Improv on TV

GGG was lucky enough to perform on the Public Access TV show Sacre Bleu this week. We got to have two twenty-five minute sets in the small studio with two camera man, two hosts, a producer, and about six friends in the studio audience.

We had a big rehearsal on Sunday getting ready for the show. We were brainstorming what format would be most successful on TV. Normally we improvise a full length musical for 20-70 minutes, but we thought people who were flipping channels and joining the program late wouldn’t be able to enjoy it. We also wanted to use the interactivity of having people call in and give suggestions. Plus, on TV the suspension of disbelief is harder. It looks like we are in a TV studio, not a castle or a skating rink. And there’s also the fact that TV can be a lot less forgiving than live theatre, performers look fatter, voices sound flatter, and attention spans are smaller.

We ended up using our Musical Revue format where each Girl takes a turn stepping forward and recalls their favorite highlight scene from their favorite GGG musical that has not happened yet. Then the other girls get to “re-enact” that scene for the first time. We also had live callers offer their suggestions for musicals and songs. We had a great time. But then again, I haven’t seen the DVD yet. We’re hoping to put some of the scenes on youtube at some point.

The whole experience got me thinking (again) about how to best capture improv on film or video.

Short form improv has obviously had a successful translation to TV: Whose Line is it Anyways. Part of what makes that work is a live studio audience and high production value (multiple cameras, professional lighting, professional music, etc.). The other part of what makes it work is very quick-paced, often zany, often verbal scenes, often with the premises endowed by the host (You are two cowboys in a saloon, and you are about to have a shootout.) From what I hear they tape for 90 minutes and edit it down to the top 22 minutes. Other shortform improv shows have had some success: World Cup Comedy (Where they had a rotating set so players could perform in a location) and Thank God you’re here (With sets, costumes, and the improv game of Actor’s Nightmare.)

TV is so visual (duh) that you need sets, props, and costumes, and therefore you have to semi-script out the scenes so you can prepare for them. I wonder what would happen if you had it like The Loose Moose with prop and set improvisers creating the environment as the scene evolved. Another attempt at solving this was Drew Carey’s short lived Green Screen show where they would post-production animate around the improvisers.

Most improvisers, however, are interested in longform improvisation, which I have not scene successfully translated onto film. Well, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Sons and Daughters, and Significant Others almost count. They are set characters with plot outlines improvising their scenes. But I wonder if you could really ever capture what happens in a theatre at a long form improv show? Here’s what I think the challenges are:

  • Capturing the risk/excitement that everything is really being made up on the spot
  • Allowing actors to play multiple roles, esp roles different from their physical type, with out costumes
  • Keeping the attention of a TV audience through the sometimes slower pacing of a long form
  • Keeping a frame or convention that gives the show some continuity week to week.

Maybe it’s just meant for a theatre audience. But then again, I wish there was a TV channel that showed all the Broadway productions I will never get to see. Also, there’s been a suprise hit with the live HD simulcasting of The Metropolitan Opera in movie theatres. Maybe that would be a solution for improv, too. The audience could be together live even if they weren’t in the same space as the performers.

Hm . . . Still thinking it over . . .

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About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.
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