Boy, is it good to see this show on DVD at last!
If you were a dedicated viewer of Comedy Central in the early years, before the network really found its footing with original programming, you no doubt were a regular watcher of the improv comedy game show “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” Admittedly, it’s at least partially because you had little choice in the matter. Back then, it served the same role for the network that “Mad TV” does now: a short, convenient program to fill space ‘til the next “South Park” or “Daily Show.” But it was always easier to get wrapped up in any given episode, given how fast-moving and funny it was.
Those who are familiar with the show only from its Drew Carey-hosted American incarnation are really missing out. The most obvious difference between the U.S. version of the series and the original British one is that, well, let’s be honest: their version is way more highbrow. Intellectually, there’s no contest, and it’s obvious within two minutes of any given episode. The standard opening gambit of the BBC series is the game “Famous Authors,” where each of the panelists tells a story in the manner of their favorite author, from a subject supplied by someone in the studio audience. Outside of “Frasier,” it’s hard to imagine a prime-time series in the States where there’s humor to be found by making fun of William Faulkner, James Joyce and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Truth be told, the average viewer in the U.S. probably wouldn’t know the first thing about the writing styles of any member of that trio.)
Certain individuals were staples on the panel, and not all of them were British. Ryan Styles made his comedic mark on the BBC long before he made headway on these shores with “The Drew Carey Show.” What’s stranger, however, is that hilarious Americans like Mike McShane and Greg Proops have never managed much stateside success. As far as the natives go, Tony Slattery is always prepared with a lascivious line, John Sessions takes the highbrow route whenever possible and Josie Lawrence bounces between the two better than you might anticipate (although she always appears on the verge of blushing after uttering a slightly off-color comment).
Peter Cook makes a one-off appearance, as does Betty Thomas. The latter might seem more surprising than the former, given that her best known role is a dramatic one (Officer Lucy Bates on “Hill Street Blues”), but Thomas is a well-respected comedic director as well as a Second City alumnus. Stephen Fry’s two appearances on the show coincide with Anderson’s decision to make the panelists perform a rap. At this point, Fry invariably buries his head in his hands and, when the time comes for him to strut his stuff, he unabashedly refuses to do it properly, coming across as an Oxford-educated Mike Skinner (of The Streets), politely chatting his way through the beats. (Cook is equally excited at the prospect of rapping, but he nonetheless steps up to the mike and demonstrates mad skills.)
There are many similar games between the U.S. and U.K. versions, such as: Party Quirks (one panelist acts as a party host who has to guess who his guests are by their words or actions); World’s Worst (contestants throw out their best suggestions for topics like World’s Worst Ad Slogan for Toothpaste, or what have you); and Props, where panelists are paired up, given a random item, and told to ad-lib explanations about the item. Still, it’s got to be said: if you’re looking for dumb fun, you might want to search elsewhere. If, however, your comedic sensibilities skew decidedly British, you’ve got four discs worth of hilarity at your fingertips.Special Features: Surprisingly for an A&E set, there really aren’t any. They’ve included the pilot show, the Season 2 Christmas special, and a few best-of compilations that include material cut from previous episodes for one reason or other. Those aren’t really special, per se, since you’d expect them to be included, anyway. How disappointing. It’s hard to imagine that Clive Anderson or some of the series’ regulars wouldn’t contribute to a retrospective documentary.