These groups have provided me with hours of matchlessly great entertainment. I’ve worked with many of their performers and studied with their directors. Without them as an entry point, inspiration and source, I don’t know how we could have reached where we are (wherever that may be). And yet this dominance of (mostly comedic) entertainment and its nature as a performance for an audience also creates a limiting lens.
Improv for the audience succeeds or fails by how entertaining, funny, dramatic or surprising it is. And for the performers it succeeds according to how well they served the audience (to the extent that matters to them) and by artistic criteria, such as the degree to which they stretched themselves as team-players, ‘yes-anders’, risk-takers or whatever.
Many of these shows are relatively safe forms of improvisation. That’s to say, they are reliable, because the formats are familiar and easy for the performers. Though they may play up the risk, and there is no argument but that they are talented improvisers, this is not improvisation on the edge. The degree of uncertainty is low.
The audience unsurprisingly learns to appreciate the performance and the comedy – as if these were the main constituents of the improvisation. The paradoxical end point of that process is that the less improvised it is, the more it looks like good improvisation. What these shows are, if you like this kind of thing (and I often do), is primarily good entertainment.
Improvisation (as distinct from Improv) is characterised by the particular nature of the freedom within the structure, the degree of uncertainty, the quality of the sure-footedness within the uncertain territory. These dimensions tend to make for less reliable entertainment – unless you enjoy watching people (as distinct from characters) struggle.
Whose Line Is It Anyway? was completely safe, in that the show was edited before broadcast, and what was shown was less than what was recorded. It remains impressive, at least partly because the performers were making stuff up on the spot, and that creates a certain buzz. Sketches were kept short and the performers were encouraged (by the live audience) to go for laughs – quick gags, even at the expense of the scenes they were collaboratively developing.
So while the show traded on spontaneity, it was spontaneity in the service of entertainment. And if we take that to be all that improvisation is, we’ll miss the many manifestations and possibilities of improvisation in non-comedic and non-performing contexts.