Pretty much any decent-size city has at least one local improv troupe that performs in some community theater, recycling the same familiar games based on audience suggestions. There’s nothing more awkward to watch than desperate improv, and people who haven’t experienced a performance by an unprepared, talent-deficient improv group might not appreciate just how impressive the talents of Drew Carey’s repertory players are.
Carey’s February 2 Improv-a-Ganza show at the MGM Grand’s Hollywood Theatre in Las Vegas featured veterans of his various improv-focused projects (including GSN’s short-lived 2011 Improv-A-Ganza TV series, which was taped in this same theater), and all six performers demonstrated their nearly effortless improv skills, even during sketches that ended up not working. Carey himself, who started out hosting but not participating in the American version of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, is a better master of ceremonies than he is an improviser, but he still managed to hold his own, bolstered by the talents of those around him.
Ryan Stiles, who’s pretty much built his entire career on improv, from the original British Whose Line through the Improv-A-Ganza series and continued live performances, got the loudest applause when Carey introduced the evening’s players, but he seemed a little subdued and off his game at times. Jeff Davis, Brad Sherwood, Heather Anne Campbell, Jonathan Mangum and Carey’s old Drew Carey Show co-star Kathy Kinney rounded out the ensemble, each bringing their own strengths to the show.
Davis, Sherwood and Mangum shone during the musical segments, including Davis and Mangum’s extended ode to an audience member, and all three came up with hotel-related songs in various styles during the final sketch of the night. The nature of improv shows gives a lot of power to the audience, and Carey’s crew knew how to effectively draw on both the best and worst of the crowd’s input. Davis and Mangum’s love-song object Kate from Oklahoma (and her job selling shampoo to hair salons) became the evening’s longest-running gag, with a number of callbacks including Kinney performing an entire Jeopardy! sketch in character as Kate.
Callbacks are an important element in a comedian’s arsenal, and it was impressive how the improvisers were able to work in repeated references to absurd ideas conjured up on the spot. One audience member’s suggestion of “dinosaur hip-hop” as a musical genre for a sketch turned into a very funny running gag, as soon nearly every genre shift in the sketch ended up including some sort of dinosaur element.
Also inherent in the nature of improv shows is that certain segments just fall flat, and the lengthy show had its share of those as well. “This has never worked before,” Kinney joked while introducing a sketch in which volunteers provided sound effects for performers, and yet the audience had to sit through it anyway. There’s a reason Whose Line episodes only ran 22 minutes; the nearly two-hour show would have been less tiring if it were boiled down to just its highlights, which were as funny as any of the troupe’s classic TV improv moments.