Ryan Stiles on Why Long Form Improv Doesn’t Work on TV

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Short form improv has been on TV for a while now, first on the British and American versions of Whose Line Is It Anyways and now on Drew Carey’s Improv-a-Ganza. But longform improv, which does a number of scenes off a single suggestion rather than a collection of pre-planned “games,” has never worked on TV, despite the UCB trying. I talked to Ryan Stiles of both Whose Line and Improv-a-Ganza about why he thinks short form works on TV and long form only works in a live setting.

People have tried long form improv, such as the Harold, on TV a few times. UCB’s tried it. But it’s never really worked well, and not nearly as well as the formula of ‘Whose Line.’ Have you done the long form stuff? And do you have any theories as to why it doesn’t work on TV?

Yeah, I do a lot of long form. I just did it last night. I live in Bellingham, WA and I have a theater here that I built 6 years ago, so I prefer to do long form, if I’m on my stage. I think there are many reasons it doesn’t work on TV. Long form, you usually get one suggestion at the beginning, and you can do an hour on that one suggestion. So the audience really isn’t involved as far as suggesting throughout the show. And long form, you really don’t bring anybody up from the audience to help you out. So right away, I don’t think they’re going to feel as much a part of it.

And also, let’s face it, long form is scenes based off of one idea that just goes on and on. And I think people like it when you switch up the games. Because, you know, they want music in it, they want to see different people in different scenes. And long form, although it’s fun to do as a performer, it kind of gets you stuck in that one mode, you know? It’s kind of the same all the way through that hour and a half. Whereas this way, we can stick in a greatest hits at the end, we can put a song to a woman halfway through, we can mix music with it. And also, in this, the intros and the stuff that happens between the scenes sometimes is a lot funnier than the scenes.

Joel Keller is a senior writer/editor for AOL TV, as well as whoever else writes him a check. Like Norm MacDonald, he tells jokes that don’t get laughs… but not on purpose.