Skip to main content

When Cable Met Improv

Schlumpy? Maybe. Inappropriate? Usually. But Larry David is also a trendsetter. When the co-creator of Seinfeld
starts shooting the fifth season of his HBO improvised sitcom, the always outrageous Curb Your Enthusiasm, he'll have company.

Why? Because improv works. It's cheap(er), it's funny, and it's getting respectable ratings. These days, an increasing number of sitcoms and drama favor off-the-cuff dialogue. Be it Curb, HBO's canceled K Street, Bravo's Significant Others, or Comedy Central's Reno 911,
improv has
emerged as the next-big-thing since CBS's Survivor
kicked off the reality trend in 2000.

At least, that's what the networks are hoping. They want to lure viewers with a fresh twist on old formats. "What makes this frightening, meaning working without a net, also makes it exhilarating," says Robert B. Weide, executive producer and director of Curb Your Enthusiasm. "It makes it unlike anything else on TV.
" It also makes for compelling, even wacky storylines and serious ratings

Significant Others,
which premiered a month ago, is touted by Bravo as "more real than comedies and more imaginative than reality shows. It's a comedy about couples in therapy,
but the cast, Bravo says, "quite literally scripts themselves." So far, it has averaged 703,000 viewers, up 9% over the same time slot last year. Of course, these are cable
numbers; the universe is smaller, so gains are telling.

Cable takes chances, and cable improv shows enjoy greater artistic freedom than their broadcast counterparts. "You have a better chance to make an impact on cable TV, as opposed to network TV, where expectations are higher," says Bravo President Jeff Gaspin. "The belief is that improvised shows have a narrower appeal until a buzz is created."

Peter Tortorici, executive producer of Significant Others, notes that traditional sitcoms have talented people on staff—and still they can fail. "One of the things I learned from smart people was not to do what everybody else did. But what everybody else isn't doing."

True, the number of unscripted sitcoms and dramas pales in comparison with the number of reality shows, which account for half of the 10 most-watched shows on broadcast TV, such as Survivor, The Apprentice, and American Idol.

After all, reality TV is still the edgiest thing on network television, probably because it's the latest arrival, Many producers believe improv gives programs panache. It neatly disguises a sitcom as a reality TV show.

At their best, unscripted sitcoms are an offshoot of reality TV. For instance, performers are allowed to create scenes on the spot, since much of the plot comes together in the editing room.

Reality has helped make experimenting with unscripted sitcoms more palatable for the networks. Reno 911!, a wacky spoof of Cops, premiered on Comedy Central last year. Its ratings are high enough to get it a second season this summer. "Reality TV was influential in the acceptance of this kind of show," says Robert Roy Thomas, creator and director of Significant Others. "What made reality OK is there was less money at stake. We cost two-thirds less than a theatrical show."

The trend began, in part, in 1988, when improvised dialogue was used in Robert Altman's Tanner '88. The HBO miniseries, about a fictitious presidential candidate, which didn't get enormous attention, is currently being rebroadcast on Sundance Channel.

Curb, however, was the first improvised
sitcom, having evolved from a one-hour HBO Larry David special that aired in 1999. Viewers were drawn to its dark, Seinfeldian nature, and more than 3.4 million people tuned in to its fourth-season finale on March 14, according to Nielsen Media Research. It was the third-most-watched pay-cable show that week.

Still, Curb's success didn't spark an immediate wave of copycats. Generally speaking, networks aren't keen on investing a lot of time and money on a genre that can claim only one hit.

To add to the initial disinterest, Curb's
production schedule and above-average costs made replication daunting. "Our production year is much longer because we don't have a script," says Weide. "It takes us almost a year to do 10 episodes. Once we finish shooting, it's editing full-time."

Here's how Curb
and other unscripted comedies work, to varying degrees. Writers flesh out ideas for an episode. Actors then go in front of the camera with an outline—or not—and are told what situation the characters are in and how the scene begins or ends. The dialogue is written as the actors improvise their lines. In most unscripted shows, several iterations of each scene are filmed, with scenes similar in tone pieced together later. Improvised programs usually have a shorter writing time, a typical shooting schedule, and a significantly longer editing phase.

"Our show costs less [than scripted sitcoms] because the mantra for our team is 'Not the usual suspects,'" says Tortorici. "These are incredibly talented people, but they weren't on everybody's list to work with. Trying to do something like this for $2 million or $2.5 million," he adds, "would never happen."

Significant Others
is the newest unscripted sitcom, but it won't be the only one. Wanda Sykes, a recurring actor on Curb, has a six-episode commitment deal with Comedy Central for a yet-to-be-titled weekly series that will focus on her real-life attempts to do everyday jobs outside of show business.

And HBO may team up again with producers George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, on an unscripted comedy. Their first foray association with HBO, K Street, a highly touted but lackluster drama centering on Washington politics, didn't make it past its first season. It was canceled last November after six episodes.

But more improv is coming.

The Hollow Men, a four-man sketch-comedy troupe from the U.K., will bring its act to the States in a self-titled series; Comedy Central signed the group after it
won the Jury Award at the 2003 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo.

Timing is everything. "Improv is something I've been using as a tool for a long time," says Significant Others'
Thomas, "and people are ready for it now."