Thank God You're Here: articles

Shane Bourne and Tom Gleisner

Thank God they're here

SCRIPTLESS and scared witless, first-timers to the nation's top-rating comedy are settled with a few quick words of encouragement as they are bundled into costumes they have never seen.

They have two minutes after leaving the wardrobe department to ponder what their role on the show may be before facing Thank God You're Here host Shane Bourne, a studio audience and TV cameras.

Then the guest performer takes a deep breath and walks through a blue door to a mystery scenario.

For the next five minutes, they face the immense pressure of improvising their way through a comic scene under the lead of an ensemble cast, the members of which are semi-scripted.

Guest performers Hamish Blake and Akmal Saleh have confessed that appearing on Thank God You're Here can turn you into a nervous wreck.

"You can't replicate that feeling of walking through the door for the first time. Your brain can't fathom what's going on. It's like waking up in a surreal dream," Blake says.

"Once you are off the stage, the nerves which had been tearing you apart quickly turn to euphoria when you realise you didn't ruin the series."

Saleh concurs: "The first time I did it, I'd never been more terrified, never been more nervous in my life. It's like bungy jumping. You stand at the edge and you are about to jump -- it's absolutely terrifying."

Tom Gleisner, one of the show's creators and its resident judge, says one of the "most delicious" parts of the show is when a guest performer is asked a question and must stop and think before offering a response.

"A great mind in peril is such a precious commodity," Gleisner says.

Another of the TGYH team, Santo Cilauro, says the people who are the best at it are good listeners.

"The more you can empty your head, the better you perform," Cilauro says.

"Listen and trust that your response will take you somewhere."

Cilauro films the four guest performers backstage as they are dressed for a TGYH scene that could place them in any situation -- from landing on Earth as an alien, to promoting a film on a TV talk show, or dealing with an amorous client while fixing her plumbing.

The latter scenario was Cilauro's and happened last year when he says he "drew the short straw" and was plunged into a scene his co-writers had written for him.

Cilauro, wearing tradesman's overalls, discovered on opening the show's blue door he was a plumber, which he says "was as absurd as Tony Martin doing his recent scene about cricket -- I am the world's worst handyman".

"It was terrifying but great fun," Cilauro says.

"It was done as a reconnaissance exercise to see if we were writing scripts that were too hard or too easy.

"Unless one of us walked through the door ourselves we couldn't simulate the experience."

Pressed for information about the creation of TGYH, Rob Sitch says the show was his idea.

"I raised it with Tom and Santo as a very rudimentary idea about five years ago, but I did my best not to remind them of it for the next three years because we had so many other projects on the go. Then I raised it again two years ago," Sitch says.

CILAURO, Gleisner and Sitch, from production company Working Dog, together with comedian Glenn Robbins, write the scripts.

Gleisner, who judges the guests from a desk set in the audience, says the group gathers months before filming to workshop ideas.

As the show nears production, the ideas are fleshed out into scripts. But scripts are flexible and lines may be altered as late as Thursday afternoon, hours before the show is filmed in front of an audience of 300 at Global Television in Nunawading.

In an episode last year, Gleisner says the team had to urgently swap a scene set for radio host Fifi Box, in which she was to be plunged into a "dog whisperer" role handling six dogs on set.

Chatting to the crew in the studio before her appearance, Box, who was unaware of the scene planned for her, happened to reveal she was terrified of dogs.

Actor Josh Lawson became the dog whisperer and Box played a government minister announcing a new needle-exchange program.

"We always grade our scripts easy, moderate and difficult, like sudoku," Gleisner says. "For performers such as Shaun Micallef, Hamish Blake and Tony Martin, we turn the dial right up because we know they can handle it. For first-timers, we moderate it."

Gleisner says Working Dog is often approached by agents peddling people as potential guests.

"And it is the first time I have worked on a show in which people come up to me on the street with ideas for scenes," he says.

TGYH, awarded the most outstanding comedy program Logie this year, is so popular that Working Dog has 6000 on its studio-audience waiting list. Channel 10 has the same number of requests via its website.

The concept has been sold to about 20 countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, Israel, Russia and the US, with a British version starting next year.

But when it started in Australia last year, Gleisner says the TGYH team had to "call in a few favours" from friends to perform on a show with a concept that he says was impossible to describe.

"The guests all wonder why they agreed to it," he says.

"Then they have an extreme feeling of relief afterwards.

"A common thread is that they all say the time whizzed by so quickly. One minute they are talking to Shane and the next they are thinking, 'What happened?' "

Bourne says recent guest performer Peter Helliar was surprisingly uneasy about being on the show.

"I was trying to speak to him before he went on and he said, 'Sorry, I can't think, I'm petrified'," Bourne says.

"At the end of it, he couldn't remember a thing he'd done behind that door."

Working Dog's 10 set designers, two graphic artists and two wardrobe staff have three weeks' notice to prepare for each scene.

ON FILMING days, they are joined by up to 85 crew, who arrange sets, dress and make up the cast, and film the action, which the series' executive producer, Michael Hirsh, says is shot, but not screened, in high definition to make it "less sharp".

Unlike the minimal props used in spontaneous theatre games such as Theatresports, Gleisner says TGYH goes to great effort and expense.

"We wanted our production values high because for TV we need real, not imaginary sets. We have fabulous attention to detail."

Gleisner says Working Dog, which has an office and a set-building site in South Yarra, had considered moving out of the dated Nunawading studios this year, as Rove McManus has done, but decided the show needs the space.

There is room in the studio for three of the show's five sets. During filming breaks the audience can hear power tools at work as new sets are created behind screens.

The four guests start their TGYH experience on Monday, when Cilauro and Sitch film them on location for pre-recorded segments screened during the show, in which they may have to perform as a product promoter or provide "guest commentary" on a sports event.

Cilauro says the main reason for these segments is to get the guests comfortable with the TGYH concept and to help them "start exercising that part of the brain that stores the bulls--- lobe".

"We don't want to trip them up or embarrass them," he says.

"We tell them everything that is done in the show is done for them to succeed. We want to see where they can take us -- it's a real trust exercise."

Working Dog will shoot one TGYH series this year, instead of two, to allow the team to devote time to other projects, Gleisner says.

"While we've been doing TGYH we haven't been doing much else."

"I guess we should have a three or five-year plan, but there is no shortage of ideas in our collective manila folders.

"It has been seven years since our last feature film, The Dish, came out. We had thought three years was good for us to leave between films to see whether an idea we are passionate about stands the test of time.

"At the moment we are working on the fifth draft of a script for a film we would love to make.

"It is still in the embryonic stage and we are not rushing into production at this point."

By Loretta Hall
August 08, 2007
Herald Sun