Who’s Riot is It Anyway? A Look at Improv Comedy on Primetime



Since Steve Carell’s arrival on the comedic scene, he’s done little wrong ‒minus, of course, leaving The Office, where his former “employees” have been forced to wither away without his leadership. In fact, Steve has been more than willing to put his reputation, and his actual body on the line for his comedic ambitions (the famous waxing scene in 40 Year Old Virgin was completely genuine). Now, it seems he’s ready to up the physicality of his comedy by both producing and guest starring on his new Fox sketch show, Riot. It seems that improv took a brief hiatus with the disappearance of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, but Whose Line has now returned on The CW, and Fox has answered the call for sketch comedy with Carell’s Riot.

The show aims to be a mash-up of Whose Line (which is working through its 10th season, with previous episodes still popular on demand through DirecTV and similar on-demand packages) and a “Japanese-type Game Show.” Which leads most of us wondering, will the points matter? It seems that they do, at least more so than Drew Carey’s (now Aisha Tyler’s) show ever did. Riot boasts a rotating cast of 7 comedians: John Ross Bowie, Jamie Denbo, Brian Palermo, Jordan Black, Jessica McKenna, Meryl Hathaway, and Rob Gleeson. The competition falls mainly between the two celebrity guests per show, which so far include the likes of Carell himself, Tom Green, David Arquette, Rob Delaney. The celebrity guests are the ones primarily pitted against each other, with the rest of the cast playing supporting roles.

The show is the brainchild of international improv phenomenons Slide Show and Anything Goes, which both consist of improv comedians performing sketches under extreme conditions. A stage, tilted at 22-degree angle, is the show’s masterpiece, with the camera similarly tilted so that the scene appears level to viewers. The players are then required to act out scenes while battling both gravity and falling objects.

Props like a wrecking ball that knocks comedians off stage if their performance falls short, and completely blacked-out rooms performers must stumble through, are meant to harken back to the days of The Three Stooges.

The show aims to follow in Whose Line’s footsteps in many ways; the regular players can hopefully become as familiar and intuitively synchronized as Ryan Stiles, Wayne Brady and Colin Mochrie, and the guests could ideally bring as much entertainment as say, Robin William’s appearance on Whose Line. The improvisation is also there, although it’s more physically daunting than the games Drew Carey ever inflicted on his players. In fact, Carell said this was done purposefully – props like a wrecking ball that knocks comedians off stage if their performance falls short, and completely blacked-out rooms performers must stumble through, are meant to harken back to the days of The Three Stooges.

These factors are what separate the show from previous improv programs. Carell is determined to make the stumbling, bumbling nature of the show is its finest feature. Clumsiness has long been comedic, effective mainly because it’s a joke that everyone can get. Falling and scrambling around is indeed funny (which is why America’s Funniest Home Videos is standing strong as ABC’s longest running primetime television show), and it will no doubt be interesting to watch as professional comedians run around haphazardly.

Whose Line’s best moments came from pure amazement at the off-the-cuff talent being displayed. Through simple setups and minimal props, the performers were able to showcase their creative abilities with the greatest flexibility. Imagine if their dialogue — which over the course of an episode often builds into a multitude of running jokes and one-upping — was disturbed by Colin Mochrie being mercilessly shifted offstage by a tilting floor. Though Riot claims influence from Whose Line, there will certainly be differences between watching Stiles, Mochrie and Brady pretend to avoid an avalanche, and watching Riot’s comedians hold on for dear life. Body language, self-created sound effects, and the singing abilities of Wayne Brady were Whose Line’s foundation, whereas the foundation of Riot is primarily the threat of being hoisted to the rafters for not complying with the rules.

Riot has more than a fair chance at making an impression on the televised improv scene. After all, late night shows have made a killing putting celebrities into game show mode. Riot does make use of this technique with its guest cast, though, it could be argued these guests (last night’s episode included Cheryl Hines and Jason Alexander), are generally comedians in their own right, and don’t need such a setting to garner laughs. On the other hand, just because they don’t need the added tilted set and physical challenges, doesn’t mean they can’t make use of it.

Riot has a total of 6 episodes left, which will likely show improvements with each subsequent airing as the players become more comfortable and aware of the game style.

The next episode will air Tuesday at 9pm on Fox.


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Kate Voss
Kate Voss
Kate Voss is a blogger in Chicago whose chief interests include film, music, and boating. Follow her on Twitter @kateevoss