Before it decided to push buttons and envelopes, cable TV was a bastion of oddball programming choices. Today, niche channels take up the slack for feeding a specific demo, but a few decades back, the major outlets tried to be everything to everyone. There were kid shows in the AM, self-help and reruns of hour long dramas in the afternoon, and some self-proclaimed 'prime time' offerings at night. And then, when most people were preparing for bed, these pay stations would put out their more risqué material, made up mostly of silly sex farce variety shows (Showtime's Bizarre), softcore delicacies (anything on 'Skinemax'), and stand-up comedy showcases, none of which was more popular than A&E's Evening at the Improv. Shot at the famous LA club and featuring a wealth of soon to be superstar talent, it was the average Joe's chance to see what big city folk were giggling at once the cows came home and the chores were done. Now, we have a DVD presentation which is being called "The Best of..." and while the talent on display is definitely worthy of that title, the overall presentation is pitted with personal and technical drawbacks.
First up, Evening at the Improv had an agenda of sort. Bud Friedman, the man who started it all in Hell's Kitchen, used his California location for this captured comedy showcase. Cleaned up for TV and given a weird narrative which saw several workers in the club trying to "make it big" (including future MTV face non-Downtown Julie Brown), each episode was typically made up of three to four performances, these wannabe jesters getting their less than 15 minutes of fame to make an impact. During its 14 year run, many noted comedians came by and cracked people up, and what we have here, in DVD form, is a bunch of easily recognizable stars. We get Jim Carrey, Jerry Seinfeld (multiple times), Steven Wright, and Arsenio Hall, among many, many others. Perhaps most interesting are the names who got their start it stand-up, and then went on to bigger and better things. Among these known quantities are Michael Keaton, Robert Wuhl, Bill Maher, and impressionist Maurice LaMarche (who is now celebrated for his voice over work). We also see an early, clean Bob Saget, some stuff from Paul Reiser, Sandra Bernhard, and Howie Mandel, along with dozens of forgotten names.
Improv also added some substance by giving each episode a noted host. Such performers as Mort Sahl, James Coco, Leslie Nielsen, Ed McMahon, and Milton Berle make an appearance. They are provided with a (mostly scripted) chance to shine, and then they introduce the next act. We even get a few musical acts into the mix, including those long forgotten boys from the South, Alabama, as well as The Nylons and The Bellamy Brothers. It's the repetitive nature of these shows which this DVD collection highlights. There was nothing fancy, no attempt (other than the weird insert material) to make the series anything else but a chance for struggling artists to a "big break" in front of a crowd. For the now established and well off, it's a nice bit of entertainment archeology. But the real intrigue comes from individuals who have long since stopped mattering in the world of comedy. Quick, name Billy Ribeck's most popular bit. How about Darrow Igus' signature joke. Remember when Dottie Archibald was the next big thing in women's comedy? Or Tony Molesworth on the guy side? It's interesting to watch these mashed-up episodes and see people you barely remember delivering material meant to put them over the top. You may find yourself asking "why them, and not, say, Carrey?"
On the other hand, the regulars resort to easy pickings here, making any prolonged exposure to The Best of An Evening at the Improv a bit of a chore. In short snippets, spread out over several nights, it's an inviting time capsule. It's a chance to see a pre-Seinfeld Seinfeld look even more baby faced or a mannered Mandel doing his ADHD goofball act. In fact, one of the pleasures here is seeing how much these individuals changed their shtick over the years. Another intriguing factor is how much comedy itself has changed. When Reiser starts in on airplane food, you'd swear you were about to see a Family Guy aside in the making. Much of the material has become the stuff of stand-up cliche, arguing for The Improv as a place where most trends in humor find a focal point. It would be interesting to restart the series just to see some of the newcomers who will set the wit agenda in the decades to come. This DVD set reminds us that, before Comedy Central, or Comedy Channel, or Ha!, there was only the cable basics, and this was one of its bellwethers.
If ever someone needed verification that HD was a preferred way to experience television, just look at the VCR level quality of this otherwise digital release and weep for the new technology. Way back when, this was cable TV at its best (?) and the image is uneven to say the least. Sometimes, we get a decent and direct 1.33:1 full screen picture, though the video technology used at the time presents some issues of its own. There are flaring colors, a lack of contrast and definition, and a dated quality that comes from such magnetic tape dynamics. On the plus side, the series has been well preserved and does not suffer from age issues. As for the sound situation, the Dolby Digital Stereo mix keeps everything front and center. You might here an occasional laugh track or two, but this was television, where selling something trumps the actual experience. Finally, there are no added features here, which makes sense. They want to save space for more performances, not some wealth of worthwhile bonuses.
For many in the early '80s fan base, the release of any Evening at the Improv episodes, cutup and rearranged or not, will be broadcast manna from heaven. We all have our TV Holy Grails (mine is the Hudson Brothers syndicated variety series featuring British comedian Bob Monkhouse known as Bonkers) and for many, this will be a Recommended experience. Be forewarned, however. Comedy, like music and other media is ever evolving and changing. You might laugh at some of the spots offered on this dense DVD set. There will be times when all you hear are crickets, and the click of an old fashioned, push button cable set top box.
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