Improvised comedy TV show Thank God You’re Here returned last Wednesday after a 14 year hiatus, with its premiere drawing an impressive 684,000 viewers.
Hosted by Celia Pacquola, the guest stars include first timers Urzila Carlson, Aaron Chen, Geraldine Hickey, Lloyd Langford, Luke McGregor and Aunty Donna’s Mark Bonanno, as well as returnees from the 2006-2009 run such as Fifi Box and Julia Zemiro.
The premise sees each celebrity guest costumed into a character — who is a complete surprise to them. They then enter through the infamous door into a scenario which they must play along with the core ensemble, who are also improvising but, unlike the guest, to a brief.
Thank God You’re Here, developed by Working Dog’s Santo Cilauro, Rob Sitch, Michael Hirsh and Tom Gleisner is a “justification game” by theatre sports categorisation. It employs a similar hook to the theatre sports game Actor’s Nightmare, where one player can only speak from the lines of a scripted play leaving everyone else in the scene, who are unaware of the text’s content, to “justify” their dialogue.
Thank God You’re Here 2023 Trailer
Improv grew from a set of strategies for training actors to a performing art in its own right.
Australia’s place in the history of improvisation suggests our screens are uniquely placed for introducing wider audiences to a form that — if sometimes derided for its “cringe” or lack of diversity — promotes risk, spontaneity and genuine “liveness” at a level scripted theatre and comedy only aim to emulate.
Introduction to Improv: From Theatre to Television
The commercial success of improvised performance, peaking in the late 80s and 90s is often attributed to theatre sports. Theatre sports is credited as the brainchild of Keith Johnstone, whose 1979 book Impro, drawing on his experience as an educator and associate director at the Royal Court Theatre in London, is a mainstay of theatre studies reading lists.
Theatre sports is a comedy format where teams compete for points from a panel of three judges, using improv skills to create quick spontaneous scenes for the amusement of the audience.
Johnstone’s aim (based on his observations of pro-wrestling in Britain) was to have audiences as excited about theatre as they are about sport — for instance, booing a “block” (denying the reality set up by one’s scene partner) as enthusiastically as they would a sporting penalty.
Johnstone’s death at age 90 in March this year was a loss to the improv world. Part of his legacy is the term “the Johnstone school”, the principles and techniques emerging from his Calgary company Loose Moose Theatre.
Rivalling the Johnstone school is the Chicago style, whose teachings are part of the origin story for US troupes Second City, Groundlings and Upright Citizens Brigade, all with their own famous alumni. Chicago style can be traced to the enormous influence of American actor, educator and director Viola Spolin, who devised a series of techniques she called Theatre Games, which she wrote about in Improvisation for the Theatre (1963).
Cringe and Diversity
Historically, the performing art of improvisation, especially improv comedy, has been dominated by white (cisgender, usually straight) men. This is well documented — and parodied.
Amy E. Seham, now a professor of theatre and dance, was a trailblazer in the critiques of improv’s homogeneity with her book Whose Improv Is It Anyway? (2001).
She interrogates “the gap between improv-comedy’s utopian philosophies and the highs and lows of [her] own experience” as a seasoned improviser navigating the sexist landscape. In the book she quotes then Australian Theatre Sports director Lyn Pierse, whose female players were “railroaded by the men onstage”.
It’s not only sexism and misogyny that has plagued the improv scene, particularly in North America.
As Second City and Saturday Night Live alumnus Tina Fey wrote in her memoir Bossypants, “only in comedy, by the way, does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity”. But the early announcement Pacquola would host inspired optimism for at least the gender skew of the series.
Improv Down Under
In 2016, there was an attempted Australian version of hit US comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway? — which didn’t fare as well as its UK and US counterparts.
As improvisation researcher Braínne Edge wrote in 2014 article, the US iteration suffered from “an awkward tension” between the core cast and the celebrities.
The lack of improv training of the celebrities saw them “effectively blocking and denying the action” — one of the key transgressions of improv.
The success of the original Thank God You’re Here in Australia — and hopefully the new season too – may owe something to earlier improv training grounds in Australia.
In its heyday, theatre sports was embraced in both Australia and New Zealand, with high school training programs, regional and national tournaments, corporate sponsorship and TV broadcasts.
The ABC aired the series Theatre Sports in 1987, and Television New Zealand broadcast each national Theatre Sports final in prime time from 1988 to 1991.
Watch Theatre Sports
According to Edge, the original Thank God You’re Here’s “key to success” is “that the Australians allow their scenes to be more fluid, less restrictive, more natural”. The premiere of the new series suggests this quality hasn’t changed.
When guest Aaron Chen uttered the famous line “thank god you’re here” upon entering his scene (instead of hearing it, as the premise demands), the cameras continued to roll. Later host Pacquola called back to his error, drawing comedy out of coaching him out of the habit ahead of his next entrance.
As Fey points out in Bossypants, “there are no mistakes, only opportunities”.
For Australian comedy and the profile of improv, it might just be a case of thank god you’re back.