Improv, sans the 2-drink minimum

Times Staff Writer

The people doing the best improv during the premiere episode of "Thank God You're Here" are in the studio audience. They're in stitches, let me tell you, laughing so hard one had to wonder if somebody had planted monitors with "Seinfeld" reruns playing in key spots. They certainly could not have been laughing so uproariously at what the TV audience sees -- a series of perfectly capable comedic actors being forced to relive some of the more tedious moments of their thespian education.

"Thank God You're Here," premiering tonight on NBC, is an improvisational acting "competition." Need we say more? Well, since this is a review, I suppose we must. Four performers are thrust into a variety of "situations" -- an excavation of an ancient Egyptian tomb, a beauty pageant, a morning talk show -- in which they must improvise their roles. Hilarity, whether through comedic brilliance or just good old mortification, will ensue.

As added insurance, the production values are high. Well, high-ish. Good sets, good costumes, a fine support team and proven comedic talent -- on the pilot, the "contestants" were Wayne Knight (best known as Newman on "Seinfeld"); "Malcolm in the Middle's" Bryan Cranston; Joel McHale, who hosts the E! network show "The Soup"; and Christopher Guest veteran Jennifer Coolidge -- all promised success.

Except this is improv and improv isn't funny. OK, sometimes it's funny, like when it's done by Bill Murray or other graduates of Second City. Even then, most successful improv takes place in confined, dark spaces, late at night and with a two-drink minimum. So, a certain level of hysteria is self-induced.

In network prime time, it's more like sitting in on an embarrassing portion of an acting class -- watching "Thank God You're Here" (the first line of each skit), one can't help but think of Morales and her great song about the ridiculousness of improvisation class in "A Chorus Line" and how maybe you should be trying to get tickets to that instead of watching this.

And this isn't even real improv, which, when well-done, is almost always an ensemble affair that usually winds up way outside the borders of where it began. Here, the only people improvising are the poor "contestants." (Minimal feedback is offered, and a winner chosen, by Dave Foley, who ends each scene with a blast of an air horn. The less said about this whole setup the better.) Everyone else is operating off a script and apparently told not to deviate from it even if the improvisation renders it nonsensical.

As it turns out, the costumes and sets also restrict whatever humor might actually arise from the circumstance; they are distracting and limit what the actors can do with themselves -- putting Knight in a giant purple bug costume may be good for a brief visual snigger but seriously, how's he supposed to act in that thing?

Most everyone goes through a phase, usually in college or just after, when they "discover" the high humor of improv theater. (It usually takes about a year to grow out of this.) NBC would do better to model the tried and true -- take the competition aspect out of the show (this is not "American Idol"; no one cares who wins) and have the four actors, in street clothes on a blank stage, acting out scenes drawn from a hat. Like they do in clubs.

That, or give viewers a shot or seven of whatever the studio audience is drinking.


'Thank God You're Here'

Where: NBC

When: 9 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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