Stand-up comedy is to improv what classical music is to jazz. Outstanding stand-up combines sidesplitting jokes with perfect timing, in the same way that a fabulous classical music performance is the blend of a great composer’s work with a player’s artful virtuosity. On the other hand, improv comedy, like jazz, is created on the spot, comics and musicians alike riffing on given themes. And few do improv comedy as well as members of the cast of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the TV show that ran on ABC from 1998 to 2004.
My wife, who is usually way ahead of me in finding good things, discovered WLIIA about ten years ago, but we only recently started watching as a family, when we stumbled on highlights from the show on YouTube. Judging from her reaction—she’s laughing even harder now—the show has aged well. There were almost no topical jokes on WLIIA. Instead, it consisted of virtu-oso versions of stock improv shticks, like “Helping Hands,” the old camp game where one person, with both arms behind the back, delivers a monologue while another, standing behind him, slips his own arms through the first one’s armpits, gesticulating wildly and manipulating objects in response to the monologue. Other skits, like “Hoedown” or “Irish Drinking Songs,” unique to the show, used suggestions from the audience as the basis of lyrics the comics improvised to music.
Whose Live Anyway?, the touring version of WLIIA, comes to the Ann Arbor Summer Festival on Saturday, June 27. Featuring Ryan Stiles, the Emmy Award–nominated comic who ap-peared in every episode of WLIIA, plus regulars Greg Proops, Chip Esten, and Jeff Davis, the live version includes many of the favorite sketches and hilarious hijinks from “the show where everything is made up.” With the magic of TV editing, we couldn’t ever be sure what was live and what was Memorex, but on stage these comics do their high-wire act with no net. While there were occasional moments on WLIIA that would not pass PG-13 muster, by the time we started watching it on YouTube I no longer believed my fifteen-year old daughter had not heard similar references or language in other settings. So, my family already has our tickets for WLA—in the balcony of the Power Center. We’re sitting far away on purpose. Though I’ve loved watching WLIIA comics interact with audience members, and they always treat them with respect and never humiliate them, I know I’ll be more relaxed if I watch a safe distance from that famous line that former WLIIA host, Drew Carey, now delivers on another game show: “Come on down!”