• U.S.

Evenings At The Improv

7 minute read
James Poniewozik

When Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld created Seinfeld, they helped usher in the ’90s golden age of TV comedy. It became fashionable to say, Were William Shakespeare alive, he would be doing sitcoms. David’s latest show, hbo’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (Sundays, 10 p.m. E.T.) is as daringly funny as Seinfeld at its best; this year it earned its first Emmy nomination. But it won’t usher in a golden age of comedy writing, because it doesn’t use scripts. Like a growing number of shows, Curb is funny, fresh–and improvised. If Shakespeare were writing sitcoms today, he would be nervous.

For each episode of Curb–an acerbic comedy about “Larry David,” creator of Seinfeld–David writes about a five-page outline (most sitcoms have 40-page scripts), which he keeps secret from the actors until the day of shooting. He gives the cast a rough idea of what is happening in each scene but not what he will say to them. The actors ad-lib and the cameras roll, again and again, until they have enough material to make the scene work. “We give actors information on a need-to-know basis,” says Robert Weide, who directs many of the episodes. “It’s like working for the cia.”

For actors, this means no lines to study–“I just have to [show up] showered and shaved,” jokes Jeff Garlin, a Curb executive producer who plays Larry’s manager–but it also means thinking fast. When Cheryl Hines, who plays Larry’s wife Cheryl, has a scene in which Cheryl wants to know why Larry went shopping at Barney’s, Hines really does not know the answer. “In real life,” she says, “you don’t know how things will turn out, either.” Improv also helps Curb avoid most sitcoms’ addiction to zingy, scripted “jokes,” making it a situation comedy in which all of the comedy grows out of the situations, which is what the best sitcoms aspire to. “One of our rules for actors is ‘Don’t try to be funny or go for the joke,'” says Weide. “It will only end up on the cutting-room floor.”

That doesn’t mean the scenes aren’t funny. In an upcoming episode, a rumored terrorist attack has Larry making plans to flee Los Angeles, but Cheryl has business in town. Hines and David improvised a scene in which Larry has to decide whether to stay with Cheryl. “I ask him, ‘Don’t you think we should be together?'” Hines says. “And he answers, ‘No, not necessarily.’ It’s impossible to keep a straight face with that. We had to break many times.”

Curb’s off-the-cuff feel may partly explain how it creates sympathy for characters who are everything TV wisdom tells us “regular” viewers won’t identify with: an abrasive, Jewish, late-middle-age, married-but-childless (even Tony Soprano has kids!) multimillionaire and his Hollywood pals and retainers. (Seinfeld gave most of its characters non-show-biz jobs and made George, the Jewish David’s alter ego, Italian.) Even more than Seinfeld, Curb uses discomfort for laughs: Larry covets a shirt owned by an acquaintance’s dead husband; Larry poses as a child-molestation survivor to help a friend. But the laid-back, mockumentary tone helps make the viewer feel at home in Larry’s world.

Curb isn’t alone in bringing back improv, which early TV innovators like Ernie Kovacs made a staple. Whose Line Is It Anyway?–a more traditional showcase of stand-up improv–has been a modest success on abc for several years. Comedy Central airs improv hybrids like Primetime Glick–where Martin Short, as corpulent journalist Jiminy Glick, springs bizarre interviews on real celebrities–and the crank-call puppet show Crank Yankers. One of the funniest sitcoms anywhere on television is Cartoon Network’s Home Movies, about elementary-school-age amateur moviemakers, in which the voice actors improvise the dialogue and then the animation is done to match.

Improv is no comedy cure-all though: this summer’s Meet the Marks on Fox, in which an improv troupe played elaborate pranks on ordinary folks, was a thundering dud. This kind of show needs strong, quick-witted stars, as on the WB’s The Jamie Kennedy Experiment (Thursdays, 9 p.m. E.T.). Experiment is also a prank show, but the real attractions are the characters comedian Kennedy plays in the pranks: an oily infomercial pitchman; a straight-talking African-American woman talk-show host; a white wannabe rapper who–in his bourgeois version of street slang–complains about waiting in line at “Starbizzucks” for a “frizzappuccino.” It’s a “gotcha” show, in which Kennedy gets not only his victims but also the media and pop-culture types he is spoofing.

The vogue for improv is traceable, like so much in TV these days, to the cult of reality. Survivor benefited from the boredom with scripted-TV conventions displayed by viewers–especially young viewers, who despite a lifelong diet of cultural artifice have a disdain for anything phony–while the success of MTV’s The Osbournes put network executives on the hunt for “reality comedy.” Improv is, in essence, just that. It’s about acting fake but authentically: reacting to contrived situations with genuine surprise and the pauses and fumblings of everyday speech. “It brings out the feeling that you are a fly on the wall,” says Weide. “The rhythms are different, the behavior is different.” Whereas on scripted television, he says, “everything looks, sounds and feels like it is on TV.”

Of course, a lot of viewers still want to see TV when they watch TV, which may be why abc’s Life with Bonnie (Tuesdays, 9 p.m. E.T.) takes a two-track approach. Bonnie Hunt stars as Bonnie Molloy, a Chicago morning-TV talk-show host and working mom. The scenes at Bonnie’s show are improvised; the “guests,” mostly nonactors, don’t know what will happen in the scene, and the crew shoots only one take. But the scenes at home with Bonnie’s family are mostly scripted. “Ninety percent of improv is a failure,” says Hunt, who apprenticed in the Second City improv troupe. “You have to have a strong script and characters. Then improvisation is the key to making everything a little more natural.”

Bonnie is earning surprisingly strong ratings against nbc’s longtime hit Frasier. But Hunt might be better off trusting her improv instincts more. The painfully unfunny scripted portions are practically a catalog of everything wrong with old-fashioned sitcoms: precocious kids, an indulgent hubby, a wisecracking maid–the only thing distinguishing it from a hack ’60s sitcom is the absence of a genie or lovable Martian. But the talk-show segments crackle with jazzy humor and authenticity. When Bonnie accidentally gets looped on prescription cough syrup and starts riffing uncontrollably, the decoupage artist she is interviewing seems genuinely peeved. “One thing that drives me crazy about sitcoms,” says Hunt, “is when someone says something funny and no [other character] laughs.” Not a problem here.

Bonnie can seem chaotic and, like a lot of TV about TV, self-indulgent. But the chaos and feeling of risk on the actors’ part create an excitement the audience can sense. “Improv adds a spark you cannot capture when you only have scripted dialogue,” says Bonnie co–executive producer Don Lake. “It’s contagious.” With Bonnie and Curb on a roll, don’t be surprised to see the contagion spreading. Sorry, Will. Have you ever considered the theater? –Reported by Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com