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Improvisation on TV: when actors become writers

Some actors on television don't have to worry about remembering all of their lines, as they can make it up on the spot.

Usually reserved for comedy clubs and experimental theatre groups, improvisation is making its way on to TV with actors job sharing with writers.

Whose Line Is It, Anyway?

Whose Line Is It, Anyway, a spin-off from a BBC Radio 4 show, debuted in 1988, with early appearances from comedy greats Stephen Fry, Peter Cook and Robin Williams.

The inexpensive show, with little props and no writers, soon transported around the globe, finding success in America. The US version is still going strong today, featuring regulars Colin Mochrie, Ryan Stiles and Wayne Brady - with host Drew Carey being replaced by Aisha Tyler.

Original British host Clive Anderson argues that improv is "quite hard to do right on television", but they still managed it with Whose Line Is It, Anyway?.

He told the Telegraph: “It’s quite easy to do wrong, in fact. If you go to an improv club in the theatre, the performers have got plenty of room to develop things. They can have dull bits, lengthy bits.

"On television you don’t really have that luxury. It required quite a rigorous approach – do something funny, then move on fast - because there’s always a danger that it might look self-indulgent or scruffy.”

The Trip

The Trip is the semi-scripted comedy that follows Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing exaggerated versions of themselves, as they review restaurants in the North of England, Italy and in the most recent series on Sky Atlantic, Spain.

The Guardian calls it "Britain's best improv comedy series", arguing that it is the most sustained and successful example of genuine ad-libbing on television.

Director Michael Winterbottom wants the series to feel authentic, which comes into occasional conflict with the two starring comedians.

Steve Coogan explains: “First of all, Rob and I like jokes. And Michael tends to avoid anything that looks like it’s a joke, anything that’s got regular comic structure. Which is basically Rob’s entire thing.”

The Office

The American adaptation of The Office follows the same documentary feel to its British inspiration, using a single camera set-up to offer a natural feel to the comedy.

While the episodes are fully scripted, the actors have the opportunity to add their own ad-libs. Jenna Fischer (Pam) said that they occasionally offered funny alternatives to a written joke: "Our shows are 100 percent scripted. They put everything down on paper. But we get to play around a little bit, too. Steve and Rainn are brilliant improvisers."

Steve Carrell, who played Michael Scott in the award-winning series, advises young comedians hoping to hone their improvisational skills that practice makes perfect.

He said: "People are realizing that improv is something they do every day at work.

"There's a bunch of people looking at you, waiting on you to do something, so you have to come up with something off the top of your head. We do the same thing, in many cases, on our show."

It ran for nine series between 2005 and 2013, with over 200 episodes recorded.

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