Improv on TV: How Curb Your Enthusiasm Gets It Right
After years of HBO-only airings, Curb Your Enthusiasm makes its off-network premiere tonight on TV Guide. It's impressive that the show has remained hilarious this whole time, in addition to the fact that it'll soon be reaping the benefits of an expanded audience in syndication. More impressive, still, is the fact that Curb Your Enthusiasm is largely improvised, and has managed to keep a consistent sense of humor. Because for all of time, networks have been notoriously bad at transitioning the art form onto the tube.
Take 10 Items Or Less, a short-lived TBS show that's available in TV.com's vault. The show, like Curb, is loosely structured but lets its actors get to the end of their scenes however they want. Said scenes take place in a grocery store, and often involve a lot of stray riffing. Thus the humor doesn't come from the situations the characters are in, but instead from the often random jokes the actors struggle to come up with. Improv relies heavily on context—you have to create the characters' world before you can reap the character-based joke dividends—and keeping context to a minimum results in jokes that come off as cheap. Sure, it's easy to justify: You want to cut unfunny lines and keep the golden zingers, right? Well, even the funniest quip, if it comes out of nowhere, is going to fall relatively flat. There's an ebb-and-flow to comedy that's lost when network execs go for broke.
Before 10 Items Or Less, there was Thank God You're Here!, a show that broke one of the cardinal rules of improv in its desperate attempt to abuse star power. The show involved "celebrities" like Jason Alexander entering a scene; they weren't told what was happening, but immediately had to figure it out. Sometimes it was a boat about to hit a storm, sometimes it was a book club, sometimes it was something interesting (just kidding!). But essentially, the celebrities were told what to do by the actors, and occasionally they were asked to say a line like, "Captain, what was the name of that whale we have been pursuing for years?" They'd give their piece, and people would eat it up. In the improv world, this awkward set-up process is called "pimping"; the stronger choice is to come up with a detail yourself and let your scene partner play off of it. Instead, Thank God You're Here! sold out for quippy, awkward, one-liner sound bites.
And don't even get me started on Whose Line Is It Anyway?. The actors were incredibly sharp and smart improvisers, but the show's format was way too tenuous to teach people much about improv other than to illustrated that, occasionally, there are funny lines. At least the show relied on a pure (albeit short-form) improv format for laughs, but the whole thing just felt odd, like it should be funnier than it was. Improv is supposed to feel dangerous, and Whose Line Is It Anyway? was not. (Drew Carey as a host didn't help.)
So let's hear it for Curb Your Enthusiasm, a show that was given time to breathe, and that allows its actors to do the unexpected and have as much fun as they want with the scenes. If only more shows followed suit.
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