I’m really enjoying the new Netflix series Murderville, which is surprising, because I don’t like improv comedy.
Actually, that undersells it: I hate improv comedy. It makes me profoundly uncomfortable. It combines social awkwardness with people desperately trying to be funny, creating a Saw-like nightmare scenario that I’d usually do just about anything to escape. And the fact that the people who like it seem to really like it just makes it worse. My discomfort over improv made me dislike The Adventurer’s Club at Disney World, which on paper seems like it should’ve been the coolest thing that ever was.
The premise of Murderville is that Will Arnett plays a hapless detective who gets paired with a new rookie detective each week. Everyone has a script except for the rookie, who’s played by a different celebrity guest star, and who has to improv their way through all the scenes and put the clues together to guess the killer at the end of the episode. None of the mysteries so far have been at all challenging, but the prospect of someone having to keep a scene going while simultaneously paying attention to clues is where the comedy lies. Especially when the scenes are constructed specifically to mess with the guest star — forcing them to eat hot sauce, do the Harpo Marx mirror routine, go undercover with an embarrassing name, or explain death and murder to a little girl.
It’s a combination of absurd comedy (I keep being reminded of Childrens Hospital, partly because of the tone but mostly because it’s the same production company, and many of that series’s actors keep showing up in Murderville), prank show, game show, and improv. It’s such a brilliant concept that I was disappointed to learn that it was based on a British series with the same premise.
Disappointed because I was imagining yet another case of a genius British TV series being clumsily adapted for US audiences in a way that robs it of everything that makes it special. Luckily I found this hilariously snobby review in The Guardian, which trashes Murderville for doing exactly that. The writer describes the Netflix version as “torturous cringe”, then goes on to list the aspects of the original that were changed for the US version.
And in every single case, it sounds to me like the change was infinitely for the better. For one thing, Murderville casts celebrities who are used to doing comedy (and Marshawn Lynch, who’s awesome in his episode because he seems game for anything) instead of B-list reality TV stars and pop singers — apparently, the charm of the original was in being able to mock “self-ironising” media personalities for being awkward and uncomfortable? The writer notes that both versions have sequences where the guest has to wear an earpiece and do everything that Will Arnett’s character tells them to do, but the US version fails because it’s done in front of other actors, instead of forcing the guest to embarrass themselves in front of people who aren’t in on the joke.
Most telling, though, is how the writer faults the US version for breaking the inviolable rules of improv. Guests look at the camera, Arnett tries to steer scenes back on track, and everyone breaks character and starts laughing “far too often.” Which I mention because that’s the One Thing I Like most about Murderville: it embraces the moments when the actors crack up.
I have to say I didn’t really notice exactly how well it worked until my favorite moment in the first episode, in which Conan O’Brien is having to improvise a story to a group of women in order to “maintain his cover.” The whole scene is set up so that the actor he’s playing against is feeding him lines to force him to slip up, and he’s clearly in his element, doing basically the same stuff that he did in the unscripted segments on his show, reminding the audience that he was a comedy writer long before he had a talk show. He delivers the punchline to his story, and it cuts back to the actor cracking up before immediately turning her head to hide her laughter from the camera.
That cut is what makes it stand out — if the point were to make a funny scene, they could’ve ended on the punchline and edited around the laugh, but they deliberately chose to include it. The point wasn’t just to construct a comedy scene; the point was to show the joke land. The series seems eager not to show people being embarrassed, but to show people having fun.
It goes both ways, too: earlier in that episode, Conan and Will Arnett are interrogating a magician played by David Wain. Wain keeps doing magic tricks, and Arnett keeps losing his shit over every one, which has Conan cracking up. I wouldn’t expect everyone to know who David Wain is, but if you do, it changes the whole feel of that scene: it’s not the prank show implied by the premise, but three comedians trying to make each other laugh. There’s a similar moment in the episode we watched tonight, where Kumail Nanjiani tries to goad Arnett into doing a racist impression of a Pakistani person, and Arnett seemingly side-steps it at the last minute.
Again, the setup makes it seem like the goal is to put Arnett in an awkward position to embarrass himself, but that’s not really the case. It’s actually just giving Arnett an opportunity to be spontaneously funny, to let audiences see that spark of creativity that’s impossible to get with heavily-rehearsed material. If nothing else, having such a heavily-edited format allows the producers to emphasize the moments they want to: either go the Reality TV route and assemble the show for maximum drama and embarrassment, or take the Murderville route and show everyone getting the gag and having fun with each other.
I get improv comedy well enough to know that that spontaneity is the whole appeal, and that trying to force spontaneous moments into happening is almost always a mistake — no appearance of Debbie Downer on SNL was ever as good as the first one, where Rachel Dratch was looking at her castmates in desperation, trying to keep things on track while simultaneously knowing that the sketch was turning out to be so much funnier than anything that could be scripted. SNL is always hoping for moments like those — with Bill Hader as Stefon having to read jokes he hadn’t seen before the live airing; or Kate McKinnon looking for signs that someone else on stage is about to crack up, and then doing everything she can to get them to break character — but the show is stuck just hoping those moments happen, because it’s not something you can force. SNL kind of has to pretend that the point of the show is to go smoothly, even though some of its most memorable moments have been the ones where something goes wrong.
So I really like that Murderville splits the difference between scripted comedy and improv, allowing for spontaneous moments while still having a script and editing to keep things from going too far off the rails or falling flat. I really like that everyone’s in on the joke, even if not everyone’s in on the script — the only people who are being put on the spot are people who chose to be. It seems like the entire show is built around seeing actors having fun, and hoping that rubs off on the audience. I’m sure that to some people, having everyone in on the joke would make it seem like Murderville is too safe or doesn’t have that edge that awkwardness and discomfort and embarrassment bring to comedy, but I hope those people will grow out of it eventually.
And in case it sounds like I’m being anti-British, I’m definitely not. I’m just ragging on that one writer for The Guardian. In fact, there’s a great example of what I’m talking about in one of my favorite moments from Taskmaster: I won’t completely spoil it, but early in the episode, the contestants are given a task to do on cue, but the cue isn’t given to them until much later, at the worst possible time. Greg Davies says that it seems like one of the moments in the series that made James Acaster genuinely angry. Acaster says, “Well at the time I was pretty furious, but I was also thinking: ‘Ah, this’ll be good.'”