[16 April 2007]
Thank God You’re Here is an imported improv game show where winning doesn’t really matter. At this point, I might make an obvious comparison to Whose Line Is It Anyway?, another show restaged for a stateside viewership. But where that show’s translation plainly lacked the original’s strengths—namely, the pantheon of Greg Proops, Colin Mochrie, and Ryan Stiles—this next version of Thank God is not so easily dismissed.
Thank God You’re Here virtually resurrects US televised improvisational comedy, drawing from its improvisational predecessors while conjuring original elements as well. Where Whose Line offered a bare bones aesthetic and regularly brilliant cast members, Thank God You’re Here delivers opulent sets and showcases four different actors every week. This format allows character actors to show off their comedic latitude, too often clipped by typecasting. It’s also a respectable vehicle by which waylaid performers can reenter the pop consciousness.
The set-up is simple. One by one, four actors don random costumes and guess what kind of scene they will be entering. Host David Allen Grier then sends each through a door into a skit in progress, whereupon he or she is greeted by the cast, “Thank god you’re here.” From this point forward, the contestants have to bluff their way through several minutes of humorous curveballs until Dave Foley sounds a buzzer indicating the sketch is over (or has died on stage). After each performer has completed his or her skit, all four are thrown together, wearing new costumes, into a comedic melee of a combined scene. Foley eventually decides who has performed most adroitly, at which point the winner receives a door-shaped trophy.
Nicely reduced to easily digestible bits of humor, Thank God You’re Here follows the Robot Chicken paradigm, so as to pass through the attention-deficit sieve of current viewership. Even better, it fills the long vacant niche of improvisational comedy on TV. It isn’t necessary that every guest celebrity is funny as long as an episode delivers one or two moments of surprise virtuosity. In this age of virality, it is more important to have several clips that can be YouTubed or quoted than to maintain consistency. Caprice willing, Richard Kind’s seemingly autistic tour-de-force in Episode Two will circulate on MySpace for many weeks to come, helping to cleanse the pallet after Mo’nique’s ho-hum sassy one-note performance (also in the second episode).
However, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft a-gley. The show needs a skilled recurrent cast supports the guests. The auxiliary players here violate almost every “rule” of improve, apparently doing their best to grind every sketch to a standstill. Anyone who has ever even flirted with the form is aware that the golden mandate of imrpov is, “Do not block or deny.” Simply, you must work with your co-actors. In the first episode of TGYH, there was, admittedly, very little denial and the show was a great success. But it appears that in between episodes, someone maliciously informed the supporting cast that negation is funny, and the second show featured ad nauseam blocking.
Mo’nique, though horribly sophomoric on her own, could not deliver a line in her sketch without being corrected. When she was asked to identify three contestants on a game show she was co-hosting, the Bob Barker figure denied each name she assigned. Later, when she tried to explain the rules, the Barker fellow overrode her again. You could almost hear the friction as the sketch shrieked to a halt. Similar improvisational atrocities were committed in Kind’s sketch, as he couldn’t even name himself without being blocked. It became clear very quickly that the show’s staple players lack the improvisational talent to flow with the celebrity performers. It is one thing to try to force the guests into difficult situations, but negation is both a cheap way of doing so and an undeniable detriment to the performances.
If TGYH is fitted with a new auxiliary cast or the current one is given a brief lesson in improv, the show has every possibility of assuming the mantle of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, breaking up the painstaking monotony of US nighttime television, that awful farce of reality shows jockeying with crime and doctor dramas. There is something irrefutably enticing about watching actors I had long since written off, such as Kevin Nealon and Wayne Knight, expose their sharp comedic faculties. TGYH looks poised to reverse the wiki-mentality that stardom is accidental and anyone can be famous if only granted a minute of exposure. Thank God You’re Here wrings out the stars’ abilities and spectacularly shows off someone like Nealon, as a prodigious victim of poor writing and casting, and all too ready to take advantage of half a chance.