Show Is It Anyway? - City Weekend Magazine (13 September 2001)
“My only experience
of China is when you stumble across the communities in Hong Kong with
the food markets and so on ,” admits comedian Jim Sweeney. “This
is really just an excuse to do a show somewhere I would never otherwise
have had the chance to go.”
As preparations go, Sweeney, Vranch, and Frost seem to be taking it easy in the run up to their first trip to the Chinese mainland. But then again, winging it is probably what they’re best known for. As three-fifths of the internationally acclaimed improvisational comedy act Whose Line Is It Anyway, the Punchline Comedy Club will be bringing their particular brand of spur-of-the-moment comedy to audiences in Beijing on September 21 and 22.
Whose Line started life o BBC radio 4, before making the leap to British television screens in 1988. For the next ten years, panels of comedians were expected to sing, dance, and improvise their way through a range of comic situations, based on audience suggestions, under the stewardship of show chairman/quizmaster Clive Anderson. Nowadays, the program exists in the ethereal world of endless star TV repeats, and in the form of the American TV version it spawned.
“Clive’s been retried out to a stud farm,” quips Vranch, who provided music for the original show. “I personally was glad to come out from behind the piano, It’s like an actor who plays one character in a soap opera.
For too long – people know you as the character and not the person. But when all’s said and done, Whose Line was a great ad for what we do.”
What they “do”
is a live form of the TV classic, with regular nightly slots around Britain
and Periodic forays onto the ex-pat circuit.
While fans of the television show will not be disappointed by the live version, it has necessary differences. There is no chairman (“ That would just slow down a live show,” says Vranch), and jokes can often stray into less politically correct territory than mainstream television channels permit.
“When you watch the telly, you watch the audience make suggestions as well as the comedians,” continues Vranch. “But when you see a live show, you become part of the process, like a ping-pong game. It’s like going to a football match – It’s always better live.”
“There’s no preparation to be done at all,” says Frost. “I still do a few stand-up comedy shows, but they’re like being back at school, you have to do your homework, you have to prepare for the show.”
“Stand-up terrifies me,” says Sweeney. “If for any reason it goes wrong, there are the five of us, we can go and die in the bar, and complain about the audience, Otherwise it would just be me, sitting on the tube, going home and thinking about how awful it was.”
“Between us, we have something like 130 years of comedy experience,” says Vranch. “We’ve been together for 20 years at least, which means we trust each other that when we put out a line, the others will pick it up and make something of it. “
“We don’t let anyone new in,“ says Frost. “It’s like Lord of the Flies. Anyone new comes in, and we chew them up and spit them out.”
It’s just as well, then, that audience don’t seem to be getting tired of the same fire faces. “The show seems to be getting more and more successful,” says Sweeney. “The better we get on, and the more experienced we get, the better the shows become.”
How about playing overseas?” “Ex-part audiences are generally very keen,” says Sweeney. “Sometimes in London, audience can be jaded, a bit like go on, make us laugh. Last time we played in Bangkok, there were two guys who’d traveled from Vietnam. It was a fantastic audience.”
“Of all of us,
it’s Stephen [Frost] who gets recognized on the streets when we
play places like Abu Dhabi and so on, says Vranch.
Frost puts a different gloss on it: “I’m the funniest, the best, and the handsomest, “he admits modestly.
In terms of exportable comedy, the show is a winner, and there’s no such thing as a catch-phrase or regular line spun out. “Every show is different, depending on the audience and their suggestions,” says Vranch. “Each night will have a completely different feel.”
For all the differences, there are themes that seems to be resonant around the world, however. “Suggestions tend to fall in the same area,” explains Sweeney. “Sometimes we get a suggestion of a place we haven’t heard of before, but nine times out of ten it’s the red light district.”
“Just you watch,” agrees Vranch. “On the night, someone is guaranteed to shout ’toilet brush.’ Even in France they did. Why do people always shout dirty, bottomy things?”
Topicality seems to be the only thing that has changed. “The 70s were unfashionable in the 80s,“ Vranch continues. “No one liked them. Then the 70s got fashionable in the early 90s. Now they’re out again; at the moment it’s the 80s and 90s that are popular.”
It’s quite an
achievement for one act to be able to discuss how it reacts to differing
decades. So how will they know when it’s time to stop? “We’ll
carry on until we die I suppose,” says Vranch. “We’ve
got 15 years older, [the audiences] have got 15 years older, but while
it’s still funny, we’ll still keep doing it.”
But for the time being, they’ll keep on with their own particular brand of humor, and try and make their Chinese audience laugh. “We know nothing about China,” reiterates Vranch. “But I’ll bet you a pound that someone in both Beijing and Shanghai will say ‘toilet.’”