"25 Years of Improv Comedy" captures a 2005 concert at the Chicago Theater (in, of course, downtown Chicago) put on to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Improv Olympics, a comedy circuit that, as the DVD cover explains, "has been a training ground for the world's top improv comics." It's a reunion show of 54 of the I.O.'s alumni, which included many performers that went on to become big names in show business, as the list above indicates.
And yet, despite all this potential, the concert is a total dud, maybe one or two chuckles in the whole batch. What happened?
The problem, it seems, is that the I.O.'s brand of anarchic improv demands players that know each others' rhythms; each year, groups of performers form "teams," and those teams become a tight group. Here, it's a bunch of teams not familiar with each other colliding together, comics stepping over each other, nobody every really clicking with their peers.
Worse, improv demands a more free-flow approach that works best in small, up-close spaces. At the spacious Chicago Theater, performers have to run up to grab a microphone if they have something to add to the pieces, which kills the timing. As the comics begin to realize this, they try more and more desperate one-liners, followed by long stretches of stumbling.
The concert is padded by interviews with the actors, who explain the I.O.'s various improv games - all of which turn out to be too chaotic to work with so many people all at once. In fact, all the games are notoriously rule-free. Again, if a tight group knows how to bring material out of their partners, such lawlessness works; with so many different styles and so many people, it's a free-for-all that rambles to the point of becoming almost uncomfortable.
And so the only parts that work are little individual moments, most memorably a funny story from Myers about his childhood (an anecdote that seems more fitted for a late night talk show) and the occasional bit from Richter. The rest: Poehler, sensing the hopelessness of the moment, resorts to sex jokes as a cheap way of drawing applause from the crowd, and it becomes disappointingly obnoxious all too quickly. Dick constantly tries to upstage everyone here, starting his jokes before others can finish theirs (this despite assurances from the performers that this is a group thing, and nobody's ever out to grab the spotlight). Tributes to alum Chris Farley and improv teacher Del Close seem forced and used merely as padding. And everyone else, why, they're just trying to get some stage time.
As for the film itself, it appears to cut out a lot of the actual show, trimming things down to feature length rather awkwardly (jump cuts to howling audience members help provide the assumption that jokes are going over better than they really are). But then, when the show's this flat, less may be more.
The whole thing's a disappointment. With so much talent in one room, it takes a lot to keep the laughs away. And yet "25 Years" succeeds at just that. It's lifeless and draggy and a very unfunny letdown.
At least it looks good, a video production that's quite spiffy in its anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) presentation.
Um, for a comedy concert, do we really need two surround tracks? Apparently so, which means you can pick between Dolby and DTS 5.1 Surround (as well as Dolby 2.0 Stereo). The surround tracks offer a deep, rich concert hall feel, but it's not at all necessary, really. No subtitles are included.
Don't let the impressive line-up fool you: "25 Years" is a sluggish mess of a comedy show. Skip It.