Whose Line Is it Anyway? What to expect from the Australian iteration

Spontaneity and TV’s rigid rules may make for uneasy bedfellows but Australia’s take on the classic format has its heart – and talent – in the right place

Improv – that much-maligned comedy form – is enjoying a rare moment of cultural credibility right now. US comedy in particular is dominated by it – from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to Stephen Colbert and Bill Hader. So it is perhaps unsurprising Comedy Central Australia has seen this moment as fit for a local revival of Whose Line Is it Anyway? – a show that is to televised improv what Ulysses was to modernist literature.

It’s also a daring pitch for the legitimacy of Australian improv, which until now had been represented almost solely through Thank God You’re Here – a show mostly notable for forcing the country’s best improvisers to stick to a script. (There was also Slide Show, but that was less improv than it was structured falling over. The world is a better place for its demise.)

The paucity of Whose Line-style offerings over the years could be read as a symptom of improv’s “lightning in a bottle” conundrum. In the same way that a gut-bustingly hilarious hour of standup seems distant and neutered on TV, broadcast improv tends to come across as stilted and awkward. Spontaneity and the rigid rules of TV editing make for uneasy bedfellows.

Fortunately, if the episode that I saw being filmed is anything to go by, the producers of the Australian Whose Line Is it Anyway? understand improv’s limitations and have created an impressively structured show that calls upon its most immediate pleasures: rapid-fire comedy with strong handles, and the space for giddy failure. More than that, they’ve understood what it was that made the original Whose Line Is it Anyway? such a potent comedic force: a strong core cast who are – first and foremost – improvisers.

The ‘strong core cast’ of the Australian iteration of Whose Line Is it Anyway?
The ‘strong core cast’ of the Australian iteration of Whose Line Is it Anyway? Photograph: The Comedy Channel

Of the seven cast members, Steen Raskopoulos, Cal Wilson, Susie Youssef, Tom Walker and Bridie Connell all have years, if not decades of improv experience under their belts, and their skill is palpable. The screening I saw featured Raskopoulos, Walker and Connell, as well as the standup veteran and improv newcomer Tegan Higginbotham, who held her own thanks to the reportedly intense training camp that preceded the show’s filming.

The Australian Whose Line is helmed by a rejuvenated Tommy Little, being given surprisingly free rein by the producers. It’s hard to ignore how much better he is than Drew Carey – always the most toothless and confused part of the US version. Where Carey made for an uncomfortably script-bound counterpoint to his immensely talented stars, Little’s quick-thinking mind has him dropping off-the-cuff one-liners at a furious rate. In almost three hours of filming, he never recycled a gag, even when having to film the same transition three or four times.

The improv itself is what you’d expect: heavily prescribed with a focus on joke quantity. Variants of all the classics get a run – think Scenes from a Hat, Party Quirks, Infomercial, World’s Worst, Audience SFX and Hoe Down (renamed here Rock Out, and an unfortunately weak way to finish).

These are mixed with a few new offers, including Quick Change, Dead Bodies and Bartender, a musical cry for help that Connell knocks out of the park. Little’s ease with both the audience and performers allows for a back and forth that keeps things hurtling forward. For all the stops and starts that come with filming for TV, this still plays out like a live show.

The flexibility also provides more space for good-natured shit-giving and hanging one another out to dry – two of improv comedy’s greatest joys, and a distinctly Australian approach to the genre. There’s a refreshing amount of ensemble work too, perhaps in recognition that none of these performers quite has the clout of a Wayne Brady, and also that the US version was far too ready to rely on the solitary force of its central players.

Steen Raskopolous, Susie Youssef, Rhys Darby and Tegan Higginbotham
A refreshing amount of ensemble work, and a distinctly Australian approach: Steen Raskopoulos, Susie Youssef, Rhys Darby and Tegan Higginbotham. Photograph: The Comedy Channel

In line with the largely young, photogenic cast, the production values seem designed to push back against improv’s fundamental uncoolness. Gone are the oversized Kodak Color shirts beloved of Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie, replaced here by skinny jeans and sneakers. The inoffensive middle-American music of Laura Hall and Linda Taylor is out, and Fourplay with Judy, a rock-edged house band, takes the reins. You are perhaps never going to completely eliminate improv’s pantomime cringe but it is still refreshing to see a show not play to those perceptions.

A final note to make: the producers deserve credit for building a cast with more women than men. It’s a far cry from every previous iteration of this show, where the presence of a woman on screen has been a rare curiosity.

Much is made of the male-centrism of most comedy genres, and improv is no different – but there’s an almost equal mix of men and women at the upper echelons of the craft, and it’s testament to the fact this show was cast for quality that there’s a similarly even mix on stage. One hopes it’s a platform for more gender-balanced casting across the comedy spectrum. Fact: no comedy has ever been made worse by gender diversity.

Improv is only just starting to establish itself in Australia and is already producing some of our strongest new comedic voices – Raskopoulos, Youssef and Walker among them. If Whose Line plays its cards right, in a few years it could be at the vanguard of Australia’s own comedy revolution.

• Whose Line Is it Anyway? Australia premieres 27 November at 7.30pm on the Comedy Channel (Foxtel)


Luke Ryan

The GuardianTramp

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