By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 9, 2007
Okay, who wants to have a few laughs -- great big, hearty, rollicking guffaws?
Ah, a sizable show of hands. Now, who would be willing to settle, if need be, for tiny, lousy laughs instead?
Guess what: Need be.
To such people -- and to the kind of morbid curiosity seekers who slow down not just for overturned trailer trucks but even for killjoy cops harassing motorists over broken taillights -- this critic can safely say, "Hey, have I got a show for you!"
All others will want to beat it to another channel, even if it's got an infomercial by one of those guys insisting you can make a million dollars a day buying dilapidated old houses. Almost anything sounds preferable to NBC's "Thank God You're Here," a mistitled hour-long game show that takes a page from "Whose Line Is It Anyway?," a page from an ancient TV perennial called "Pantomime Quiz" and perhaps a page from "The 120 Days of Sodom" by the Marquis de Sade.
A page with lots of hellish torture on it, that is.
We may have ever-so-slightly exaggerated the show's onerous egregiousness. And in fact it might even work -- if, and what a big "if" it is, there were more talented and enthusiastic celebrity contestants. Tonight's two-hour premiere, though, is populated mainly with a group of so-so semi-stars who make those rumpled losers on "The Surreal Life" look like a glittering galaxy of geniuses.
The premise: Each contestant is squeezed into a costume -- doctor, rock star, big-game hunter -- and pushed through a door into a scripted sketch to which the celebrity does not have the script. He or she has to ad-lib supposedly funny stuff in response to whatever lines of dialogue the hired actors utter, the first one always being "Thank God you're here."
Often the lines are designed so that even a dolt should be able to come up with a funny response, as when a celebrity dressed as a beauty-pageant contestant is asked, "If you could rid the world of one thing, what would you rid the world of?" Her answer: "Dry ice." Ahem. Maybe that has a certain amusingly cuckoo absurdity, but there have to be dozens of answers that would be funnier.
We of the audience, of course, have to take it on faith that the celebrities have not been given any help beforehand by the show's writers. If future editions are as lame as the premiere, however (and never mind the artificially ramped-up laugh track), that rule is bound to be broken.
The eminently likable David Alan Grier is the show's host -- a waste of his talent, since he's funnier by a mile than most of the contestants. Wayne Knight, immortally Newman of "Seinfeld," does a moderately good job, though he gets his biggest laughs when his outer-space alien costume falls apart. Bryan Cranston, who played the quixotic father on Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle," also tries hard, but Jennifer Coolidge (whose sketch roles include the beauty with the dry-ice aversion) and Joel McHale (current host of E! network's severely deteriorated "Talk Soup") come off as pigheadedly humorless.
Serving as the house critic -- all three "American Idol" judges rolled into one -- is Dave Foley, formerly of "The Kids in the Hall." His function is nebulous, since no one wins anything per se (couldn't cheap NBC at least have ponied up donations to the funniest celebrity's favorite charity?), and so all Foley does is make bland remarks about each wilted, witless performance. When a sketch begins to founder and self-destruct, contestants predictably resort to potty humor, sexual innuendo and gross-out stuff.
A sadly emaciated elderly man is trotted out and used as the human punch line to the first sketch, in which Knight plays a huckster peddling some sort of miracle cure on a talk show. Coolidge stoops to a joke about shooting doughnuts out of her, uh, rump. McHale keeps making icky diarrhea references. And the fifth and final sketch, in which everyone participates, simply degenerates into aching anarchy.
Many, many years ago, when ABC was still a doormat network and Jerry Lewis was suffering a career slump, the network turned over Saturday's entire prime-time schedule to him. Lewis hosted a comedy-variety show that quickly became a legendary fiasco. One of its most embarrassing segments was a weekly sketch in which all the other actors spoke scripted dialogue. Lewis, kept in the dark about the subject of the bit and the role he was to play, was supposed to utter riotous ad-libs that would have the audience in stitches.
You guessed it: No stitches, nor even a bruise. Lewis proved a surprisingly inept ad-libber and spent most of his time asking the other actors what the heck they were talking about. Now, all these years later, here comes Fremantle Media, producers of "American Idol," trying to resurrect the idea (based on an Australian version of it) and having no more success than Lewis did.
"This is just so much more fun than watching poker," Foley says at one point. You'd think so, wouldn't you? Actually, it isn't even more fun than watching Old Maid or Canasta. Or Wolf Blitzer playing Parcheesi.
Thank God You're Here (60 minutes, after tonight's 120-minute premiere) airs at 9 tonight on Channel 4.