Celebrating Thirty Years of ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’

Sam Lambeth reflects on the riveting improvisation show

 In 1988, Channel 4 commissioned a radio adaptation of the improvisation show Whose Line Is It Anyway. From then, magic was made, with comedians from both the UK and US establishing themselves with quick wit and whip-smart retorts. As the pilot episode celebrates its thirtieth anniversary, Sam Lambeth reflects on the show’s genius.

Autumn, 2007. A teenage blonde boy thing with a penchant for puns and a burgeoning passion for comedy flicks on Dave. It’s after tea and the era means there’s no time to devote to Tinder swiping, arranging Dark Fruits exchanges via WhatsApp or flicking through the iPhone. Thus, it’s the telly or (shudder) using his imagination.

He’s greeted to the sight of a slightly snobby, priggish prude with barely any hair and even less neck, introducing in a scalpel sharp wit four contestants. One is brashly American and heavily bespectacled, with a quiff and cow waistcoat combo that makes him look like a teddy boy lost in Louisiana. Next is a genial-looking man with a wild thatch of balding hair, followed by a lanky American dressed like an out-of-work golfer and, finally, a greasy-haired Brit with a cheeky grin and an even cheekier red jacket. What would follow would change this young viewer’s life.

Yes, that viewer was me. And eleven years ago my life changed because I watched Whose Line Is It Anyway, an incredibly popular show fuelled by improvisation games that tested contestants’ limits. The show, which enjoyed considerable success on both sides of the Atlantic, began airing in 1988. As it celebrates its thirtieth anniversary, I decided to binge watch the UK series (the best one, come at me Drew Carey lovers) on 4OD and reconnect with the magic I discovered over a decade ago.

My original purge of the programme dovetailed with my fledgling dramatic career, and in my drama classes I began introducing some of the games used in the television show – my classmates would be agog and aghast as I suggested playing Superheroes or rounded off a reading of Chekhov with a quick-fire round of World’s Worst. But now, watching the show as a fan and not as someone who hoped to one day star in a Dave reboot, I can see its amazing quality and unbridled intelligence more than ever.

The runaway star of the show, without doubt, is Ryan Stiles. When he was first introduced in the second season, the show was still in debt to the radio show, with more highbrow games and a clutch of British stars that were, at best, a mixed bag. His quality and quickness shone through straight away – we had a star on our hands. As each series came, Ryan became more and more frequent until he eventually appeared on every episode. It was well rewarded – Ryan simply excels in every game, whether it be devising winning couplets in the Hoedown (a game where many a contestant comes horribly unstuck) or saving dying games with his improv nous.

If you’re about to watch for the first time, and sensibly start at the beginning, my advice is to be patient. At first, the show’s largely British contingent (and some of the American choices) often struggle and some of the more intellectually stimulating games, such as Authors, die on their rump. The show’s star during this era is Renaissance man John Sessions, whose rampant IQ and shameless scene stealing made him a Stephen Fry for the alternative generation. However, Whose Line… reached a fork in the road come series three – by this point, there was a clear divide between the rambling, nuanced old guard (Sessions, Archie Hahn and Sandi Toksvig, to name but three) and the more quick-fire, commercial upstarts (Stiles, Greg Proops and Colin Mochrie).

Around Series Four onwards, the show plateaued. There was barely any awkward pauses or missed opportunities as the American brawn of Proops, often the show’s poster boy due to his occasionally feigned but always famed barbs at the show’s host Clive Anderson, meshed wonderfully with the British brilliance of Josie Lawrence. There were guests that were adept at song styles, namely Lawrence, Mike McShane and Chip Esten, and those that could work their own shtick into every game (Tony Slattery’s slutty cheek, Paul Merton’s hangdog cynicism and Steve Frost’s working-class grit).

Then there was Clive. He may now spend most of his time devoted to the British oak but there was nothing wooden about his rapid putdowns. Whether he was quickly silencing Greg with a menacing barb or just segueing from one game to another with a no-frills flippant remark, Clive was the perfect host.

The pilot episode, of course, seems incredibly dated now but the seeds of promise were there. Whose Line… would then go on to enjoy a ten-year tenure on Channel 4, before becoming a staple in the US. Anyone who enjoys crazy humour, entertaining games and the perfect mix of America and England should watch. This is me, Sam Lambeth, saying goodnight – ‘goodnight’.

However, as a footnote, I need to include my favourite gag from Whose Line…, which took place during a game of Film and Theatre Styles (where audience members shout out titles and genres for the performers to act out) between Colin and Ryan:

Ryan – “These waters are full of piranhas. They can rip a man apart.”

Colin – “What about a woman?”

Ryan – “Well, a woman can rip a man apart, too…”

Words by Sam Lambeth

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