Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Former sitcom star Drew Carey fronts a group of seasoned comedians and comic actors. Working before a live audience, they field suggestions from the crowd in order to improvise “scenes.” Along the way, Drew and his crew also engage in little skill games, exercises in acting obstruction, like using only single syllable words, or spilt second suggested changes to character or motive within a scene. It all sounds exactly like Whose Line Is It Anyway?, ABC’s adaptation of the British hit of the same name, canceled last year. Leave it to the WB, way-station for unwanted TV, to salvage Carey and his creative team for a new, yet similar outing.
Drew Carey’s Green Screen Show adds to its Whose Line elements the twist of animation. Every week, Drew and his cast of exceptional ad-libbers work in front of the title backdrop, hoping to hit upon some semblance of humor. The raw footage is then shipped out to be reworked by talented artists. Using all manner of animation techniques — stop-motion, hand-drawn, CGI — the artists create scenery and build energy.
As each skit begins, Drew announces the situation and physical circumstances. Suddenly, the Chroma Key dissolves and the image enhancements “magically” appear. The illustrations become a crucial part of the sketch. Sometimes, a joke will be outright illustrated, at other times the animation provides a witty visual aside. While many of the jests are obvious or antiquated (how many different ways can you tell a joke about water breaking?), the animation makes them seem fresh. Like the combination of cartoon and live action in motion pictures like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the mix here celebrates the anarchy made possible in animation while expanding the possibilities of bodily comedy.
Green Screen is structured around commercial breaks, so that each skit or skill game has a chance to breath, growing or grinding to a halt within its five- to seven-minute window. Small “blackout”-style sketches follow each ad intermission, often some of the best material in the show. As for the long form funny stuff, it is clear that Green Screen has lots of potential. Its success will rest on the performers’ shoulders, but they have that nifty buffer provided by the surrealism of the hand-drawn settings.
From the premiere episode’s opening game, “One Syllable,” the combination of animation and on-the-spot creativity works. Set against a “military” backdrop, stop-motion GI Joes fill in the bodies of the performers, whose faces remain visible. A later sketch revolving around “How to Have a Baby” uses exaggerated images to increase the pre-parental panic being acted out by the cast.
Not everything works in Green Screen. A few of the regularly featured “games” that are part of every show become exercises in exasperation for the audience. A segment called “Freeze Tag” is like a series of bad one-liners, with neither the art nor the gags quite smoothing over its sloppiness. And a “Pre-Written Sentences” sketch, using phrases submitted by the audience, is the very definition of “hit or miss.” For every brilliant non-sequitor, there is a cornball cliché (whoever said viewers were clever writers?). But Carey always has an ace up his sleeve — in this case, it’s the computer-generated chaos available at the stroke of an artist’s pen.
Thankfully, throughout the first episode of Green Screen, the device never overshadows the quick wit and tireless efforts of the cast. Perhaps the most recognizable faces belong to Greg Proops and Colin Mochrie, holdovers from Whose Line, and they consistently illustrate why Carey has brought them back. Carey seems fit and fired up, pleased with the chance to work beyond the usual sitcom and stand-up formulas. Looking a lot like a human cartoon himself, he fits perfectly into the unusual universe of Green Screen, and the animators obviously love working with him, as they incorporate his goofy mug in some very surprising places.
Yet the main foible within improv remains. Several times throughout Green Screen, the performers opt for a slightly sophomoric angle to guarantee a giggle. It would be nice to see the level of invention in the humor reach the same strata as the animated material, consistently pushing the boundaries of image-based innovation. Hopefully, the company will grow more comfortable in the format and broaden Green Screen‘s scope. Within the pilot episode alone, there is such a reliance on the safe and the formulaic to make the any fan of the art of ad-lib frustrated.
With the studio audience an unlimited source of inspiration and the undeniable skill of the performers, Drew Carey’s Green Screen Show only has one problem: how long can the animation keep up its part of the broadcast bargain. There is a risk with this show that the novelty will wear off, so it turns into another variation on that well-worn BBC entity. Until then, while it may seem like another heaping helping of the same old show, Green Screen gives the concept a brand new, illustrated spin.