Mirth of the moment

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 January, 2009, 12:00am

Anyone who's been to a live comedy show in Hong Kong will have noticed the absence of heckling - shouts from the back by audience members who think they're sharp enough to outwit the stand-up on stage.

Comics thrive on it: rattling off withering put-downs that leave the heckler red-faced and the rest of the punters in stitches. In stand-up, the audience is part of the show, and never more so than when the cast of Whose Line Is It Anyway? comes to town.

The long-running British improvisation troupe depend on the audience not just for prompts, but to get the gags rolling in the first place.

The show's five comics build their spontaneous banter, repartee and stage antics around themes suggested by the audience.

'When people come and see us live, they become an integral part of the comedy process,' says Richard Vranch, a mainstay of the show since its heyday on British television in the 1990s. 'The better they are, the better we are.'

The audience might suggest themes as varied as a Shakespearean drama, a 70s cop television show or a West End musical. Each theme requires the cast to leap into character and find laughs in often obscure topics.

'It means every show is different,' says Vranch. 'With stand-up, routines can be the same every night. We don't have that option as we feed off whatever the people watching throw at us to do.'

When watched on television, the rapid-fire punch and counterpunch of Whose Line is often so smooth it's hard to believe the show's not scripted, as has sometimes been rumoured in the British media. But witness the gang live and you'll see just how spontaneous they really are.

It's a battle of wits between the cast and the audience, though not much fazes the multitalented troupe that also features Steven Steen, Stephen Frost, Ian Coppinger and Andy Smart.

'We've all been working together so long we know when we throw out a line that the others will be able to pick it up and run with it,' says Vranch.

While improvised humour is nothing new, Whose Line Is It Anyway? took it to new heights. The show started 21 years ago as a BBC radio programme, starring such luminaries as Clive Anderson, John Sessions and Stephen Fry.

The show soon moved to television, helping boost the careers of occasional guests including Paul Merton and Tony Slattery, while the concept was picked up by an American network which brought in some of the original show's comics. It was a surprise ratings hit and drew celebrity guests including David Hasselhoff and Jerry Springer.

Vranch and company have kept the show alive on stage since it finished on British television in 1998. The format is slightly different - there's no quizmaster and the language isn't so restricted - but the quick-witted principles remain the same. Each performer must catch whatever he's thrown by a colleague and turn it into a funny skit. With the senses of humour of the performers so diverse, the result is a sometimes bewildering ride.

'The TV show of the same name is a pale imitation when compared to the live show,' wrote one critic in Dublin. 'It's guerilla comedy.'

Fans in Hong Kong seem to agree.

'Whose Line Is It Anyway? is always one of our most popular shows with Hong Kong audiences,' says promoter John Moorhead, who brings the show here almost every year as part of his monthly Punchline Comedy Club. This time he's extended the run to four nights with a Sunday evening show.

'The crowd really appreciates what the team can do and how fresh the show is every time.'

Whose Line Is It Anyway? Feb 5-7, The Viceroy, 2/F Sun Hung Kai Centre, 30 Harbour Rd, Wan Chai, HK$360, Urbtix. Inquiries: 2827 7777