According to Plato — or at least according to what the internet claims Plato said — “Even the gods love jokes.” In truth, there is no greater proof of the sacrifices we make for comedy than The Goes Wrong Show, which also proves Plato’s other quote, “Even the gods hate the Cornley Drama Society.” The show, created by the team behind The Play That Goes Wrong, is more than just funny. It is an absolutely decadent comedic feast, able to pull off jokes, gags, goofs, tricks, stunts, antics, an abundance of farce, and the very impressive feat of a “reverse Chekhov’s gun,” where a gun is shot off in Act One and contextualized later in Act Three. In short, it is an absolute joy.
The episodes are taped real-life performances put on by the fictional Cornley Drama Society (the real Mischief Theatre Company) and broadcast to the BBC. Each show is a different genre, including a horror story, a legal thriller, a World War II drama, a period romance, a Deep South, Tennessee Williams–esque melodrama, and a Christmas special. Unfortunately for the Cornley Drama Society — and very fortunately for us — the shows go brilliantly, unbelievably wrong. Sets malfunction, actors get their lines wrong, props are misplaced, and yet the actors keep going, continuing the Sisyphean task of getting their show back on track only to be derailed yet again.
Though they play different characters in every show-within-the-show, the actors have signature moves that they employ as the Cornley Drama Society players. Sandra Wilkinson (Charlie Russell) side-eyes the camera; Max Bennett (Dave Hearn) gets so enamored with the audience reaction that he’ll repeat a gag two or three times to get more laughs; and Robert Grove (Henry Lewis) will berate Chris Bean (Henry Shields). The show succeeds because it reminds us that these plays are working on multiple levels. We’re watching actors play their character in the show, but also watching actors play the exhausted person behind that character. In “A Trial To Watch”, there’s a scene where a jug of water is placed where a bottle of brandy is supposed to be. Since the script dictates Shields must “finish the bottle,” he upends the jug and futilely attempts to drink it as it aggressively spills onto him. To see a character do that is funny — to think that the actor behind the character would rather soak himself in water than stop the play is even funnier.
As writer and cast member Jonathan Sayer noted in an interview with The Guardian regarding The Play That Goes Wrong, “The reason people like an improv show is because it’s like watching a person walk across a tightrope … [they] enjoy the wobbles and the bits where the person nearly falls off, not just the safe passage.” The Goes Wrong Show has that same element of danger — we like watching actors wobble as they figure out how to maneuver incorrect props, jumbled line readings, and poorly timed sound cues. That buildup of nervous energy, or the tension, as Hannah Gadsby would say, is what makes the payoff so cathartic. The more the show goes wrong, the more relieved we feel when the actors figure out how to try and make it right.
But a wonderful part of The Goes Wrong Show is that it is, indeed, scripted, and impeccably so. The linguistic comedy is equally as impressive as the slapstick, and the combination of those two elements working together creates some truly wonderful pairings. In a scene from “A Trial to Watch,” a show where the builders accidentally constructed the set in centimeters rather than inches, Lewis accidentally swallows a case file the size of a Starburst. Shields continues the scene as scripted, saying, “You ought to read your case files more carefully,” to which Lewis replies, “I’ll have you know I always thoroughly digest every case file I receive.”
It’s an incredibly intricate show — and it’s only upon a second or third watch you realize how much work and precision goes into making a play fly completely off the rails. The sets have to be designed in such a way that people can destroy the walls, floor, and even ceiling, all without getting hurt. In one sequence from “The Lodge,” Henry Lewis gets hit on the head, knocks through an entire stairway’s worth of balusters, crashes through some flooring, has a statue of knight’s armor fall on him, and then finally gets smacked with a door. And then he has to continue the show! That would be considered an impressive feat even by movie standards — a medium where you can cut, edit, slow things down, and otherwise exaggerate the actual stunts. The realness of it all only makes it more remarkable.
While its roots are clearly theatrical, the show uses its televised format to heighten jokes even further. In the episode “90 Degrees,” part of the set has (aptly) been built on a 90-degree angle. This means that whenever the actors have a scene there, they are perpendicular to the actual ground, a stunt so difficult that they had to train for it. This kind of camera-angling tactic has also been used in shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway, but it really shines in The Goes Wrong Show as seemingly right-side-up actors get hit in the face with flying props and have to crawl through a sideways door to enter and exit the scene.
In that same Guardian interview, Sayer elaborates that the ethos of the group as a whole is centered on a love of comedy. “We just try and be as funny as we possibly can and write pieces that are devoid of cynicism,” he notes. And that dedication to the art of making people laugh does not go unnoticed. The actors in the Mischief Theatre Company get thrown off treadmills, pelted with ice, squeezed into tiny sets, and stuck in chimneys, all in the name of bringing joy to the audience. There’s nothing wrong with a healthy amount of cynicism now and then, but watching The Goes Wrong Show reminds us that, man, it just feels really good to laugh at someone repeatedly trying and failing to open a locked door.
The Goes Wrong Show is streaming on Amazon Prime with BroadwayHD.