I confess, I didn’t know that Drew Carey’s Improv-a-Ganza was a television show. I never had a chance to even watch it. What I did know, however, was Whose Line is it Anyway?, the long-running hysterical show imported from the UK and beloved by improv fans like me. With so many fantastically funny people roaming our fair city during Sketchfest, sometimes choosing the shows you’ll attend can be hard. Not for me, at least not last night: I couldn’t wait to get myself to the Marines’ Memorial Theatre for the second weekend in a row for an Improv-a-Ganza with Drew Carey, Ryan Stiles, Greg Proops, Chip Esten and Jeff B. Davis.
The event began promptly at 8 when musical director Bob Derkach took the stage, alongside Greg Proops, who heckled a few latecomers as they hurried through the dark to their seats.
“Where are you coming from?” Greg asked.
“Oh, so you couldn’t find the place…” As Greg introduced the night’s players, he indicated that it was everyone but “the bald guy and the black guy,” referring to Wayne Brady and Colin Mochrie, the other most frequent players in the Whose Line family. To “practice” the audience participation with the crowd before the actual start of any improv games, we were asked to shout out things you’d see on a San Francisco street. Greg first heard “kids” and then “hipsters,” and admitted he was proud he hadn’t heard “hookers or junkies,” noting our “civic pride.” Then he asked us to shout out the name of our favorite novel, and it was “Winnie the Pooh” that first caught his ear, but when someone cried out “THE BIBLE,” he had to tease them about their favorite work of fiction, saying “well, you’re gonna have a great time tonight!” At that point, he officially introduced the rest of the players as they finally joined him onstage.
The first game of the night was called “Freeze!” The audience was to give Jeff a physical activity; “pooping” was the first cry from the crowd that was heard, and subsequently was a joke to which the players would return all evening. Drew, on the other hand, was given the task of yoga, which a recent shoulder surgery forced him to modify. As the game is played, performers call out “freeze!” when they see an opportunity to change the scene and join it. At this point, Ryan explains that Freeze! has never worked. Chip eventually did end up in some sort of squatting position, miming pooping, but the scene was changed so many times in quick succession that he soon became one of the faces of Mt. Rushmore and then a reclining chair.
The next game, “New Choice,” came with a simple warning: it won’t make any sense until the very end. Before a scene began between Ryan and Jeff, the crowd was asked to speak up once again. A woman who said that her occupation was in “compliance” explained that she was in money management. When asked what it was she had really wanted to do, she admitted to having wanted to be a baker. As such, New Choice began with a scene in a baking company called Compliance. In this game, players can say “new choice!” any time they’d like others to make a different comedic choice. To advertise the Compliance Baking Co, for example, Drew was asked to put on a costume, but he complained about it exposing his butt. Ryan said, “new choice!” so Drew instead said, “my balls are showing,” which he continued to come back to until the game concluded.
For the next game, Drew plucked a woman named Sue from the crowd, telling her to “come on down.” After asking her where she was from (SF) and what she does for a living (a new business banker with Charles Schwab, which includes loans and mortgages), Drew quipped that she was evil. As they asked more about her life, they discovered that she had been married for 20 years to her high school sweetheart, now a neuroscientist. “That’s not rocket science,” someone teased. Though her husband Chris wasn’t there last night, she had come out with a girlfriend named Eleanor, who she’d known for 20 years as well, with whom she worked at Schwab. Finally, Drew said he didn’t want her whole life story; Chip and Jeff together improvised a song using the details of Sue’s life, the same “shitty slow number the show started with.” When asked by Jeff in the lyrics to “give my ass a slap,” Sue seemed fairly happy to oblige, which then in turn had her kissing Chip on the cheek, and ultimately spanking both men. Ultimately, the best part of this bit was that as the song morphed into a “cool jazz” piece, Chip showed off a decent Louis Armstrong impression.
Up next was a game called “Styles,” which Jeff called as Chip and Greg participated. The idea is that the story should always be the same throughout the game, but that at random intervals, Jeff would stop and ask the crowd for a new genre. It began with soap opera, changed to romantic comedy, and then silent film (complete with a bit of slapstick and Ryan’s uncanny film projector sound effect). Though theological literature was ultimately a difficult “style” to pull off, they managed to work in “Kirkegaard” and “C.S. Lewis” before switching to zombies, silent zombies, and espionage (thanks in part to an audience member whose favorite novel was called The Camel Club), which had Chip playing the role of an actual camel. Eventually, the style was called “romantic comedy camel espionage,” and Chip said he was too old to waitress with his hump. “I had a hunch,” Greg agreed. The style changed again, this time to a sad song, for which the audience provided “You’re So Vain.” The guys dutifully worked its lyrics into their bit and then moved on to “old movie,” using the Marx brothers’ Duck Soup. When the crowd was asked to supply an artist or album they’re listening to right now, someone shouted “Robin!” Immediately, Chip turned the scene to something out of Batman, and Greg didn’t miss a beat. The game ended with the scene in 1400s Europe.
The next bit was called The Celebrity All-Star Improv Jeopardy Tournament, hosted by the “insufferable Canadian douchebag Alex Trebek.” The contestants included the “fifth Darren from the television show Bewitched,” Frank McCourt – current owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, “Barryl Chesty” – a fictional country star whose songs are all called “Knockin’ on My Door,” and a guy named Tony who “works for a truck” and goes by a lot of names: “Tony Taco Truck,” “Tony Two Tacos,” “Tony Do You Want Cheese on That?” – but don’t call him “Tony Guacamole,” cause “she’s dead to me!” When Jeopardy! finally began, the first category was “scientific terms for 500,” and the apparently Bible-loving crowd offered “Deuteronomy!” which had Drew joking, “yeah, the Bible is full of science!” The correct answer (question, as it were, since it was Jeopardy! after all), was “what is the first line of Wham’s hit, ‘Wake Me Up’ (Before You Go-Go)?!” The next category was “critters,” the answer “wolverine.” The correct answer: “what do you get when a wolf has sex with a tangerine?” During the lightning round, the foreign city Ibiza was shouted from the crowd. Ryan’s perfect answer? “It’s taken in more places than Izamaztercharge!” The category “sloppy things” produced shouts of “your mom” and “Santorum!” from the crowd, to which someone added, “if you can’t beat ’em…Santorum.”
For the next game, Drew collected slips of paper from the audience, who’d earlier been asked to write random things on them for this bit. Ryan and Jeff stuffed these papers in their pockets to pull out at random and use as dialogue. The scene began as a soap opera, and the crowd was asked for an unusual location, to which we provided a space station. The fictional name provided by one attendee was “meth lab,” which prompted Ryan to say “hey…use what you know!” After settling on the better soap title “Beyond the Stars,” the show began. Jeff quickly worked in a perfect “that’s what she said,” which I’ll admit never fails to get a laugh from me. The story involved a dead monkey – another one. “That’s 37 in a row!” was the line from the crowd. As the scene got sillier and sillier, the guys had to man their “battle stations,” sound the alarm, view an on-screen message from the commander, and solve the question, “what’s at the end of Uranus?” After manning their battle stations again, the question of an open relationship was raised, and Ryan admitted to having “space sex with the commander,” thereby killing all the monkeys. Their intergalactic love affair had last for 200 years, he said, as the scene ended.
Jeff & Drew’s next game was called “Forward Reverse,” and is exactly like it sounds – they try to construct a scene, but have to continually stop and go either forward or backward, depending on what’s shouted at them. Ultimately, this is supposed to be funny because they’re challenged to remember the same funny lines over and over, but as the subject matter provided involved burritos, a clogged toilet, and the “exotic land” of Narnia (though Canada was offered as a possible choice, too), it wasn’t my favorite part of the night. It’s not that I can’t laugh at toilet humor, it’s just that of all the silly stuff they’re given and manage to work with, the structure of this game just isn’t as funny to me as so many of the others are. The highlight, though, was easily Jeff’s decision to take the clogged toilet storyline back to the physical activity of “pooping” from the beginning of the night by naming his character Poo Ping. I thought that was hilarious, ridiculous, and clever all at once.
For the next game, “Moving People,” two girls were called up from the crowd to be responsible for all of Drew and Chip’s movements. The activity they were supplied with was gardening, so there might not have been a lot of fun that you’d expect in so exciting a storyline, but the highlights were definitely the girl who was manufacturing Chip’s movements – she kept tapping his legs to have him walk forward or backward, and finally he asked her, “have you ever walked before?” The other girl accidentally used Drew’s arm to hit Chip in the face, for which Drew was actually quite apologetic, though honestly I thought it was pretty funny to witness. Whether planned or accidental, the scene wrapped up quickly when the girls then moved them too close to each other, and they could quite literally kiss and make up.
For “Sound Effects,” Chip pulled two more audience members to the stage to make all the noises for the story that followed. The guy, Rob, might have actually been a professional radio actor in another life – he was brilliant, which for some reason really tickled my funny bone. The girl, on the other hand (Carly), was not so creative and often provided sounds that didn’t go with what she was asked, which ended up being even funnier than if her sounds had actually matched the story. The story involved a “swamp ranger” (Ryan), who gave a tour of the swamp by jet boat, pointing out all the animals (crocs, gators, dogs), the sounds for all of which were provided by the two good sports from the crowd. When Ryan pantomimed a shotgun, Rob made a sound effect that caused Ryan to say that his nickname in high school had been “double cocked.” The game ended with Greg asking if he’d dated a lot of twins.
The last game before the end of the set involved Drew (as himself), Greg (as Tim Gunn), and Ryan (as Neil Patrick Harris) in a late night infomercial selling a collection of hits for rock tour roadies. Chip and Jeff played the musicians performing the songs for us to hear, which included a country hit (“Tune Your Own Guitar” by the Chesty boys), a French number (“Unload From the Back”), and a rare Neil Diamond and Bruce Springsteen duet called “34 gigs in 34 Nights.” The best part of this sketch for me was Jeff’s Neil Diamond impression, as he peppered his song with a “babe!” here and there – it was perfect, and I couldn’t stop laughing as they took their initial bow.
As is the case with most shows worth attending, an encore quickly ensued. As someone from the crowd called out a request for popular Whose Line… game “Hoedown,” Ryan grabbed his crotch and said “here’s your hoedown!” Instead, they chose to call Eleanor (friend of Sue from earlier in the show) to join them on stage for a game of story-telling where each person on stage tells part of a story until the person calling the game points to someone else. The story about a donkey and a goose who hated each other and tried to work it out with farm animal therapy was admittedly not the funniest thing I’ve ever heard, but Eleanor’s demeanor and willingness to participate made the bit funny all the same.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a live improv show, and last night makes me wonder why. It’s definitely not the kind of thing I’d ever participate in, as I make no bones about the fact that I’m too self conscious to think on my feet so quickly, but as a spectator, it never fails to crack me up, and the Improv-a-Ganza boys are among the best, as far as I’m concerned. It was a real treat to be able to participate and watch it all in person.