Whose Line Is It Anyway? was right: Everything is made up and the points don’t matter. That non sequitur is a good rule of thumb for improv; the second you start thinking too hard is the moment your bit will fall apart. But in the throes of a global pandemic and its corresponding financial havoc, the absurd Tao of Wayne Brady, Colin Mochrie, Drew Carey, and Ryan Stiles rings true.
Whose Line was on the air for eight seasons during its original American ABC run from 1998 to 2004. For many, the show represented our first glimpse of the grammar of improv theater — or that improv theater was even possible. Sixteen years after the show was initially canceled, not much has changed. Whose Line remains the North Star for thousands of schlubby white men in bad, blousy Hawaiian shirts who want to get into improv. The church of Carey promised them nothing more than an enduring dedication to dorkiness. For whatever reason, that felt like a life well spent.
So this is a conclusive ranking of every game ever played on Whose Line Is It Anyway? A few caveats: We are restricting ourselves to the games played on the American version of the show during its first run. That means both the U.K. and Australian incarnations, and the CW reboot, are excluded. Additionally, the game needed to be played at least three times to merit inclusion, so no one-offs or failed experiments, and therefore, nothing that bombed. There are also a few acts that are so similar in nature, they didn’t deserve their own category — “Film Dub” and “Foreign Film Dub” are under the same umbrella. That still leaves us with 49 games, which speaks to the crazy scope of Whose Line during its original run. Enjoy the list, and remember that even as the world fills up with poison, you will always have Colin Mochrie pretending to be a dinosaur.
The “Hoedown” segment sucked. I’m sorry. I know that Whose Line ended every nearly episode with it, and because of that the game elevated into semi-hallowed ground in the way that so many overrated traditions became unavoidable facts of life. But seriously, “Hoedown” was consistently the least funny segment of every episode. Its only saving grace? The visceral hatred each of the players had for the “Hoedown” as well.
48. “Irish Drinking Song”
“Irish Drinking Song,” like “Hoedown,” was also an episode-ending formality and it also wasn’t very funny, but I give it a slight edge for being a little funnier on average, and it was way less grating than that goddamn “Hoedown” music.
47. “Press Conference”
One of the lesser hidden-identity games in Whose Line history, “Press Conference” had one player address a gaggle of reporters without any idea of the character they’re supposed to be playing. (Above, Colin is the Queen of England.) It’s fine, but it never competed with the gods like “Party Quirks” or “Let’s Make a Date.”
46. “Title Sequence”
“Title Sequence” was a little too high concept for its own good. Half the cast improvised a theme song to a made-up ’70s sitcom, while the others were given two characters from the audience (in this case, a professional wrestler and Mel Gibson) to pantomime along with the music. There’s too much going on! Remove one of these elements and this game gets a lot better.
“Sportscasters” is a great concept for an improv game: Two players acted out some sort of competition, while the other two provide expert commentary. But it usually fell flat in practice. Maybe because, even in parody, bad dad jokes from John Madden characters aren’t especially appealing.
44. “Scene to Rap”
“Scene to Rap” was deeply ingrained in that regrettable late-’90s era where the mere idea of “white people rapping” was, apparently, super-funny and totally worth building a joke around. Because of that, all of these sketches look a little dated in retrospect. Give credit to Ryan Stiles though: He always gave it his all.
43. “Award Show”
“Award Show” was one of the more heavy-duty Whose Line sketches, in the sense that it required an actual prop. (In this case, an Academy Awards lectern.) The gang improvised through a brief Oscars send-up, which was fine, but never quite as good as other all-hands-on-deck operations like “Weird Newscasters.”
42. “Daytime Talk Show”
“Daytime Talk Show” was at its best when Greg Proops was involved, who effortlessly morphed into a Dr. Phil–esque liaison. Honestly though, the average afternoon of bad daytime TV is funnier than made-up daytime TV. So this game was doomed from the start.
41. “Action Replay”
“Action Replay” only appeared in six episodes of Whose Line. The basic premise had two players act out a totally conventional improv scene, while the other two watched from the side of the stage with noise-canceling headphones on. Afterwards, those players subbed in and attempted to reenact the scene without hearing any of the dialogue. (So, a bit about skinny-dipping in a lake suddenly transforms into a bit about, in one installment, an auto mechanic’s shop.) It worked more as a social experiment than a piece of television entertainment, but there aren’t many better showcases of the Whose Line cast’s versatility.
“Bartender” was quite literally a stagecraft musical break in the middle of an improv show. As usual, Wayne Brady did the heavy lifting from behind the bar, guiding the other players into the uncharted musical territory that only he was ever truly fluent in. It’s fine! It also probably would’ve been better if Brady was the only guy involved.
39. “Song Titles”
“Song Titles” was basically a party game, where the performers play out a scene exclusively using song titles. Naturally, the sketches are fairly minimal, but it was pretty funny to watch Whose Line cast members attempt to outlast each other with the ’70s soft rock the average studio audience is most familiar with.
“Infomercial” was a close cousin of “Props,” where two players use those plastic thingamajigs to sell, say, an anti-snoring product. It might be a little more streamlined, but personally, I prefer the chaos of the predecessor.
37. “Themed Restaurant”
Whose Line answered so many lifelong questions, like, “What would a Steven Spielberg–themed restaurant look like in practice?”
“Alphabet” was almost more of a circus act than an improv game. The performers needed to start every sentence they said with the subsequent letter of the alphabet, which led to more flubs and disasters than pretty much every other game on this list. Drew Carey seemed to be in these sketches constantly, which is funny, because he was always terrible at them.
35. “Hey, You Down There!”
The doofy employee-training video is one of the most frequently satirized forms of media in comedy. Everything from The Office to SpongeBob SquarePants has taken a shot at it. “Hey, You Down There!” was Whose Line’s interpretation of this classic form, and it worked mostly because Greg Proops has an excellent Mr. Moviefone voice.
34. “Hollywood Director”
The main takeaway from this game was that Colin Mochrie might secretly be one of the greatest directors of all time.
33. “Film, TV, and Theater Styles”
In which the Whose Line cast would change a sketch into a Western, romance, or thriller at the drop of a hat. “Film, TV, and Theater Styles” was never a pantheon-level Whose Line sketch, but it did force Greg Proops into a Big Bird impression, and for that we are grateful.
32. “Multiple Personalities”
“Multiple Personalities” was one of Whose Line’s few celebrity-oriented games, where each prop in the sketch had a “personality” attached to it. (Meaning, if you picked up the binoculars, you turn into Liberace.) It’s a fine game bogged down with some extremely of-its-time pop-culture references. Remember when Rain Man and Braveheart were relevant improv-show pulls?
31. “Film Dub”
The MST3K of Whose Line games. Drew Carey introduced some bad, public-access footage on a TV screen and let the players pipe in their own voices over the garbage. For a show that was as aggressively lo-fi as Whose Line, “Film Dub” was a step up in production value, and it made for a decent stopgap between the more traditional improv.
30. “Fashion Models”
Greg Proops is a fantastic fake commentator. He’s unflappable in “Fashion Models,” a game where the other players find whatever jokes they can find in, say, a Nascar-themed runway show. Proops did all the heavy lifting, though. No Whose Line performer was more underrated.
29. “Improbable Mission”
“Improbable Mission” represented some of the most crucial work the Whose Line backing band ever did on the show. Laura Hall and Linda Taylor’s deliciously stupid spy theme added the perfect dosage of cheese to what would be otherwise a fairly boilerplate Mission Impossible parody. Whose Line should’ve done this bit way more.
28. “Whose Line”
Shout out to “Whose Line” for having the most meta name in the history of the franchise. The cast acted out a scene, and at a specific pivotal moment they opened an envelope containing a random bit of dialogue scribbled down by an audience member, which they then had to improvise around. Improv, as a genre, struggles with beginnings and endings, and it clearly helped the players have an apogee they were working toward.
27. “Questions Only”
This is another classic improv game that’s more of a stunt than comedy. Everyone in the scene could only talk in questions, and if they faltered, Carey buzzes them into oblivion. Do you like to see the usually surefire Whose Line cast freeze up? Does it make you feel more calm in your own shortcomings? Yeah, same.
26. “Two Line Vocabulary”
Does being limited to two lines in an improv bit make the performance easier or harder? That’s the question Whose Line asked in “Two Line Vocabulary,” and we all learned that people like Ryan Stiles can get a whole range of emotions out of “When’s lunch?”
25. “Quick Change”
In “Quick Change,” one player stood offstage and could force any other other players to mulligan the line they just said, proving once and for all that improv is at its funniest when a cast member is forced into their third or fourth idea.
24. “Number of Words”
The humor in “Number of Words,” a game where each participant is only allowed to speak in sentences made up of, say, three words, was in watching talented people attempt to abridge themselves. It’s even funnier when someone has to expand a message as simple as “Stop!” or “No!” into seven words.
23. “Helping Hands”
“Helping Hands” was a big-ticket, main-event Whose Line game in that it didn’t come around often, but when it did, someone was probably getting wine dumped all over them.
22. “Film Noir”
Real talk: There are few things funnier than Colin Mochrie turning toward the camera and delivering a dead-serious soliloquy. “Film Noir” was a game designed to generate that exact moment over and over again.
21. “World’s Worst”
“World’s Worst” was the sister game of “Scenes From a Hat,” where the players do rapid-fire takes on the world’s worst chiropractor, or veterinarian, or whatever. It’s solid, but we prefer some of the more nutty angles generated by Drew Carey’s Uncle Sam hat.
20. “Stand, Sit, Lie”
The visual chaos of “Stand Sit, Lie” — where each of the three players needs to be standing, sitting, or lying down — was Whose Line at its most pranksterish. Everyone is constantly jockeying for position in order to not break the rules. At one point in the clip above, Colin Mochrie is forced to collapse to the ground after realizing he’s been caught in a bind. No game on the show created more chaos.
In “Superheroes,” the Whose Line cast assembled the worst version of the Avengers ever, with superhero names generated by the cast like Captain Hummingbird, The Narrowly-Escaped-Death Kid, and Caught-in-a-Wind-Tunnel Boy. Put the Whose Line cast in the MCU!
18. “Sound Effects”
Man, Colin and Ryan were really good at “Sound Effects,” a game where one cast member used their voice to provide all the creaks, pops, and splats of an otherwise entirely mimed scene. The duo were great sharing the stage, but their chemistry, interplay, and mischievousness was still apparent when one of them was filling in the silence from the back.
17. “Change Letter”
You know that “Alphabet Acrobatics” Blackalicious song? This is the improv equivalent. In every sketch, one letter has to be replaced with a different letter. So instead of “L,” sub in “P.” It was a nightmare, and a total cult Whose Line classic. They only played “Change Letter” four times! A tragedy.
“Newsflash” was one of the best uses ever of shoddy green-screening. One player stood in front of some beamed-in footage while the other players gave them some veiled hints of what that footage might be. This game earns bonus points in this ranking for the most postmodern moment in Whose Line history, where Colin Mochrie stood in front of footage of … Colin Mochrie.
15. “Dead Bodies”
“Dead Bodies” was both a hilarious improv premise and the one opportunity in life an audience member might have to be manhandled by Colin Mochrie. So, for both its comedy chops and its wish-fulfillment potential, this game earns its place in the Whose Line pantheon.
14. “Three-Headed Broadway Star”
“Three-Headed Broadway Star” is maybe the most well-known Whose Line game in the show’s original run. The cast invented entire worlds with the faintest of hints, Wayne Brady could make up an entire album if he wanted, and yet, when forced to work together and sing one word of an improvised song at a time, it was always a complete train wreck. Sometimes, though, a game famous for its disasters makes it a fan favorite.
13. “Song Styles”
There have been about a zillion iterations on “Song Styles” over the years, so for the hawks out there, I’m lumping in other games, like “Motown Group,” “Duet,” and “Boogie Woogie Sisters” under this category. Functionally, the premise remained the same across all of them: Wayne Brady, who is a force of nature, invented a song on the spot to serenade an audience member in a genre of music randomly sourced from the crowd. Was it funny? Sort of. The point of “Song Styles” was to demonstrate just how talented Brady is. That’s why the game is one of the longest tenured in Whose Line history.
Dig a wig out of a box and make a joke with it. That has been Comedy 101 since the dawn of man. Of course, the Whose Line cast are experts of the form. The above video is a 50-minute compilation of “Hats” jokes; you could spend your entire quarantine watching it on repeat.
11. “If You Know What I Mean”
For many children of the ’90s, “If You Know What I Mean” was the first time any of us learned about innuendo. The bit has Whose Line players crafting the perfect underhanded come-ons, which left me mystified while my dad cackled on the couch behind me. Thank you, Whose Line, for the sex ed I wasn’t going to get in school.
“Dubbing” was the most high-risk Whose Line game. Carey grabbed a volunteer from the audience, and they stood in the middle of the sketch while another cast member dubs in all of their lines offstage with a microphone. Improv surprise guests are usually hapless victims, but in this case, the volunteer needed to really perform. Somehow, it worked out more often than not.
9. “Moving People”
To me, the Socratic ideal of Whose Line is two hapless audience members yanking Colin and Ryan’s rag doll limbs around, while the players breezily improvise a spaghetti Western. We should put all the “Moving People” sketches on the next probe that leaves our solar system.
8. “Show-Stopping Number”
“Show-Stopping Number” was one of the superior Whose Line song games, probably because it was married to an actual shell of a sketch. Two players acted out a scene, Carey buzzed, then they had to transform the last line they said into a brief Broadway musical break. Colin and Ryan were consistently overachievers here, with a ragtime enthusiasm they never could muster for “Hoedown.”
7. “Greatest Hits”
I don’t know if this is heresy or not, but to me, the funniest parts of “Greatest Hits” were whenever Colin and Ryan were generating disorienting stupid song names and genre types. The Wayne Brady songs themselves I could take or leave. I just want to see Colin destroy the world with another baffling pun.
6. “Let’s Make a Date”
“The Dating Show” is one of the all-time classic improv-show motifs; it’s been replicated and reiterated by literally thousands of improv nights across the country. So respect to Whose Line for distributing the formula to the world.
“Props” was similar to “Scenes From a Hat,” in the sense that the cast would go back and forth with atomized one-liners. The only difference is that in this game, they were delivering those jokes with the help of some junk the production crew found backstage. It was pretty enthralling to watch a guy like Colin Mochrie get two dozen jokes out of a single hunk of plastic.
4. “Party Quirks”
“Party Quirks” was the undisputed GOAT of all the hidden-identity Whose Line games. A series of eccentric characters enter a house party, and everyone knows what their deal is except for the cast member playing the host. It was especially impressive how often that cast member would guess the identity of those characters, considering some of them, in typical Whose Line fashion, were as oblique as “a wombat trapped in a lighthouse.”
3. “Living Scenery”
“Living Scenery” was responsible for perhaps the greatest Whose Line act of all time in 2003. A sporty Richard Simmons showed up to guest, and Ryan and Colin rag-dolled him and Wayne Brady around in increasingly suggestive ways until it felt like the show was about to be canceled. Shout-out to Simmons for being an absurdly good sport and enshrining “Living Scenery” in the upper echelon of this list.
2. “Weird Newscasters”
“Weird Newscasters” was the linchpin Whose Line game. Five minutes is all it took for the cast to improvise a bizarre local news show. It seemed to show up in every episode, it featured the whole breadth of the cast, and Drew Carey delivered some perfectly absurd roles, like “Psycho Hitchhiker Getting a Ride With the Anchor,” to each of his players. Seriously, pull up an episode of Whose Line right now. Wouldn’t it feel like something was missing if “Weird Newscasters” wasn’t at the top? Don’t you need to see a Wayne Brady sportscaster gimmick before you feel completely satisfied?
1. “Scenes From a Hat”
The 100-yard dash of Whose Line sketches. “Scenes From a Hat” might not be the flashiest game on the bill, but no episode felt complete without it. No gimmicks, no schmaltz, just a lot of good-to-great one-liners from some of the best to ever do it. It’s improv at its purest, presented by a show that would define the art form for years to come.