quite a bit less than advertised, but for the occasional joke about bruised genitalia or certain sexual positions (there’s a good five minutes of the Richard Simmons episode that would have caused the FCC’s collective heads to explode). There’s not much in the way of special features here, but for an hour-long clipshow stringing together “highlights” of the first two seasons.


Since Whose Line Is It Anyway went off the air, comedy on television has taken some great strides, with shows like The Office and Arrested Development pushing the boundaries of what is considered acceptable for those 22-minute slots of laughter. But while those shows’ unconventional structures and more deadpan style have broadened the grammar of television comedy, except for abbreviated segments on late-night talkshows, there is hardly room for comedians to simply appear on a stage and make things up (maybe involving a large foam ball, maybe having to make up songs on the spot based on audience suggestion, maybe not).


Without the sort of chaos and surprise that comes from such a concoction, television comedy will always feel somewhat packaged and freeze-dried. It’s an art of the moment that deserves to be let loose from time to time.

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Chris Barsanti is an habitual scrivener on books and film for the lucky readers of PopMatters, Film Journal International, Film Racket, and Publishers Weekly, and has also been published in The Chicago Tribune, The Millions, The Barnes and Noble Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and New York Film Critics Online. His books include Filmology: A Movie-a-Day Guide to the Movies You Need to Know, the Eyes Wide Open annual film guide series, and The Sci-Fi Movie Guide: The Universe of Film from 'Alien' to 'Zardoz'. His writings can be found here.


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