5 Reasons Whose Line is Not Improv Anymore
I cannot argue with the talents of Ryan Styles, Colin Mochrie, Wayne Brady and the like. They are still wonderful performers and should be held in high regard for their contributions to the improv comedy community. However, they same cannot be said about the show Whose Line is it Anyway? Since first airing on ABC in 1998, and being revived in 2013 by the CW, Whose Line has changed drastically, moving further and further away from its roots.
Whose Line started way back in 1988, as a UK radio show, but soon expanded into its own television series. In 1998, the US formed their own version of the show, taking original cast members Ryan Styles and Colin Mochrie as leads, adding in newcomer Wayne Brady as the third lead and Drew Carrey as the host. Each week, a different performer would come in to play the forth position. The show went on to moderate success, but was cancelled in 2003 due to low ratings. However, the show went on for another few more years using unaired footage from past performances. The stars went on to perform in a few similar shows, including: Drew Carrey's Green Screen Show and Drew Carey's Improv-a-Ganza. All were short lived, and it seemed improv would never hold a firm spot on TV again. Then, in 2013, Whose Line returned.
The show was revived after 10 long-years, but alas, could not hold a candle to it's former glory, swapping out Drew Carrey for Aisha Tyler, and being used as a vehicle to promote other CW shows. This is the era of the show I mean to discuss.
1. It is Edited Down Heavily
One aspect of Whose Line that set it apart from sketch comedy shows was it showed how the cast members interacted with each other without the barrier of a script in the way. In the old days, between the games, the performers in Drew Carrey often engaged in playful hijinx, such as one time when Drew got a voice recorder to say "one thousand points!" During the break, Wayne Brady recorded over it to say "my ass, my ass, my ass." (Season 4, Episode 13) These fun asides used to be abundant.
Since the reboot, there has been little tolerance for these sort of hijinx, as the show moves from one game to the next fluidly. This rigidness and unwillingness to display the true improvised nature of the show outside of the games detracts from the feeling of watching a "live" unscripted performance.
2. The Producers Decide the Scenes
Speaking of being unscripted, Whose Line's producers have dropped all leniency with the "improv" aspect of the show. This is not to say the performers have scripts or rehearsed the scenes, but the scenes have lost the spontaneity they once had. In true improv comedy fashion, Drew Carrey used to ask the audience for suggestions for nearly every scene. This allowed the audience to participate in every game, and have an impact on the show.
Since the reboot, audience suggestion have been completely written out, and replaced with the producers suggestions printed on cards for Aisha to read. Such a massive part of live improv has been reduced to producers calculating the funniest result. And, part of the reason this is the amount of games involving suggestion has been reduced, as the games have started to cater to the celebrity guests...
3. Audience Participation Replaced by D-List Celebs
In old Whose Line, the audience leaned forward at the start of each new scene, waiting for Drew to call out Sound Effects, Song Styles or African Chant where he would walk into the audience and pick people to participate in the scene. Who could forget the quacking elephant scene? (Season 3, Episode 3) Having Wayne Brady serenade an unsuspecting audience member used to be one of the most genuine, and hysterical moments of the show.
Since the reboot, all audience participation duties have been handed off to D-List celebrities, who are often the stars of other CW shows. Nearly every episode, the games are written around the celebrity guest, with the audience participation reduced to high-fiving them as they enter from back stage. Of course, having celebrity promotions are not always a bad thing, as watching celebrities do silly things is always a draw. Having Richard Simmons on the show (Season 5, Episode 14) was an especially fun episode. Celebrities guests can heighten the show at times, but they should not replace such a fundamental aspect of the show as audience participation.
4. Rehashing the Same Tired Jokes
Since the first iteration of the show back in 1988, it is hard to complain if the performers have made the same jokes in the 30 years they have been performing. I think I've heard Ryan respond to a sexual request with "I wish I could, but I'm only a miner" a number of times. That is not what I am talking about.
Since the reboot, there have been an abundance of one-note games that have no room for creativity and rely on the same overused gag. Season 9 is certainly the most guilty of this, as, playing the game of Helping Hands has become a tired affair. In the game, Ryan does a scene with the celebrity guest with his hands behind his back, while Colin stands behind him acting as his arms. It is a funny sight, but after so many episodes, watching Colin make Ryan drink something nasty for the millionth time grows stale. In season 10, there was a five episode streak, episodes 8-12, that all end with this same game!
Another game often played with the celebrities, especially the female ones, is Living Scenery. In the game, Ryan and Colin act out a scene, with Wayne and the female guest acting as all the props and scenery. And every time, the same jokes are recycled, with Ryan and Colin pointing at Wayne's privates and asserting they are a spigot, snake or hose. And, on a creepy level, the two often make the female guest some sort of interactive prop as a means to sexualize her. One example of both: (Season 12, Episode 2) Ha, old Canadian guys sexually harassing young women, that will never get old.
5. No New Talent
At the end of the day, everyone loves Wayne, Colin and Ryan. And most of the rotating guest performers such as Gary Anthony Williams, Heather Anne Cambell, Keagan Michael Key and Jeff Davis are true gems. But, the American version of Whose Line has been on for nearly 20 years now, and it is time to pass the torch. Improv Comedy groups such as Second City, Improv Olympic and the Groundling have featured hundred of comedians in their days, allowing the old talent to move on to better things and introducing new performers to take their place.
Improv is an amazing sight to witness, but there is a reason why there is only one TV show that features it: It is a stepping stone. Improv is where comedy careers are born, but it is only the start. There is a reason why stars like Will Ferrel, Amy Poehler and Steve Carell who all started in improv, never went back. It is the minor leagues, and as such, should act as a place for new talent to grow. Watching Wayne, Colin and Ryan perform in Whose Line is the equivalent of watching a broadway star act in a high school play, every week. Move on, let the sophomores get a crack at it.
In the end, Whose Line is it Anyway? is still a wildly entertaining show, even if it pales in comparison to its former self. The CW features every episode of the show on their website for free, so although their new episodes are no comparison to what the show once was, I thank them for reviving the show and allowing future audiences access to all of Whose Line's history.