Watching NBC's "Thank God You're Here" isn't too different from going to a jam-band concert. The improvisation starts, your expectations heighten, your attention gathers, and you wait for magic, and you wait for magic. And periodically, as the players grope for accidental moments, the mallet hits the gong, inspiration strikes, and it's all the more amazing for having been unplanned. And then you wait for magic, and you wait for magic.
"Thank God You're Here," which premieres with two episodes tonight at 9 on Channel 7, does not require patchouli or a ponytail. But it's a very hit-or-miss improvisational exercise, with miles of miss for every inch of hit. Each episode has a collection of comedian-actor-types -- Bryan Cranston, Wayne Knight, and Jennifer Coolidge are among tonight's guests -- competing to be the best ad-libber. In front of a live audience, the performer is thrown into a situation without a script and left to survive by wit alone.
And when wit fails, the competitors can -- and do -- fall back on desperate non sequitur, irrelevant slapstick, unintentional deadpan, and, in Coolidge's case, lip mugging. Yes, her squashy lips make funny expressions when she has nothing clever up her sleeve. Guitarists vamp to kill time; Coolidge puckers.
A star-oriented version of Drew Carey's "Whose Line Is It Anyway?," "Thank God You're Here" is guided through its competition by two men with roots in famed comedy series. David Alan Grier of "In Living Color" is the host, and Dave Foley of "Kids in the Hall" is the judge. Grier introduces the player, then pushes him or her through a door where a scene -- a "Miss Constellation" pageant, for example -- is already taking place. Meanwhile, Foley observes and presses the button on his "Mighty A-oo-ga Machine" when he has seen enough. At the end of the hour, Foley selects his favorite as the winner of a plastic statue.
The first competitor tonight is Knight, best known as Newman from "Seinfeld." He is thrust into a talk show setup in which he is a doctor selling vitamin pills. Knight manages not to appear stymied, and maybe one of his 75 efforts to be sharp works. Coolidge, next up as a beauty contestant, is not so lucky, and not one of her off-the-cuff jokes hits the mark. She looks like a deer in the headlights, except, of course, for her lips.
Cranston, formerly the father on "Malcolm in the Middle," is more comfortable on the edge, instantly embracing the role of a classic rocker with a knack for bombast, musically and verbally. He seems to morph into Robin Williams for a few minutes, and he's not boring. And Joel McHale, host of E!'s "The Soup," also rises to the occasion, as a tomb-raider type. Foley, however, treats all the players with equal enthusiasm, as does the ever-hysterical audience. This is not an offshoot of the Simon Cowell School of Tough Love.
"Thank God You're Here," based on an Australian show of the same title, is part of TV's move back to simpler entertainment. With game shows such as "Deal or No Deal" and talent contests such as "American Idol," the networks are finding success using old formulas that are low-tech, low-cost, and undemanding. But I don't think "Thank God You're Here" will become a sensation, given the tedium of most of the improvisation. Sure, sometimes you're grateful for a flash of lightning, but the rest of the moments just fall dead.