Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Television And Improv Sittin' In A Tree, Engaged In An Endless Series Of Mutual Misunderstandings

Did I really say that TV is dead? (yes, here) It sounds like the sort of sweeping statement I might steal from somebody smarter than I and then pompously pass off as my own.

Was I right? I don't think so, but I was probably in a bad mood. TV isn't dead, I work there for a start. My monthly salary is testament to its continued vitality. I suppose that I do view most of my traditional televisual content via the iplayer or similar mechanism. I rarely allow the tyranny of TV scheduling to rule my viewing habits. But I am not the nation and while there is a significant shift in how the UK (and beyond) consumes its TV content, TV is still the vector of choice for most. For now.

I think the point I may have ballsed up making was that we live in an age where TV companies aren't a requirement for making content now. Cheap cameras and youtube have opened doors for us all and recent shows like Felicia Day's The Guild are ideal examples of things we don't need a network for. Anyhow.

Jon makes some observations about TV's relationship with improvisation. I agree, it's a poor dynamic. Why do TV and improv seem such poor bedfellows. Let's look at a recent example. I have worked with many of the performers who participated in the BBC's Fast And Loose and know them to be daring, smart and funny improvisers, I was disappointed to see that they seemed very restricted by the format of the show. Now, I understand why those restrictions were put into place by the producers over the development process. Or I think I do, and isn't that the same thing? (On the Internet? Yes.)

Let us compare, in broad terms, the production process of a stage improv* show in London and that of a TV improv show (which might look like I'm talking about Fast and Loose, I'm not, I don't know much about the production process of that particular show. I speak in broad generalities).

The stage improv show might cost anywhere between £0 and £100 to put on for a night, depending on your venue, publicity costs, cast-subsidised T-shirts et al. What's the worst that can happen? If you get no audience, you're out £100 and an evening. If you have a bad show, you're probably not getting that crowd back again, but there's plenty more fish in your facebook group. You can put on another show, happy that your company's brand hasn't taken much of a hit. Good. This is how it should be, people should be putting on new improv shows and trying new stuff all the time, because the cost of failure is minimal or non-existent.

Now, TV. Well, you're gonna need a venue, that means a studio and cameras, plus people to operate the cameras, a director and gallery staff, someone to manage them. You'll need a warm up guy for the audience, floor managers to wrangle them and the talent. Of course, you'll need talent, at least one of whom is a "name" because the company needs as many selling points as possible. You need to rehearse the format, same as you would for a stage show, only this time you're paying people to do it. You've got to design not just a logo, but then get front and back title sequences made, plus theme music as well as stings, beds and more for mid show. Then there's the graphics for the show, the astons and animations, they need designing and building, so does the set and the storage costs for your equipment. Now at this point, I have no idea how much you've spent. But I'll bet we're somewhere over £100,000. (Does my argument fall down because I don't have actual figures? If you think it does, replace my speculative number with the phrase "a huge amount of money", thanks). That done, that money spent, how do you make sure your show isn't shit? It's improv, right, that's always a risk, you could have a bad show tonight. What's the worst that could happen? Well, let's say the TV show has a bad night, 2-3million people watch it, some of them don't come back, you get bad reviews in the press, you're the guy who spent £100,000 on a lemon. You're the guy whose boss wants to know how we make next week's show good.

You're a producer, not an improviser, so that's just a worst case scenario. You're already in a position (important phrase coming up) to demonstrate that you have put practical measures into play to prevent the show tanking. The important word is demonstrate. These measures don't have to work, but they have to look like they would have done. It's like maths, you may not get the right answer, but if the working in the margin looks good then you'll get some marks. Here's some of the measures I've heard reports of producers from around the world consider to tighten up improv ideas:
  • What if we pre-improvise the scenes, that way we can pick the good ones and perform them on the night?
  • Games are funny, so a bunch of games at the same time must be funnier. Funny's exactly like numbers right?
  • Maybe each show could be about three hours long and we'll edit together the best 27 minutes?
  • I like the guessing game, that never gets old. Why don't we just do that over and over.
  • Maybe the audience suggestions are too weird, why don't we prep funnier suggestions and set-ups?
  • These improvisers aren't working, lets get stand-up comedians to replace some of them. Those guys get lots of laughs.
Remember if you are a producer with an idea (good or bad) that someone else has come up with and you're not fucking with it in some way, you're not producing right.

That's my diatribe done with. I understand the two main reasons why Fast and Loose wasn't the show I wanted it to be.a, I wasn't in it** and b, it was produced by producers.

Which brings me to my main point, the cost of failure for a TV production company and an improv troupe are vastly different, almost opposites. Our stage show? If we fuck that up, who's gonna care? About twelve people? The TV show has huge amounts of time, money and energy invested in it and it's going to be seen by a lot of people. Its failure has significant consequences for everyone involved and I swear, to the producer who just wants to make good TV, it looks like these procedures help.

In short, I think improv will continue to have a tricky time on TV, until TV execs learn more about the nature of improv itself. Maybe that time will come? We may have to just keep making these shows, each iteration with a little less control and a little more freedom for the casts until a company is eventually persuaded to take a more substantial risk. I'm not holding my breath. But why do so many improvisers seem to really want there to be a TV improv show? Answer me with opinions and words please.

*I unwaveringly use the term "improv", if this bothers you because you prefer "impro" I would ask you to ignore the "v" and never explain to me the reasoning behind your preference.
**And if I was, you can trust I'd be doing whatever I was asked by the producers, I need money.

(Also, one tiny afterthought, while Drew Carey is far from the world's greatest improviser, I doubt he stole "Improvaganza" from my beloved RFT. There's a finite number of good improv-puns out there, I used Improvaganza in the past before I'd heard of Edmonton and the good work that goes on there. I am as guilty as he.)

(Edited - 15/09/2011 to remedy my own grammatical inadequacies)

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