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Did Improv Comedy Help Elevate America’s Consciousness?

Improv show Whose Line Is It Anyway? associated transgressive ideas about blackness and queerness with beloved personalities. While Americans laughed, did they learn anything?

Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Dan Patterson and Mark Leveson
Warner Bros. Television | The CW
2013-

Why Can’t We Act Gay Anyway?

White men’s role in the perceived edginess of the show mainly consisted of their flirting with homosexuality and genderqueer performance, a type of joke that occurred so often that it became associated with the show’s comedy in general. Because it was not “real”, i.e., the men involved were perceived to be heterosexual, queer issues could be comedic, in contrast to the absence of women’s issues and the slightly confrontational nature of racial ones. One explanation for the presence of this theme is Superiority Theory, which “works through the creation of a hierarchy between the teller of a joke and its butt” (McLaughlin 2013).

The same concept is behind the idea of “mocking the weak” as described by Davies and Ilott in Comedy and the Politics of Representation: Mocking the Weak, in which laughter is “aggressive” and works to reinforce superiority over the objects of the joke (2018). According to Davies and Ilott, there are three roles to be played during a joke: the teller, the audience, and the butt. The teller and audience may collaborate against the butt, but one person may also play several roles at the same time, as in the case of self-deprecating humor. (Davies and Ilott also note that Superiority Theory humor can be used in more complex and subversive ways, “by laughing at sexists, racists, or homophobes.”)

Some of the men’s jokes seem to fall into this “mock the weak” category. Jokes about women sometimes function this way, and their repeated female impersonations for laughs shade into overt transgender jokes. These often use the trope of a dramatic gender reveal, either on the player’s part or while telling a fictional date story (2.15, 2.18, 3.01, 3.16, 3.26, 4.27, 5.13, 7.21, 8.01), and some involve overt violence or threat of violence toward trans people (2.32, 3.04, 4.12). In other situations, players make implications of bestiality when given prompts involving farmers or rural characters, and anal sex is often associated with the same characters in the same way (1.03, 2.11, 2.27). Prompts involving prison generally result in jokes about homosexual prison rape (3.11, 6.09).

The existence of these jokes should not be overlooked, as they are not only deeply harmful toward their targets but also reflective of attitudes in the wider culture at the time. However, they are comparatively rare in the overall content and style of the show, and even in the same episodes and games that are problematic, the performers may create positive or relatable examples, such as Brady’s sympathetic and enthusiastic portrayals of drag queens and closeted trans people (3.04, 3.16, 3.29, 4.28, 8.16). 

Carey’s jokes about himself and the other players often occupy this grey area as well. Nearly every episode features one or more jokes about how the “winner” of the faux game show “gets to do something with Drew Carey”, and Carey makes many enthusiastically self-deprecating jokes about being a sexual deviant, homosexual, “disheveled transvestite” (6.03), demandor of sexual favors (3.13, 8.17), and so forth. Carey seems to be manipulating the expectations of superiority theory by creating a hierarchy, but using self-deprecating humor to cast himself in the subordinate role and then embrace that role.

This illustrates the fundamental tension in the show between mocking the weak and a different strategy of humor: comedy from the unexpected, or incongruity theory, which can sometimes appear similar to superiority theory if the content is the same. However, this theory posits laughter as a reaction to “something that fails to match up to people’s expectations, according to how they have been conditioned to see the world”, according to Davies and Ilott (9). They continue, “It can speak volumes about the norms and conventions of a given society”, while at the same time, “jokes premised on incongruity have a potentially subversive function as social critique: by being subjected to laughter, institutions lose their perceived power, and the structures that hold them in place are revealed to be arbitrary” (9). The vast majority of Whose Line Is It Anyway?’s queer jokes fall into this category, which is, again, made possible by the fact that all the performers are presumed to be heterosexual, so any deviation from that expectation becomes surprising and incongruous. 

The storytelling aspect of running jokes is particularly important in this category. Drew Carey and Ryan Stiles, who knew each other and had worked together previous to Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and helped develop the new show together, often engaged in humorous flirting or incongruous jokes about each other in the first few seasons (2.01). In one episode, Stiles jokes that in order to stop rumors going around, he’ll “have to stop showering with Drew Carey” (2.18). In the same episode, during a game of Questions Only in which the players can only speak in questions, Stiles puts a hand on Carey’s arm, and Carey asks him if he is gay. Stiles responds, “Don’t you know that Drew Carey is the only man that can give you the answer to that question?” After a long pause, Carey takes a step toward Stiles, and they are saved by the buzzer and a transition to commercial – before which, laughing, Stiles asks “What are you doing? What just happened there? What is that commercial for?”

On another occasion, when prompted to joke about what Carey might be thinking at that moment, Stiles offers a gravelly-toned “I wish Ryan was standing on this side so I could look at his ass” (3.02). A similar joke occurs a few episodes later (3.04). Both provide clear examples of situations in which one player makes fun of another by insinuating that he is gay, but the joke is structured in a way that involves both participants and does not set up a clear hierarchy. 

Other pairs engage in comedic flirting and occasional onscreen cuddling or kissing, either of their own accord or in response to explicit prompts, but the Colin Mochrie/Ryan Stiles relationship was a particular fan favorite and became strongly associated with the show. Their chemistry and humor in impromptu flirting scenes were clear (1.07, 1.10), and they began kissing onscreen in season two (2.15, 2.24). They sometimes followed these skits by reminding the audience of their real-life wives, showing their wedding rings to the cameras, or protesting that “it’s just four guys doing improv” (2.15, 2.29, 3.38).

Although most sequences do not include the word “gay” or other explicit acknowledgment of this as a theme, Carey chuckles early on in the series that “Man, you make one joke about being gay and it just haunts ya” (2.17). In another bit, after prompting Brady to do a harem girl dance, Carey says Whose Line Is It Anyway? is “the show where you can never be too rich or too gay” (3.38). All four performers protest, showing their wedding rings and teasing Carey for not having one, to which he responds, “Yeah, I’ve never heard of a married gay guy before…”

Season four marks the transition period between these types of queer jokes, which have a distinct edge of risk and incongruous humor, to queer joking as an expected element of the show and part of its overall tone. Everyone continues to reassure the audience that the performers are heterosexual, so the audience can enjoy the titillation of risk in safety, but the humor becomes more physical as a way of preserving the incongruous surprise.  By mid-season, Carey segued out of commercials with lines like “For the thousands of you who’ve written in, no, Colin and Ryan are not a couple” followed by a faux-secretive chuckle (4.15), and “Welcome back to Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the show with more same-sex mouth-to-mouth kissing than any show in the history of television” (4.18).

The fact that this humor had become expected from Mochrie and Stiles is evidenced by the rising numbers of prompts, both pre-written and solicited from the audience, involving romantic and sexual situations between them. At the beginning of the season, Mochrie is given the character description of “temperamental actor having to do take after take of his big kissing scene with Wayne and Ryan”, which prompts numerous onscreen kisses during and after the game, to which Carey jokes “just when you thought Will & Grace was the gayest show on TV…” (4.03) and in numerous similar games where Mochrie and Stiles both perform, they are prompted with characters that are funny because of their sexual or fetish implications (e.g. 4.23). At one point, Stiles licks Mochrie’s ear (4.25), and at the end of the season when Mochrie has to guess the subject of a news broadcast, the broadcast being shown is a montage of the many occasions on which Stiles waved his tongue at Mochrie (4.31).

Perhaps the most telling evidence of the transition during and after season four is the appearance of 1980s fitness celebrity Richard Simmons as a guest star in episode 5.14. Although Simmons has never publicly addressed his sexuality, he was and is often assumed to be homosexual, and this is played up heavily in the episode. Carey and Brady openly flirt with him for laughs, while Mochrie and Stiles place themselves in blatantly sexual positions with him during a game of Living Scenery (which became more of a situation for faux gay interactions than exploitation of women as the show progressed). Simmons, for his part, gives the audience big winks and “OK” signs to signal how much he is enjoying the men’s proximity. The audience gives him a standing ovation, and in retrospect, Mochrie remembered that the audience’s laughter had to be cut down to keep the episode within its length requirements.

If it had not been before, it was now totally acceptable for homosexuality that was perceived as “real” to appear in episodes. Although this style of humor involved other players in the process of making it a hallmark of the show, and many seemed entirely willing to participate (4.06, 5.06, 5.14, 6.05), Mochrie and Stiles remained the central couple (5.05, 5.08, 7.06). When Mochrie, in character as “Ryan’s wife”, declared Stiles the best lover he had ever had, the audience went wild (5.12). After a “saved by the buzzer” situation, Carey says “I was looking forward to seeing [Ryan] lick your head” and Stiles interjects, ”” think all of America was, Drew.” (7.18).

At the end of the episode, Stiles caps off the final game by jumping on Mochrie and completing the unfinished lick. Despite their overacted begrudging postures, no performer’s reluctance ever seemed like genuine embarrassment or humiliation. They knew the audience would go wild for it, and that knowledge lent an air of confidence to the queer roles they played and jokes they made. If they ever thought the audience was “punching down”, they never showed it, and only cultivated a sense of audience complicity. 

What’s in a Joke Anyway?

It can be difficult to define whether a joke is self-deprecating, appeasing, aggressive, incongruous, or some combination of many attitudes. Uncertainty and creative tension are part of the appeal of improvisation. However, comedy creates an audience community, even – or especially – in a television setting, which can feel more intimate and unobserved than a public theater. The structure of Whose Line Is It Anyway? as a long-running television program fostered a long-term audience that found the performers relatable, and this audience was much larger than that of any comedy club or lecture hall (Davies and Ilott 2018). That community effect can be lasting, and create a feeling of empathy with the people and stories perceived to be part of the community, especially with such often-repeated exposure to those people and stories. 

Many of Whose Line Is It Anyway?’s standard joke formats seem to be a type of humor designed to reinforce the dominant culture. Jokes about women follow stereotypical lines, and although some performances involve a kind of gender-bending, it is a kind intended to mock those who bend gender (Johnson 2013). Yet consistent exposure to these jokes in a casual setting, and the audience’s feeling that the regular performers were their friends, instead contributed to a normalizing of genderbending and homosexual contact. What originated as an incongruous surprise became less and less surprising. The escalation of Mochrie and Stiles’ physical interactions and status as a potential couple is the clearest demonstration of this effect, and whether intended to mock the weak or not, their jokes represent confidence that is neither conciliatory nor defensive, and Brady’s jokes about his own blackness seem to exist in the same realm of confidence. 

Although it is impossible to judge exactly how much impact one comedy show might have, and it cannot be called groundbreaking in the wider world of standup and improv comedy, it would be disingenuous to think that a program this widespread and beloved had no effect, especially given the content that made it famous. Audiences came to Whose Line Is It Anyway? for a laugh, and over the course of eight seasons, left with an unexpected openness to blackness and queerness on stage, and likely also in their daily lives.


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Whose Line Is It Anyway BloopersYouTube, uploaded by PaulyG70, uploaded 22 Oct. 2016,

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