On Sunday night Australia premiered its very own version of Whose Line Is it Anyway? – perhaps in response to the blood debt incurred by the US with its vicious murder of our own comedy export, Thank God You’re Here.
Let’s call it even. Too many have suffered.
The US can’t claim complete ownership of the improvisational sketch show, though; they merely liberated it from their one-time oppressors: the English.
All iterations bearing the WLIIA acronym follow the same template: a host submits four fast-thinking improvisers to a series of games in which the guests are expected to joke, sing, rap, impersonate and, most importantly, mug in pursuit of laughs – and nothing else. It’s “the show where everything is made up and the points don’t matter” and it can be liberating to watch comedians work tirelessly to simply fire up viewers’ pleasure centres with short bursts of primal, instinctive comedy.
When they can pull it off, that is.
The UK version – itself a spin-off from a radio show – debuted in 1988, and its first season starred Stephen Fry, Peter Cook and the fried Sparrow himself, Jonathan Pryce. Esteemed pedigree aside, the players took part in the same goofy theatresports as their Aussie counterparts do today: Film Dub, where the actors are at the whim of those doing the speaking off stage; Party Quirks, where an unwitting host must identify their guests’ specific peculiarities; and Rap, which speaks for itself while remaining utterly inexplicable.
The premise of the show was so simple – and inexpensive – it was easily transplanted across the globe, resulting in remakes both official and highly unofficial (from India’s Lo Kal Lo Baat to the Netherlands De Lama’s). Best known, of course, was the US version, originally hosted by Drew Carey (today, Aisha Tyler), in which Colin Mochrie, Ryan Stiles and Wayne Brady spun genuine gold from the much-maligned sport of short-form improv.
The US version of Whose Line acted as a potent gateway drug into the world of comedy for many. The resurrected version of the show welcomed Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom on to the stage, a talent whose self-deprecating, vaudevillian charm seems forged from Whose Line’s inspired silliness.
It’s also a place where Alfonso Ribeiro can still walk out to rapturous applause. No one said comedy had to be cool.
Short-form improv sits at the bottom of the comedy hierarchy but as anyone who has sat through an evening of long-form improv already knows, sometimes this style is at its best when fleeting. That holds true for this new Australian iteration of Whose Line Is it Anyway? Though fleeting may not be short enough for some viewers.
At first glance, it’s Whose Line as you know and love it. The standup comedian Tommy Little mans the desk, his playthings comprised of recognisable, seasoned professionals (Rhys Darby and Cal Wilson among them) and up-and-comers from the local comedy scene. Its main point of difference is its Australianness.
Given Australia’s disastrous history of 21st-century sketch comedy, that’s not necessarily a plus.
You can see why it was commissioned by Foxtel’s Comedy Channel, almost 30 years after its namesake arrived. There are few outlets for our burgeoning comedians on television, for one. Plus this is a proven format. And, significantly, the bar for success couldn’t be lower. (Pour one out for two-episode wonder Let Loose Live, for which the term “dumpster fire” is too noble to adequately describe the general awfulness and swift axing of our failed Saturday Night Live).
But despite the boundless enthusiasm of literally every contributor, the Australian Whose Line falls victim to the same cultural cringe that has felled so many variety shows before it.
The first episode opens with host Tommy Little crying “G’day, you good lookin’ bastards”, and it’s followed by such a stream of Strayanisms you half expect Alf “Flaming” Stewart to rock up and take over proceedings.
The games played are familiar yet the Aussie references are dated (Daryl Somers is invoked) and the coarse language, another Aussie flourish, is jarringly graphic. As Cal Wilson remarks after an admittedly very funny, very dirty joke in which the Cookie Monster conducts some vigorous oral sex: “My son will never see this show!” Makes you wonder who it’s for then.
The “fun for the whole family” vibe is what allowed us to justify the cheeky originals show’s predilection for being a bit naff. An adults-only audience is less likely to make excuses. We can get our gags about puppet coitus elsewhere, and probably from something with a better hit rate.
There are signs of promise for future episodes. Wilson, always reliable, is a fearless performer, and the presence of Tegan Higginbotham, Bridie Connell and Susie Youssef already make this a far more diverse enterprise than its dude-centric predecessors. I made a point to note the occasional barbs from Wilson, Darby and Steen Raskopoulos that drew literal LOLs, breaking what seemed like a ceaseless laughter drought – reminders that improvisation is high-risk, high-reward. But Australian audiences have not proven themselves to be a patient bunch when it comes to comedy shows finding their footing.
Our modern success stories range from the self-spoofing (Kath and Kim, the newly resuscitated Russell Coight) to the urbane (Utopia, Please Like Me) to the deliriously bizarre (The Katering Show, Mad as Hell). The clownish make-em-ups seen in Whose Line Is it Anyway? are relics of Australia’s past, formerly of variety shows such as In Melbourne Tonight, The Graham Kennedy Show and Hey Hey It’s Saturday. We’ll accept them from Americans, clearly, but put an ocker (or even Kiwi) accent on it, and we get Red Faces flashbacks.
Seeking a return to those salad days, regardless of Whose Line’s tried-and-tested branding, is to not understand our current comedy climate. Not being uproariously funny – or even mildly funny – in combination with that misunderstanding is suicidal.
In time, our Whose Line Is it Anyway? might get funnier and even capture the zeitgeist. Unfortunately, time is the only thing comedy shows don’t get in Australia.
• Whose Line Is it Anyway? Australia is on the Comedy Channel on Foxtel, Sundays at 7.30pm