Judge David Johnson will read the credits in a style of his choosing, thank you very much.
Improv across the pond.
The original British improv sensation finally receives a DVD release on the heels of—in my opinion—the inferior American follow-up.
Facts of the Case
The show that for so long drove the prime-time lineup of Comedy Central. The show that launched the career of Mike McShane. The show that laid the groundwork for Greg Proops to get that role as the announcer for the podrace in Episode I and annoy the crap out of everyone. A&E has released the first DVD collection for Whose Line Is It Anyway, the program that mainstreamed improvisational comedy and brought it to the broadcast masses.
Hosted by the wry Clive Anderson, the series that would eventually run 10 years launched in 1988, starring performers that may strike dedicated viewers of the show as unfamiliar and mediocre, featuring a limited number of improv games. Filmed before a live studio audience, the show would create scenarios for the improvisers to act out, generated by suggestions from the spectators, and with Clive's buzzer signaling the beginning and the end of the sketches, the actors would let it rip.
This four-disc set brings the first two seasons of the show to DVD. Season One featured 13 episodes, Season Two, 17, plus a super-sized Christmas special starring six performers.
I enjoy the original British Whose Line more than its American counterpart. While there are certainly some memorable moments in the Yankee version (Richard Simmons and David Hasselhoff never showed up on the Brit show, to its everlasting regret), Clive Anderson's gang executed a finer selection of off-the-cuff humor. These first couple of seasons have the show—like any new series—finding its rhythm, but throughout the second season, you'll start to see glimpses of what you remember from Comedy Central and BBC America reruns: familiar faces, the give-and-take between Clive and his guests, a tendency towards racier jokes.
But let's start with Clive, the Brit installment's strongest asset I believe. The man is a terrific host, extremely quick and witty, and more than capable of sparring with his spunkier guests (read: Greg Proops). I like Drew Carey and all, but as a host of Whose Line he was far outpaced by Clive, who was able to work a crowd much better and—this is the biggie—knew when to curtail the bits.
That's another element I appreciate about the original series: the games were rapid-fire and varied. More was packed into the runtime than the American show and, for the most part, we were spared from the torturous, overlong games like "talk show." These first two seasons may be missing such beloved bits as "questions only" (one of my favorites), "scenes from a hat" and "hoedown" (substituted here with "rap," an awkward, tone-deaf alternative), but mainstays like "world's worst," "song styles," "film dub" and "party quirks" show up quite often. One game, "authors," where performers brought an idea of an author to each show and had to tell a story in that author's tone, would kick off each show in the first season and most in the second season. Eventually, this game would be completely phased out, reflective of a tonal shift in the series that began late in the second season.
The early years of Whose Line were far more erudite in its comedy. Performers like John Sessions and Stephen Fry brought some impressive cultural and literary credentials to the episodes, but often their comedy tended to soar beyond the audience (and, to be frank, me). They were talented and well-read, but improvisation wasn't their strong suit. Sessions anchored the show during its formative years, and he did well enough, but comparing his performance to what improv pros like Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie would bring to the table years later is not kind to his tenure. As the creators Mark Leveson and Dan Patterson would relate in the bonus interview, the show drifted towards a "populist" nature, and would eventually be driven by Stiles, Mochrie, and Proops.
Speaking of Ryan Stiles, he does make two appearances in Season Two. The games don't work towards his strengths and he's obviously still feeling out his role on the show, but you can see what's to come. Other notable cast members in these seasons: Josie Lawrence, the multi-talented singer/comedienne, Tony Slattery, who was very funny and probably most responsible for ushering in the Great Unwashed Era of Whose Line, Greg Proops, who would become a regular on both versions of the show and Mike McShane, the razor-witted sweat factory.
So if you find yourself impatient and turned off by the tenuous nature of the show in the beginnings, hang tight, because the second round of episodes begin to hit on the stride that would successfully carry the series for a decade.
Episodes received the par-for-the-course original video (full frame) and audio (2.0 stereo) treatment. Only one extra accompanies the set, but it's a good one. Patterson and Leveson talk all things Whose Line for a good half an hour and reveal some interesting facts about the show. Here's one bombshell: during auditions, they rejected Mike Myers and Steve Carell.
Series sets have to start somewhere. Proto-Whose Line was a different show than what it would become and the performers were a mixed bag, but if you stick with it, there's still plenty of fun to be had here. I anticipate forthcoming releases.
Not guilty. This-is-Judge-David-Johnson-saying-good-night. Good-night!
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