Often the funniest thing about an improvised show is when one of the producers or performers does an interview where they say the dialogue is so wacky “you couldn’t write this stuff!” This usually comes right after describing a process that is, for all intents and purposes, writing: topics are chosen, people sit around coming up with various takes and angles on those concepts, lines are tried out and modified for greater impact, and so on. THAT’S WHAT WRITING IS. They just happen to do it in front of a camera and cut out the stuff that doesn’t work.
So season two of No Activity – the all-improv Australian comedy about a couple of cops sitting in a car talking about nothing while waiting for something to happen – should be a winner, right? Patrick Brammall and Darren Gilshenan get to riff on a bunch of funny topics, while the show’s other pairings – unlike season one, which had Brammall and Glishenan’s cops at a different scene each week, this six part series is all about a kidnapping, with three other groups (the two cops at dispatch, the two kidnappers, and Damon Herriman and Rose Byrne as the kidnapped couple) appearing each week – also getting to go improv crazy.
The show is funny, says Gilshenan, because it’s “unwritable”.
It’s not like it’s just straight riffing either: episode two has a running theme of a sportman caught in a public sex scandal (involving an aquatic creature, a la The Simpsons’ Troy Mcclure), with the various groups giving their own takes as the story progresses from youtube clip to public apology. It’s a good way to break things up and, coming in only the second episode, it’s a sign that the producers know that random riffing isn’t going to be enough to make this work across six episodes.
So let’s get the positives out of the way early. The performances are all, as you’d expect, very strong. On a scene-by-scene basis there’s a lot of good stuff here. It’s all very much the same kind of stuff over the twenty-something minutes and it never actually builds to a climax or anything each episode, but there’s almost always a decent couple of laughs to be had. As you’d also expect from a Jungle product, it looks like a class act. For the casual viewer, or the hyperbole-loving Australian television critic, this might even be something special oh look The Guardian calls it “a largely improvised series that at times approach[es] the transcendent quality of Jacobean farce”*.
Trouble is, improv sucks.
It sucks because, unless you’re bringing in the finest comedy minds of a generation and Australia sure as shit doesn’t have a Christopher Guest or a Larry David working in television, the results almost always go down the same handful of paths. Improv is a great way to come up with funny lines: that’s why a lot of the better comedy movies of the last few decades have had actors making up their dialogue. But improv is a shit way to come up with comedy stories, because that requires an overview of the big picture that you simply don’t get when your focus is saying something funny back to the guy next to you.
“A lot of the ideas for this show pretty much came from my experience in making traditional television and what I saw were the obstacles that you constantly face, which is there’s never enough time and money to shoot endlessly,” says O’Donnell. “So I really wanted to shoot something where it was all performance. The focus is just on the performance and the dialogue and the comedy. It’s incredibly raw in that way.”
You know how every other successful comedy gets around the problem of not being able to “shoot endlessly”? They write and re-write so when it’s time to shoot, they know what they want to shoot.
Cost-cutting producers love improv because it’s cheap; who needs writers? Actors love it too: at last, dialogue worthy of my talents! But because it cuts out an entire stage of the production process, the end result is always lacking something. That’s why improv-heavy sitcoms are almost always shithouse (see a decade’s worth of Curb Your Enthusiasm knock-offs) – there’s simply not enough time to have the cast throwing in random lines they think will get laughs when you have a story to tell.
No Activity gets around this by having no story. The central premise is a couple of cops sitting around talking shit. That’s not a story – it’s a set-up. You might argue – the producers almost certainly would – that if the show’s funny enough it doesn’t need more than that. But story is one of the big things that makes a sitcom funny, and there are plenty of very funny shows out there that manage to have both hilarious dialogue and a funny plot. It’s like saying you can have a perfectly workable plane without wings; sure, if you drop if off a high enough cliff it’s going to fly for a while, but eventually there’s going to be a problem.
When the characters are largely built through improv, you also tend to get the same kind of character: people who are aggressively stupid. They have to be aggressive, otherwise their improv partner is going to just keep talking over them; they have to be stupid otherwise where’s the funny dialogue? So while the double acts here are all fine for what they are, what’re they’re not is any kind of classic comedy pairing. In fact, no pairing here even reaches the basic comedy level of funny guy and straight man: everyone is trying to be funny, everyone is kind of stupid. Edmund Blackadder and Baldrick? Basil Fawlty and Manuel? Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy? There’s just no room for that kind of varied dynamic.
So No Activity is, a few surface shifts each episode aside, eight people all playing variations on the same basic character sitting around talking to each other about nothing much until the episode is over. To be fair, it’s not all one-note: there’s an extended joke in episode two that gives kidnapper Anthony Hayes a chance to, well, tell one very long joke.
[SPOILER: the joke he’s telling is the one about the guy who visits a sex worker for tips on how to save his marriage. The tips work – his marriage is saved! So why is he single now? The sex worker ran out of tips. The scene is ok – it’s more of an acting showcase than anything else, an audition piece dropped into the middle of a show – but it is interesting to see a slightly different form of improv** on display. With a basic structure in place and a punchline to work towards, Hayes can take his time and play up the elements that are going to make the conclusion of his story more effective. You know, like writers do. And hey, if he can get this much out of a bit where clearly the punchline was worked out beforehand, imagine how much better it would have been if they worked it all out ahead of time!]
But otherwise, this is a dialogue-based show made by directors and actors. Of course the acting is going to be good; of course the direction is going to be strong. But that’s just not enough to sustain a half hour character-based comedy series.
“It just shakes up the form of what we expect. It’s unexpected television,” says Brammall. “For me, a lot of what goes into really good comedy is rhythm and surprise, and this has both. So you’re still constantly there with it. Even when you’re not laughing, you’re still engaged.”
And here we thought what goes into good comedy was the writing.
*Steven Jacobs is doing farce now?
**There’s also a bit where Brammall and dispatch cop Harriet Dyer both separately describe a shared weekend’s events. While they each put their own spin on things, the actual events they’re both talking about are the same and were clearly worked out before filming, so the whole “it’s totally improvised” thing is clearly not 100% accurate.