Thank God You're Here: articles

Angus Sampson and Ed Kavalee

Angus Sampson and Ed Kavalee in a scene from an episode of Thank God You're Here that airs Wednesday.

Surviving by their wits in the deep end

There's no safety net of a script for the guest stars on Thank God You're Here.

VIEWERS of Thank God You're Here - regularly more than 1.5 million people - feel the rush. Who will the guests be this week? What stories will they be thrown into? Will they walk through the blue door to find they've been cast as a surgeon mid-operation? A passenger on the Titanic? A granny behaving badly?

A different kind of excitement can be felt behind the scenes of the improvisational comedy. It comes from the members of Working Dog, the company that produces the show, and from the performers who step into the set-ups they create. The guest stars make that leap of faith without the safety net of a script, knowing they'll have to survive on their wits.

The Working Dog team, writer-producer-performers Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Jane Kennedy, along with executive producer Michael Hirsh, exude an infectious enthusiasm. They delight in a convincing costume or a great prop: a snazzy sword for a centurion; a luxuriant wig for a Musketeer. They love it when a guest seizes the opportunity to cut loose and send a scenario soaring.

"This is not Red Faces where I'm going to hit the buzzer 30seconds in and say, 'You were terrible. Don't come back again,"' says Gleisner, who's also the show's judge. "Thank God You're Here is a celebration of talent, not a putdown of inadequacy."

For Angus Sampson, the dedication of the team behind TGYH means that the guests enter a supportive environment where they can "dare to dream". Sampson has been a valued guest ever since he played a Star Trek captain in the (unscreened) pilot. Since then, he's also been a boxer, a hotel manager, Robin Hood and a big-game hunter.

"An idiot could go in there and be sensational," he says, arguably understating the challenge. "They want their guests to do well and they're completely committed. It's unbelievable how much detail they put into it. They say, 'Here's the swimming pool, now swim.' They give you permission to exist in your imagination."

Sampson comes to TGYH prepared for a flight of improvised fancy. But there's a different challenge for supporting cast member Ed Kavalee, who's part of an ensemble that includes Heidi Arena, Daniel Cordeaux, Roz Hammond and Nicola Parry. "Working Dog writes great scripts because they have so many options inside them," says Kavalee.

"We always have a backbone of a script. If a guest goes left, then this happens; if they go right, this happens. The scripts are designed to have lots of different ways for the person to come up with something funny, and that makes our job easy. If we go with what the guys have set up for us and listen to what the guest says, we'll always get something.

"But as soon as the door opens, that's it: there's no stop, there's no going back, there's no 'Can we do this bit again?' It's about everyone pulling in the same way ... to help the guest to do the best that they can."

Over the years, the writers have refined their understanding of what makes TGYH tick.

"In the early days we used to think that it would be fun if the guest stepped through the door and they weren't really sure who they were or what they were doing," says Gleisner. "But we realised that there's not a lot of comedy in that, there's just confusion. And we sort of have a rule of 'Don't hit them too hard too early': better to ease people into situations."

Generally, the sketches comprise two pages of script. An office whiteboard holds ideas for potential scenarios: "dentist's waiting room", "Spanish Inquisition", "pizza delivery". Some might never make it into production: "pizza delivery" has been there since season one. But if they do, the scenarios will have developed to the point where they have a complete story arc.

"We have to have a narrative," says Gleisner. "It can't just be a series of joke offers. There has to be genuine peril and it has to be clearly explained."

Gleisner says that sometimes a scenario will have a couple of standby final lines and occasionally he'll use his buzzer to stop a scene before the scripted ending: "Sometimes in the last half-dozen lines, the guest will say something brilliant. So why wait around for an anti-climax in another three or four lines? It doesn't matter if we don't get to the final line: no one's ever going to know."

The writers aim for "one size fits all" scenarios that could suit a range of guests, although Gleisner says that some of the performers - such as Hamish Blake, Cal Wilson and Merrick Watts - are extremely adaptable, while others have more specific talents. Shaun Micallef and Alan Brough "love words", says Gleisner: "You can see their pleasure in linguistic tricks on the run." Frank Woodley is great with physical comedy. Sampson is a master of the all-important pause.

"In improv, there's almost an unwritten law that you never leave a gap," says Gleisner. "If someone dries, you jump in with the next line. But we learned early on to allow the pauses. Let there be gaps. When a performer is asked a question and you see their eyes roll desperately as they search for an answer, that's one of our favourite moments. It's just pulling it back, giving them the time to answer, not to drown. If 30seconds have gone by and they're yet to utter a word, we might move on to the next question."

What if a guest goes off in a direction that hasn't been anticipated? "I don't think it's ever happened," says Gleisner. "The ensemble cast is very good at letting them get back on track. I suppose the unwritten rule is that you have to go with the reality. So if you step through the door and we tell you that you're the mayor of the shire council and there are some angry ratepayers here, you can't say, 'Well I resign,' and walk out the door."

So far, the whiteboard has been full of possibilities. "If we stopped making the show, it would not be for a lack of scenario ideas," says Gleisner. "But we do want to keep a freshness and approach it with a sense of excitement. The moment we shuffle up to a series slightly bored, I would hope that we have the good sense to stop."

By Debi Enker
June 4, 2009
The Age