In a Style of My Choosing…

Matthew Rudd on Whose Line is it Anyway?

First published May 2003

Improv. At first sight, it’s little more than a ghastly, lethargic abbreviation which could almost be accessible to a text-messaging teenager; while those of a restricted coolness factor could be forgiven for incorrectly guessing its full form.

But of course, it became the watchword about a “new” form of comedy in the mid-1980s; comedy which was off-the-cuff, instant, brought about not through painstaking observation and meticulous scribbling and underlining, but through one measly audience suggestion to start the ball rolling. And off they would go.

Improvisation, to give it the full billing, was absolutely massive for a decade in the UK from about 1987 onwards. With new ventures within established comedy venues encouraging the make-it-up medium, performers with the confidence (and death wish) to test their God-given humour rather than their poured-over humour in front of bellowing audiences happily wandered into the light with literally no idea of what they were going to say.

The concept of spontaneity was, of course, never a new one in that era; various performers had been using their own forms of the genre to suit their own ends, even if it was just to cover up garbled speech, deal with a heckle or, in the case of an actor, deflect the attention from a cock-up. Meanwhile, Billy Connolly spent – and continues to spend – nigh on 30 years improvising an entire stand-up act, famously choosing never to write down a single word of his material, but just recall the subject matter and see where his mood – and the audience – takes him.

But when the Comedy Store Players, a mish-mash of humorists, writers (with wonderful contradiction) and comedic actors, set the stall out, a craze was born to fill the trendiness gap vacated by the tiring Comic Strip era and still awaiting The Mary Whitehouse Experience. And soon the telly was involved.

Initially, the wordily-named Whose Line is it Anyway? was a radio vehicle, starring a gaggle of usual suspects of the Fry, Laurie and French ilk. But producers Hat Trick took it successfully to Channel 4, whose remit at the time, particularly for Friday nights, seemed to consist entirely of programmes which had as much uncertainty as they had originality.

It was a promisingly straightforward concept – mix comedy with game show and sprinkle in a few dustings of controversy and timeliness. The roll call of the contestants – so called despite there being no genuine contest – matched C4′s emphasis on “new talent”, and a host of unknowns successfully auditioned and starred, with the odd Cook and Rhys-Jones cameo just for the sheer hell of it.

Where the show succeeded was in national mood-tapping. Despite a scheduling in an ungodly hour when most of its target audience was out on the razz, the unsubtlety, chaos and unpredictability of conceptual comic games became a huge hit by the time the wheat and chaff separating process had unearthed a hardcore list of participants. Clive Anderson, a genial and balding host with a writing and legal background, smirked and smarmed his way through the only scripts of the show in his continuity, while resident contestant John Sessions, previously known for his voice-only role on Spitting Image, impressed the many with his use of language, incomparable take-offs of every single theatrical style the world has seen and impish clever-clogs attitude.

But as a scratchy and untried televisual genus, problems had to be encountered; not least because the whole idea of improv (and half the humour from it) was that it could go belly up very easily, very quickly and very embarrassingly.

The problem quickly identified within improvised games was that it took someone very, very special to get laughs, as opposed to inciting a favourable reaction merely in response to the swiftness of their thought process. Every improviser who stepped into the Whose Line is it Anyway? bearpit were highly courageous, highly motivated and unspeakably daredevil. Few were funny.

Sessions was not funny in the definitive sense of the word. He was intelligent, bright, talkative, scene-stealing and engaging. But it soon became clear that his form of improvisation – using big words, reaching for the surreal plot change as often as possible, not letting fellow participants get a word in – was causing belly laughs of admiration. Maybe it was admiration for his sheer nerve, for his shameless elitism, but it wasn’t for his comedy.

There was no doubt that Sessions was a mainspring for the show’s stranglehold on the majority of minority channel viewers. He was rewarded with official resident status by having his name inserted alongside the host’s in the closing credits (read in the style of a taxi driver or a 1930′s radio announcer by the alleged weekly “winner” thanks to a nonsensical, even non-existent scoring tally kept by Anderson) with the remaining trio trailing a good paragraph’s distance in his wake. By the time series three came around in 1990, he’d gone. But the show, for all its gratitude towards its Scottish star turn, just got stronger in his absence.

The genuine star of the early seasons was a heftily-built American actor, singer and raconteur called Mike McShane. He was, anatomically, comedy in human form – considerably obese with unkempt hair and often sporting a similarly bedraggled beard, but still elegantly dressed, absolutely charming and totally unhateable. He was also massively talented and would go on to be the only participant who had no gaming weakness. Though his spoken games, especially alongside sardonic, bespectacled fellow American comic Greg Proops (whose own idiosyncrasies are explored further on), were invariably sharp, concise and delivered with a frequently natural conclusion, it was in the much more daunting singing games – the bane of an enormous percentage of the contestants’ stints – where McShane excelled.

These games – always accompanied by multi-faceted improv musician Richard Vranch – were, to the hooked viewer, always a highlight, and the group collective singsong was unfailingly used as a crescendo to an episode. But McShane was also afforded an individual’s singing game – Song Styles – in which Vranch would provide accompaniment in a musical style suggested by a studio audience member (almost always opera or reggae in the early days) while McShane made up the words there and then on any subject also shouted from the seats.

McShane never failed to find a rhyme, never failed to find a plot to the story, never resorted to “oh yeah”-esque fillers to account for syntactical or structural deficiencies and – most crucially – never failed to be funny. His vocal work was enormously impressive, veering worryingly towards perfection, something which improvisation never sought, expected or needed. However, McShane’s lack of roughness around the edges never gave rise to any nudge-nudge grumbles about rehearsal – his integrity was always way ahead of that in the race. His skill was also useful as the last verse of the collective song (a march or gospel, generally), as at least two of the previous three contributions regularly were delivered on a rhyme-at-all-costs basis, with humour treated merely as a bonus. On top of all that, McShane could sing.

Compare this with the other established specialist singer in the early days, the grating Birmingham actress Josie Lawrence. Unfairly detailed with the “token female” role in the embryonic days, she too was ceaselessly utilised in the singing games but, unlike McShane, reverted constantly to rhymes which were coming from a mile away, struggled to muster the right amount of syllables per line, and dissolved any potential for lyrical dexterity with an all too habitual usage of fillers, her favourite being “I love you baby”. With McShane, you gasped in awe at every word leading to a killer rhyme; with Lawrence, you impatiently waited for the rhyme and ignored or bemoaned the build-up.

Lawrence’s hugely restricted aptitude as an improvisational singer did not, however, stop her from gaining massive plaudits for her work. So new and “now” was the improv phenomenon, and so relenting were the extra gushes of wonderment at those who dared make up songs rather than prose, that Lawrence was afforded heroine status within comedy and TV as a whole on the apparent strength of her appearances on Whose Line is it Anyway?, when in truth all she’d done was stick together a series of basic rhymes, lacking substantially in humour, using poorly-worded prose as a dubious adhesive. She even got her own TV series, in which she – yes – made up a song with Vranch at the end, after 26 minutes of very weak skits. And she, unlike McShane, couldn’t sing. Still, at least on the prosaically titled Josie, the undervalued Vranch got to speak.

The discrepancy between humour and admiration avoided magnificently by McShane and bombarded tiresomely by Lawrence highlighted that fundamental problem supplied by improv, with audiences laughing consistently and vehemently, but not necessarily realising why they were doing so. Scriptless performing, with the aim of raising titters, had a worthy sentiment, but at this stage, only McShane had the self-belief and sheer talent to carry it out. Others would later join him.

One of those others was not, however, Greg Proops, the consummate, chatty and incisive American stand-up comedian, forever described in Anderson intros as the Buddy Holly/Elvis Costello/Eric Morecambe/Chris Evans of comedy because of his conspicuous spectacles. He enjoyed a long and unbroken association with the show that continues to this day in the States, yet his own improvisational might was tempered eternally by, with bizarre irony, the rules of improvisation itself. Or, more specifically, the rules of Whose Line is it Anyway?

Watch or listen to Proops reeling off his stand-up act and you’ll see an expert in action, handling a vociferous, unforgiving audience with wild enthusiasm, sarcasm and bite. Heckle him and you’ll regret it. Argue with him and you’ll lose. This is because Proops is a gangplank walker in comedy – he doesn’t need his own vehicle, as he has the skill and presence of mind to be the vehicle itself. Proops is undoubtedly grateful for the exposure that Whose Line is it Anyway? gave him, but it did nothing for his own comic sensibilities other than restrict them.

In any spoken game, participants had to talk about a certain subject, or be a certain person/creature, or do so in a certain fashion, or deploy certain mannerisms. While this allowed for great character acting from the more theatrical charges, for Proops it was a bind. Not an actor until his comedy made him a name, Proops just needed to be Proops – anyone else was an unnecessary millstone.

This was never more evident than when one of the accustomed play-spats between Proops and Anderson occurred as games were being announced or trailed by the host. Time and time again the two exchanged verbal blows, with Proops – the only regular guest who spoke to the host on an episode-by-episode basis – often coming out on top, exposing Anderson to insults about the compère’s unhideable receding hairline or rapidly evaporating neck. Beyond that, Proops swung the audience his way while necessary props were being sorted onstage with his use of language – demonstrative, flowery, intellectual but – brilliantly – never containing expletives. Yet when the games got underway, Proops often found his style stifled by the regulations of the game and the occasionally demonic habits under the lights from some of his peers. Proops was an outstanding natural comedian for whom acted improvisation was not a natural gift, and he suffered for it. Yet his gamely nature, genuine star quality and off-beat looks continues to keep him in appearance monies to this day.

Still, it’s better to be a misplaced funny man in improvisation than a misplaced unfunny one, and that’s where Tony Slattery waltzes into the equation. The chirpy, laddish Footlights veteran was a genuine unknown when he started an eight-year tenure on the show, and became the most prized British asset in its history without ever threatening to be any good at all.

Slattery had two problems, one caused by the other. Firstly, despite his acting training, he rarely managed to perform with an infinitely funnier counterpart without collapsing into juvenile giggles every other line, ruining the sketch’s potential and probably irritating the hell out of the professional (and often American) contestant dragged on to the stage alongside him. Consequently, the stop-start nature of most of his work led him into desperate nosedives towards jokes of vulgarity, tastelessness or shock in a last-ditch attempt to appear humorous and salvage the sketch.

This got laughs from the audience, who found him immensely likeable within the restricted zone of improv, but did next to nothing for the good of the medium, or indeed for its potential for progress. While genial, hardworking and humble bit-parters (Jim Sweeney, Steve Steen, Stephen Frost, Sandi Toksvig) realised their limits and concentrated hard on the humour stakes, Slattery’s ego and willingness to play the court jester earned him words of ridicule from peers and critics alike, none more so than when his ubiquity on TV as a result of his appearances led him to receive a Bore award from Private Eye – against no other candidates. Frequently a joke was cracked at his expense within the show itself, culminating in a memorable occasion when Rory Bremner was given the party quirk (three guests with specific characteristics; one host – Slattery – with the job of guessing) of being Slattery himself, and spent his short spell onstage preening at the camera. On another occasion, three participants – Slattery being the exception – were declared joint winners and were asked to read the credits as Slattery, cue 30 seconds of references to bodily parts and functions.

As Whose Line is it Anyway? trundled through the early ’90s, connections were made with America, and two UK series were quickly followed by tailor-made cross-Atlantic versions, with an unchanged set and host, an archetypal whoop ‘n’ wave audience and a new breed of improvisers. British interests in contestants’ row were represented, unwisely, by Sessions and Lawrence – the former to symbolise the American concept of Britishness; the latter as token female and to provide an onscreen singer for when McShane wasn’t on. Toskvig also went along, mainly due to her known chemistry onset with McShane. The New York shows worked – just. McShane was outstanding, Proops had his own people on his side for once – but the “two tall guys” who appeared during the second Stateside stint were the ones whose displays were to take the show to its next, elevated height, finally allowing it to merit a label of greatness, yet ultimately, leading it to its downfall.

Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie had separately appeared before on the UK version, but only once each, when fewer games were played and when, essentially, they were doing a taped audition. Neither were especially memorable debuts, though Mochrie certainly had his moments. But in America you need Americans – or, more loosely, North Americans – and with only McShane and Proops on the regular Stateside cast list by the time the show popped over the pond, more were summoned and this pairing were among them.

Stiles, an LA comic of six feet six and a lugubrious comic face, was instantly brilliant. In the first batch of New York episodes, he did four of them, notably upstaging the complicated Sessions with ease in one edition when paired in a Props round and given a scythe to improvise with. Sessions had misread the audience and proceeded to recreate his long-winded and very British monologue style which got muted reactions, while Stiles went straight for the comic jugular. While Sessions was using the scythe as a symbol of historical or mythical being which went over 99% of heads, Stiles used it as a bird’s beak and shark’s fin and got on the spot acclaim. Indeed, Sessions ended up accidentally snapping the prop in two, which indirectly took the emphasis away from his co-performer.

Stiles knew the audience, knew his own considerable strengths and stuck resolutely to them. A great character comic, he dominated scenes without ever hogging them, reacted with panache and promptness when a co-performer would unexpectedly change tack, and never failed to get at least one humour-based belly laugh per skit. He struggled on the singing games occasionally, but this only further enhanced his appeal as he eagerly found rhymes with an apologetic shrug of the shoulders. His quartet of initial New York guestings got him an invitation back to the UK for the next season, and those appearances fast-tracked him to the status of the show’s core star.

By the time the second and final New York stint came around, Canadian humorist Colin Mochrie was also getting another run of shows. Mochrie didn’t quite have Stiles’ natural wit or comic looks, but he quickly established himself as a magnificent foil, unafraid to make the scenes between himself and Stiles – of which there were plenty – almost a contest between the two men themselves. This resulted in some genuinely quality performances, packed with jokes, inspiring the right kind of reactive laughter and setting the seal on a great double act. The two had worked together before in various comedy troupes, though had never been a double act in the same way as – for example – Sweeney and Steen had been. While Stiles and Mochrie shone alone and with others, it was when they were together that the standard of improvisation was truly electric, and so Mochrie also got a ticket to Britain.

Others from those New York try-outs weren’t so impressive. Local double act Jim Meskimen and Christopher Smith, from the highly-respected Interplay group, were extremely polished, confident and likeable, but not funny enough. The vocally-charged Archie Hahn, while a genius at making sound effects for the game of the same name, was way out of his depth on too many occasions – more so, remarkably, than he had been when given occasional gigs in the show’s earliest days. He was also prone to bouts of political incorrectness, and notoriously incurred the genuine wrath of Anderson when he used some surreptitious castanets during an Audition game to soundtrack his tap-dancing. The host curtly docked him some of his imaginary points, pointing out that the show was about improvisation, not forward-thinking. Falsetto-pitched American comic George McGrath, on a hiding to nothing in an episode alongside Stiles, Proops and McShane, failed to deliver a single worthy joke. One-off pairing Sam Johnson and Jane Brucker – who memorably wore a jacket without trousers – were way off the pace. Balding cardigan-wearer Ron West epitomised the notion of the fourth contestant, forever in the shadows of the big guns without ever truly allowing himself to seep into the foreground. Telegenic performer Brad Sherwood was stoic without being spectacular, but was handed a recall in later years which worked. The only other American who was kept on was British-based anyway, the handsome star of the Buddy musical Chip Esten, but after one UK and a handful of USA appearances, he had stage commitments and would only appear once more over the next few years. He had the potential to eclipse McShane’s versatility as a performer equally as adept with singing and speaking specialities, but was unavailable to carry it through.

Still, Stiles and Mochrie bedded into the UK and with Proops also in tow, a basis was formed for several incumbent seasons of the show. McShane had been noticed by other outlets, therefore his appearances became less frequent until he essentially became a cameo turn, due to a wave of offers on the big screen, so an opportunity was taken to scale down the number of performers. In essence, the show was now about Stiles, Mochrie, Proops and – sadly – Slattery, who was still a misguidedly big hit with audiences. The likes of Frost and Lawrence kept butting in to add variety to the pattern, and barring the odd one-off cameo or tryout, that was it.

This was unquestionably the golden era of both Whose Line is it Anyway? and improvisation in general. The viewing figures rocketed, the day of screening was altered to a midweek – though it remained at 10pm or later – and the contestants began to become known specifically for their role in the show ahead of anything else they did. The games were freshened up, the pace was quickened, and Stiles became a resident performer, with Mochrie getting around 95% of episodes too. These two had become the show’s crux and bankability, and it was obvious to see why. The whole genre benefitted thanks to regular improvisation workshops around the country – suddenly, you couldn’t move at the Edinburgh Fringe for “improthons” – and with the Players – still including Lawrence, Sweeney, Vranch and the deadpan mastery of Paul Merton – continually ruling the roost by doing twice-weekly gigs in spite of countless other commitments. Merton had been another star of the show’s early days alongside Sessions, and had the ability to reduce audiences and fellow participants to hysterical jelly without barely trying, but he missed the show’s establishment as a comic force thanks to Hat Trick’s sister show Have I Got News For You which made him one of the UK’s genuine stars of the decade.

Still, in the event of Stiles or Mochrie – or both – giving up the ghost, further performers were called in, with varying degrees of success. Merton’s ex-wife Caroline Quentin, an established comic actress, was an instant hit with panel and public alike, but the desire to recruit another male singing specialist in the absence of McShane and Esten failed, with British comic journeyman Niall Ashdown lacking in star quality, despite a risibility to his work and a vital keenness to take nothing too seriously.

There was, for a run of two or three seasons of Stiles and Mochrie, no stopping Whose Line is it Anyway? But even though it peaked magnificently under their spell, its fall from grace can also be traced to them. The UK struggled to find enough variety and skill amongst other performers to provide a worthy alternative to the two tall guys when they were sitting in their chairs. This was not helped when Slattery, awash with personal issues and a weight problem, got just too off-the-wall for the liking of the show’s hierarchy and had his long stint as a leading asset brought to an end. He wasn’t seen in the public eye for quite some time afterwards, and tales of his slide into depression and addiction later unfurled. For all his faults and shortcomings, Slattery remained a popular contestant on the show, yet a constant thorn in the side of those within it and the public in general. His demise was a crucial, but not all-compassing, factor of the show’s own sinking. The main problem lay, however, with Stiles and Mochrie.

Whether it was Lawrence and Bremner; Frost and Sherwood; or Proops and Ashdown filling the remaining chairs, Stiles and Mochrie had so much become the show’s epitome and domineering force that the pressure was heaping on everyone else involved to match them as consummate performers; and no one could. Moreover, there was now no British performer on this British show who could appear on a regular basis, due to a lack of availability, skill or both. The expertise of Stiles and Mochrie had unwittingly highlighted everyone else’s comparative incompetence. And there was no move towards giving the two leading gentlemen a break, even for one episode, as any edition without both of them would have been pale in comparison. Last-ditch attempts at celebrity cameo went horribly wrong, with Stephen Fry appearing bored; Ardal O’Hanlon scared out of his wits and George Wendt cut down to size in an unpleasant experience for die-hard Cheers fans who had seen his name in the listings and tuned in. Only the maverick Eddie Izzard came up trumps in the cameo slot, but his own stand-up act was known as being 60% improvised so his occupation of the comfort zone was unsurprising. Filming of the show in the UK was cancelled after slightly more than a decade.

The next step was to return to the States, but this time in LA with an American team in production, and only Anderson remaining as a cursory element of continuity from the British halcyon days. This meant all the performers were American, and suddenly there was an opportunity to recreate the show as brand new, thanks to the continued inspiration of Stiles and Mochrie, a new-found surge from Proops and the discovery, at last, of the successor in the singing and speaking stakes of McShane. The chap in question was young American performer Wayne Brady, a jolly, keen and perceptive comic whose brilliance at producing instantaneous comic songs was heightened further by a trained voice with which to sing them. At last, the ghost of McShane was laid to rest, but this rebranding didn’t sit well with British audiences, and the later time slot hindered ratings further. As far as the UK was concerned, Whose Line is it Anyway? was dead in the water.

But with Stiles taking on a determined Red Adair role, the show was purchased and relaunched as a States-only vehicle with a new host, new games and a new audience. It is also screened there at peak time, making it prone to censorship and scurrilous editing, and indeed most North American members of the ever-growing Whose Line is it Anyway? international fan club weren’t keen, but took the attitude that it was better than nothing and at least still had Stiles and Mochrie onside. That second element nearly didn’t happen, with American executives, obsessed with image, wanting Mochrie obliterated from the new production, and only relenting when Stiles rightly kicked up an enormous stink and threatened to pull the plug on the whole thing.

Brady and Proops – who has now completed a 14 year association with the show – were also kept on, with Sherwood too getting regular slots. The show now has three “regulars” per episode – Stiles and Mochrie as permanent fixtures, Proops or Brady filling a third seat – with the quartet completed by either Sherwood or a guest turn, often an unknown, and always someone depicting a rabbit-in-headlights disposition.

For Americans, it works. Channel 4 only show it in the UK as a cancellation-filler, or as a lazily-allocated half-hour in the middle of the night between the main film and the French art movie. The games have been largely sanitised for American consumption, the bleeps are overused and over-cautious and the contestants are generally not firing on all cylinders, but generally it has a decent effect. Until you see the new ending.

One natural progression when the show upped sticks and emigrated was the appointment of a new host. Drew Carey took on the gig, but as a powerful figure within the production company, he got more involved onscreen than was necessary. Anderson’s brilliance came from his own 10 seconds between each game, but never once did he leave his seat and try to upstage those in the bearpit. His declared “winner” got the chance to exhibit their individual improvisational skills by reading the credits in a style allocated by Anderson. Carey’s declared winner got a prize of … performing with Carey himself.

The rotund host, who also deployed an immensely irritating catchphrase of “the points don’t matter”, leapt on to the stage to perform with the winner or winners, while another contestant took his place and read the game card to them. The game would be one of the heritage rounds, like Alphabet or a Hoedown (the all-in musical successor to March and Gospel), but invariably, Carey was absolutely awful. It was an occupational hazard to the rest, but to the audience, it largely failed, although the whooping studio punters lapped it up with their usual overreaction anyway. Traditionalists buried their heads in their hands when this final Americanisation got through to them for the first time.

On it goes, with the British show seemingly lost forever except amongst those who were in it (many of whom are still tagged in the tabloids as “the star of Whose Line is it Anyway?” despite whatever else they’ve done, and indeed, whether they deserve the accolade in the first place) and those who took it through their adolescence and kept it close to heart in adulthood. When comedy continued to evolve and improv was no longer the “in” thing, Whose Line is it Anyway? made a damned good attempt to keep the genre alive, and it succeeded to the end. It remains, however, a shame and a sham that the ending in question was so callous and limp.

Totalling up the points, we see that American television executives were the winners.