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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Drew Carey's Improv-a-Ganza

Illustration for article titled iDrew Careys Improv-a-Ganza/i
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Drew Carey's Improv-a-Ganza debuts tonight on GSN at 8 p.m. Eastern.

There’s television you brag about watching, and there’s television that you perhaps don’t exactly want to alert the world that you’re viewing. The latter could involve the latest Skinemax masterpiece, but it could be something that isn’t exactly “cool” but you enjoy anyways. These aren’t guilty pleasures, per se, in that you don’t feel bad about liking them. You’re just not exactly taking to the rooftops in order to shout out your affections.

The British and American versions of Whose Line Is It Anyway? fall under this category for me, and I’m here to overcome my previous reticence in order to finally come out, as it were, as a huge improv nerd. I tend to love and admire artistic endeavors I personally cannot do, such as painting, ballet, or really, essentially ANY artistic endeavor that doesn’t involve sitting on the couch writing about television. Improv, when done well, won’t exactly change the world but does produce a small amount of shock and awe at how quickly the performers can think on their feet while simultaneously conducting a telepathic conversation with the other.

Drew Carey’s Improv-a-Ganza comes from the host of the American Whose Line and features many of the same players of this series' 40-episode run, taped recently during at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. But don’t expect a simple Whose Line retread, even if the games and the players bear a more than slight similarity to the show that my wife and I DVR nightly on ABC Family in order to watch the following night. (If I’m owning up to my improv love, I might as well go whole hog here.) What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas, and what escapes through this series’ run should give fans of improv enough pleasure to justify checking in whenever possible.

Format-wise, Improv-a-Ganza seeks to evoke a Rat Pack-era show as opposed to a “host/performer” format. Carey intros the show, but then turns into one of the ensemble for the night as each member takes turn emcee’ing a particular game. The shift from a small studio to a large theatre has its pros and cons: At its best, the proceedings seem like a really fun group experience; at its worst, it feels like watching a band with one hit try to fill up Wembley Stadium. The shift also means that getting either audience suggestion or involvement is often a chore, which means the show spends valuable time either obtaining participants or explaining the rules rather than simply playing the game.

That being said, Improv-a-Ganza has one major advantage over Whose Line: alcohol. How the show stitched weeks of performances into a 40-show series is a mystery for someone who is not me to solve, but it’s clear that the audiences for this run were, by and large, wasted during the tapings. In the screener provided, one woman’s inebriation takes a simple game like “Moving People” into stratospherically odd places. If you’ve seen old Whose Line episodes, you probably remember “Two Line Vocabulary,” a game in which Colin Mochrie played straight man to two other players who could only speak two lines of dialogue. That training comes in handy, as he has to verbally wrestle with an insanely drunk woman in much the same way.

Yes, Mochrie returns, along with other stalwarts such as Ryan Stiles, Brad Sherwood, Wayne Brady, Greg Proops, and Chip Esten. The cast is a little light on female performers (not unlike Whose Line), which doesn’t necessarily hamper the funny but does hamper the directions/situations in which a game can go. The fact that Kathy Kinney is one of the two listed female cast members is more disturbing than the paucity of women in general, because her few appearances on Whose Line were, quite frankly, dreadful. Given the influx of female talent to Saturday Night Live over the years through improv troupes such as Groundlings, one would think there was a larger pool from which to draw.

Still, that takes nothing away from the talent that IS onstage, none of whom appear to have lost a step in the years between Whose Line and Improv-a-Ganza. It’s not like we’re watching a basketball team reunite after a decade, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that people who were funny and worked well together then should be funny and work well together now. Of course, if you DIDN’T think they worked well then, you won’t have any reason to change your mind now. (Then again, if you feel that way, why are you still reading this?)

Still, the MVP of the screener (which will apparently air as its seventh episode, which makes this show the Firefly to Whose Line’s Buffy, I suppose) is someone who was never on Whose Line: Jonathan Mangum, who appears in every sketch and is a double threat in the vein of Brady and Sherwood in that he’s skilled as a musical performer as well as at straight sketch work. His presence picks up a lot of scenes in which established players might have fallen back on old shortcuts to produce laughs. That he’s in all four sketches could be a byproduct of this particular episode and not a statement of the show’s love for him in general, but he’s definitely one I’ll be keeping my eye on during the show’s full fun.

Random observations:

  • Wayne Brady isn’t listed as an official cast member, but rather a “Special Guest.” Not sure why, in that he doesn’t swoop in majestically for one game and then leave. Maybe this is because in real life he’s actually the way he was portrayed in that infamous Chappelle’s Show sketch and terrified Carey into giving him this credit.
  • As for the picture above: Charlie Sheen apparently stops by at one point during the show's run. No knowledge if any members of the Vatican are harmed during that performance.
  • Yes, Mangum appeared on Drew Carey's Green Screen Show, but the less we talk about that program, the better, right?
  • Sorry, Whose Line fans: There’s a piano player in this show, but it’s not Laura Hall. I’ll miss her bulletproof hair and oddly expressionless smiles as well.
  • Whose Line always had some pretty slick editing to take out the inevitable rough spots during tapings, but there’s some serious dead air at times during the episode I saw. Not sure if the environmental audio made it impossible to totally eliminate the less-than-smooth moments.
  • The only game not a direct copy from Whose Line: “Kick It,” which is what would happen if “Scene to Rap” and “Show Stopping Number” had a baby.
  • "You don't mind if I stretch out before I enjoy Belgium, do you?"
  • "Oh, SHE'S drunk?"
  • "I just crushed the baby!"
  • "Say, Jonathan, where did you get that magical seahorse?"
  • "Why, don't you sound like an angel?"
  • "Oh thank you, a hammock would be PERFECT right now!"
  • "I love quiche!"

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