A Fine Line

Sketchy characters: Drew Carey (center) and improv friends

Quite often Whose Line Is It Anyway? (Thursdays at 7:00 p.m.; KSTP-TV Channel 5) is the funniest show on television. Admittedly, trying to retell the improv jokes that earn it this distinction runs the risk of had-to-be-there-ism. But remember when Wayne Brady and Josie Lawrence improvised two verses--and a chorus!--of Gilbert and Sullivan about chiropractors? Or the game where everybody spoke only in questions, while doing impersonations at the same time? That was awesome, as Chris Farley used to say.

Well, that may not make the case for this show's virtues, but it's easier to establish why this is the most honest comedy on television. Every sitcom nervously covets your laughter, or at least your lassitude: Please, please, hold off on the remote until that commercial break, these shows implore. Your emotional participation is in a very real sense irrelevant, so long as you (or your channel changer) just sit there. A halfway truthful viewer has to recognize his or her complicity in a feedback loop complex enough to merit a David Foster Wallace essay (or at least a footnote to one of those essays). Hey, sitcoms prod you, that guy just did what he said he'd never do, just because some pretty girl asked him! How totally unexpected! And then comes the laugh, just in case you missed your cue. The ultimate contemporary sitcom wouldn't even require characters; it would just shuttle a passel of stock types (Gay Neighbor, Ditzy Blond Girlfriend) through some equally generic predicaments (Romantic Confusion, A Misplaced Gift), with some closing resolution whose falsity everyone could appreciate. We could call it That '90s Show.

Whereas Whose Line sculpts those raw materials into something new every couple of minutes. The "game," in which points don't matter--"like a liberal in Texas," quips host Drew Carey, man of a thousand feeble wisecracks--pits four comedians with and against each another in a series of games, the object being simply to make the audience laugh. Sheer wit serves better than cruelty; save for the jabs at Drew, insult humor has no place here. There is no script, no reliable sense of what will and won't work. The regulars are tall drink of water Ryan Stiles, a deadpan demento who also appears on Carey's sitcom; balding Colin Mochrie, whose slow burn lasts no more than half a second; and Wayne Brady, equally at home reading a fake newscast from a malfunctioning jetpack or making up a song on a second's notice.

The games themselves offer enough variety to occupy a room of first graders for days. Some suggest getting-to-know-you exercises from your first day at college; others never turn up many comedic possibilities (the superhero game usually degenerates into unfunny confusion); still others wouldn't be out of place at a Mensa convention (my favorite requires each team to twist a strange prop or two into as many jokes as possible). There is also much off-the-cuff singing, provided by Brady and whoever else can carry a tune.

Granted, you're seeing the highs. Each show is edited down from a series of two-and-a-half-hour sessions--an editing process that helps explain why the panelists seem to own no more than two sets of clothing each. Still, the laugh-per-minute ratio remains astonishingly high. If improv is a "high-wire act," as performers typically call it, what is most impressive is their ability to look down and still keep going. Sometimes the panelists crack one another up, and frequently they reduce Carey to hysterics. But rather than distracting from the fun, these admissions convey the willingness of everyone concerned to be entertained by the unexpected.

The snob move would be to discourse upon the infinite superiority of the British version. (Like its big-ticket followup, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Whose Line originated on the BBC; it was introduced to Americans via daily syndication on Comedy Central in the early Nineties.) Anyone who has seen those reruns (which air on cable channel 31 in Minneapolis; 45 in St. Paul) will notice that the cast has remained more or less the same--Stiles and Mochrie regularly appeared, as did Greg Proops. But Brit host Clive Anderson oversaw the show with a dryly understated wit, perfectly highlighting the goofiness he was allegedly meant to judge.

Carey probably can't spell understated, and the most painful segment of the American show is the forced guffaws the panelists emit when Drew heaves his opening joke out there for all to, er, appreciate. (If there is a laugh track in use, this is when the audience reaction is most likely sweetened.) Yet for the most part he mercifully keeps out of the running, save for his customary invocation as the nadir of sex appeal. (When panelists are asked to provide examples of "things you'd hate to find on the Internet," for instance, someone is bound to say "naked pictures...of Drew Carey?!" and grimace. Gets them every time.)

Yet taking the programs as a whole, I much prefer the American version. Its humor is more muscular and earthy, and more up-to-date as well. Where the Brits can sometimes get a little small-islandish for my taste (asked to provide a march about traffic jams, one participant improvised a bit about cutting through them by...riding his motorcycle. Woo-hah!), the Americans record all the pop-cultural detritus floating around us and play it back just slightly warped, to hilarious effect. Stateside, there are Red Hot Chili Peppers songs about football, fake noir dialogue in commonplace conversations, even kisses between Styles and Mochrie. The effect is of a group of very clever people riffing on whatever strikes them as risible--which is how all of us negotiate contemporary culture, really.

It would be too much to interpret this program as some sort of resistance to the cultural dross surrounding us; if anything, the only depressing aspect of Whose Line is its revelation that what passes for "common culture" in America these days comprises little more than hit movies and advertising slogans. (This, along with Clive Anderson, is the other British edge: They occasionally went in for more highbrow games.) Best not to make too much of this, probably. Instead, appreciate the fundamental generosity Whose Line offers: How many TV shows aim for your funny bone without apologizing, pandering, or resorting to the tried and true? Even better, how often do they hit the target?

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