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April 9, 2007 |

By Seth Freilich | TV | April 9, 2007 |

“Thank God You’re Here” pretty much met my every expectation. Unfortunately, my expectations were decidedly low, and while the show met them, it did not exceed them. The hour-long show — which premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on NBC (with a second episode immediately following) — is based around an old improvisational comedy game. When performed on stage, the game works like this — several folks are in a room, and they’re given some predetermined situation. Someone else then comes from offstage, entering this room “blindly” (knowing nothing about the setup), and that person then has to improv their way through the scene with the others, dealing with whatever punches are tossed his or her way. “Thank God You’re Here” is a pseudo-competition based around this concept, hosted by David Alan Grier (and I don’t know why, but when he walked out, it really shocked me to see that his hair is going quite white) and judged by Dave Foley.

Now I don’t know if Foley or Grier have any formal improv experience, but it makes sense to have them involved anyway. Both are probably best known, even so many years after the fact, for their sketch-comedy shows (Foley was, of course, in “Kids in the Hall,” while Grier was part of “In Living Color”). And sketch comedy shares quite a bit in common with the art of improv, and sketches often grow out of improv exercises (this is one of the main reasons that “Saturday Night Live” and “Mad TV” employ so many former members of The Groundlings and Second City, the two best-known improv geroups in the country). But the comedic talents of both Foley and Grier (and both can be hysterical in the right setting) go wasted here, as they’re basically forced into schticky roles as the “wacky” host and the “ha-ha” judge.

In any event, the way the show works is that there are four celebrity guests who play the “blind” folks coming into the rooms. Tonight’s premiere, for example, features Wayne Knight (“Newmaaan!”), Brian Cranston (“Malcolm in the Middle”), Jennifer Cooldige (Stifler’s mom), and Joel McHale (host of “The Soup,” on E!). All they know, before going through the door, is whatever they can figure out from the costume they’ve been given — for example, Knight was put into doctor’s garb, while Cranston was in rocker attire (complete with long-haired wig). There’s a minute of worthless shtick-talk between the guest, Grier and Foley, and then the guest is shoved into the room, where every scene begins with someone who’s already in the room saying, “Thank god you’re here.” These scenes then work like the stage version I described in the beginning, except that it’s all dressed up — so the guest and everyone else are in appropriate costumes, and the stage itself is dressed as a particular scene (for example, Knight’s doctor finds himself on the set of a morning talk show). The scene then carries on until Foley plays a goofy clown-horn noise, indicating that they can all stop — ostensibly, he does so when he has seen enough or when he’s “afraid” that everything is about to fall apart, but the truth is obviously that he does so when the director whispers “time for commercial” into his ear. After the stupid horn noise, some more schtick follows, Foley gives his “critique,” and we head to commercial. This is then repeated four more times — once more for each guest, and then with a final “head-to-head” scene where all four guests are tossed into one skit together. The only other content on the show is the occasional pre-taped video of edited-together clips from improv warm-up exercises the guests did before the show’s filming.

I will grant you that, on paper (or on computer monitor, in this instance), this sounds utterly boring and insipid. Most improv games sound boring and stupid in concept, however, and improv really lives or dies by the quality of the setup and the performers. Unfortunately, “Thank God You’re Here” is a bit lacking in this department. Now to be fair, it’s not dreadful. Although I never laughed out loud, I did chuckle a few times, and the whole thing was amusing enough (though not nearly as funny as the studio audience — which is annoyingly cut to far too often — appears to have found it). And the four guests were all somewhere on the scale between quite funny and decent enough. But the other component to this show is the four “unknowns” who make up the ensemble cast that appears in each of the sketches, and they pretty much, for lack of a better word, blow. The two guys are dreadful — stilted and unfunny. The two women fare a little better, because they’re not nearly as stilted, but they’re also mostly unfunny. However, in all fairness to these four actors, I’m not sure how much is due to them simply being bad and how much of this is due to the one glaring problem with this show which, for me, winds up being its fatal flaw.

Now before I can talk about this fatal flaw, I have to be self-indulgent and talk a little about improv comedy in general. If you don’t care about my thoughts on the nature of improv, fair enough — you can skip the rest of this review, and I’ll leave you with this assessment of the show: “Thank God You’re Here” is a cute enough diversion, and if you enjoy the lightweight fluff of “Deal or No Deal,” you’ll probably be fine leaving the channel on NBC. But I suspect that you’ll be hard pressed to tune in again, week after week (and actually, I’m not even sure where this moves to on NBC’s schedule in two weeks, when “Heroes” returns). But if you are looking for anything of real substance, or good comedy, you’d do well to change the station and look somewhere else. Try “24,” over on Fox — it also lacks substance, but the unintentional comedy this season has been through the roof.

OK, so on with the improv talk. One’s experiences, as we know, necessarily affect and inform their opinions. I started doing improv as part of my theater activities in high school (as I’ve said in previous columns, I was a total theater fag), and I also took an improv class in college as part of my never-completed theater minor. But, most importantly for the purpose of this discussion, I took several improv courses with the Groundlings when I was living in Los Angeles and, particularly because of those classes, I may be looking at this show with a more critical eye to the improv elements than many others would. But looking at “Thank God You’re Here” with such a critical eye, it’s painfully obvious that the necessary elements of a good improv piece have been stripped from this show. For one thing, the four ensemble actors I mentioned above don’t seem to be terribly good improv actors. One of the first rules of improv is that you have to listen to what the other folks say on stage, and then use that information to move the scene forward (in fact, the very first exercise we did in my first Groundlings class was something called “yes, and,” which is specifically geared towards honing one’s skill in this fundamental aspect of improv). And this is the beauty of good improvised comedy — where someone throws out some entirely unexpected thing, and everyone begins riffing on it, taking the scene off into a brilliant space that you might never be able to script on paper. But these ensemble actors don’t seem to get it. Sure, they’re listening in the purest sense of the word, and some of them do seem to try to integrate things the “guest” says into the skit. But for the most part, not so much. This is partially the fault of the actors themselves but it also stems directly from the problem I said I’d come back to, the thing that I think is the show’s fatal flaw.

And that flaw is this: The producers of this show decided to give the ensemble actors a script to work with. This kills every possible good thing that improv can do. First, the script generally consists of a bunch of question or commands (e.g., “what do you call this,” or “I heard you know how to read hieroglyphics — read these and tell us what they say”). Such a thing may be a fine in the very beginning of the skit, to get things moving. But the ensemble continually falls back to the questions in their script. So the guest actor may give some great response, but instead of riffing off of whatever has just been said, allowing the skit to develop naturally, the ensemble actors immediately go to whatever the next scripted question is. The skits therefore end up lacking any natural flow, everything the ensemble actors do feels entirely forced, and the comedic potential of improv is all but ground to a halt.

Now I understand, to some extent, why the show chose to go in this direction. It’s because good improv is hard. And many of the guests probably have little or no improv training. So without these questions or commands to guide them, they might flop. And not in the way the show’s producers would love, where the guest simply says something stupid or breaks character for a minute, but in a way that would be truly embarrassing and possibly painful to watch, where the actor becomes utterly flummoxed or, worse yet, moves into the background and fails to really do anything. But that won’t happen with the question/command approach, because this basically feeds a setup to the guest, who can then simply try to use their general comedy talents to pull out a punchline.

And on that level, the show is, as I mentioned above, amusing enough. And I realize that this may be enough for some, that my indulgent nitpicking about the improv failings of this show may not matter to many viewers. But I couldn’t help but notice it throughout the show. And it’s a shame too, because with at least some of the guest actors, there was some potential for really great improv. Brian Cranston was particularly committed to what was going on (granted, he was given a fun/easy setup) and he really could have shone in a truly natural improvisational skit. Jennifer Coolidge, meanwhile, was particularly disappointing, given her prior improv work with the Groundlings and in the Christopher Guest movies (which are largely improvised). But it’s hard to say whether her obvious discomfort on stage was her fault or whether it stemmed from the fact that she was stuck in the most straightforward Q&A skit of the night, something that surely worked against all of her improv instincts, forcing her to simply try to come up with one liners.

What’s funny here is that the one “improv nerd” thing the show seems to get right is also rendered worthless. When Foley offers critiques at the end of each skit, it is readily apparent that he has some real insight into the art. However, because these are celebrities, his comments necessarily skew positive, and because it’s on TV, his comments are obviously edited down to just one or two quick things. I would actually love to see a more lengthy and candid critique from him, addressing the scene as a whole. But that’s not what this show is. Like those pieces of Foley’s critiques we actually get to see, the show is a drained and over-simplified version of something good.


Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television columnist. When pressed to quickly come up with something funny to type here, he floundered and stuttered, and all he could give us was, “umm … er … well … I like to … watch TV.” Those Groundlings classes paid off in spades.

If We're Thanking God for You Being Here, Does He Also Take the Blame?

"Thank God You're Here" / The TV Whore
Apr. 9, 2007

TV | April 9, 2007 |

Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.


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