Comedy, like almost everything else in the world, goes through different phases. Inspired by the success of Curb Your Enthusiasm, there's been an increasing number of improvised comedies being produced or in the pipeline. But after distinctly mixed reviews for Jeff Garlin's Dealin' with Idiots and Christopher Guests Family Tree, is this a sustainable format?
Within stand up comedy, improvisation and spontaneity are par for the course and are an integral part of the medium. Although some acts feign moments of inspiration by umming and ahhing between carefully rehearsed jokes, many are incredibly adept at thinking on their feet and reacting to the crowd. But watching something live is a very different experience from viewing something that's been very carefully constructed for the screen.
It (almost) goes without saying that Curb Your Enthusiasm is a fantastic show. Show creator and star, Larry David heavily storyboards each episode and achieves more naturalistic dialogue and speech patterns through improvisation and often stumbles through hilarious on the spot back and forth with the cast. David elected to use this technique after noting that episodes of Seinfeld almost scripted themselves after a narrative had been established. Interestingly though, his on screen wife Cheryl never knew when the character Larry was lying to her as he handed her only one scene at a time. I'd argue though that the success of Curb is primarily down to being left in the very capable hands of David who is tantamount to a demigod in terms of TV comedy. David's attention to detail and innate sense of what works and what doesn't is why Curb is so brilliant. From the narrative construction to the casting, he makes the format work because he's as close to genius as it gets with regards to comedy. When left in less capable hands, the improvising can feel strained and lacks the punch of a well scripted comedy.
Of course, the increased use of this format isn't a death knell for scripted comedy by any description. Improvised sitcoms and films are an incredibly difficult balancing act which more often than not just don't quite work. With comedy perhaps more than any other genre, every line has to count. It's all killer, no filler. There's very little room for throwaway lines or jokes not quite landing as the momentum has to be so very consistent throughout. In this bloggers humble opinion, this more than anything attributes to the mixed success rates of improvised productions. When considering this as well the big strain in terms of production with many more takes required than a standard scripted sitcom, I suspect that improvised comedy won't take off in the same way that the now thoroughly overdone mockumentary format did.