I enjoyed Jim Meskimen's musing on turning 50 which he published on his big day yesterday.
I'm a fan of Jim, and that's where this relationship starts and ends. We have never met and are unlikely to, and we communicated by email a few times a decade ago. I have his three most accessible UK television appearances within my stack of VHS tapes in the loft.
He's an American actor, impressionist and, for the purposes of his smaller UK audience (me), an improviser. You movie buffs may recognise him from the big screen but as a cinema-avoider, I don't. I know him for one project only - he appeared on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, one of my biggest television loves, three times in the early 1990s when the series was taken to New York, still under its British banner, for a brace of special American seasons.
WLiiA? was compulsive Channel 4 viewing in the 90s, especially once it picked up pace after the first couple of series' and the Hat-Trick stalwarts like Rory McGrath and Jimmy Mulville were replaced by career improvisers from both sides of the pond.
Ten things you could always expect from the programme, then:-
1 - Colin Mochrie would faint, feign a heart attack, make up 'foreign' gobbledegook, change the subject entirely or, memorably on his debut, shout 'Instrumental!' in order to cover the fact that he couldn't find a final rhyme on any of the group songs.
2 - Josie Lawrence would be just awful.
3 - Tony Slattery would do something either gross or obscene for shock value, such as full-scale gobbing, swearing at Clive Anderson or revealing his genitals.
4 - Mike McShane would attain such levels of respect for his performance level that nobody would ever refer to his obesity, in jest or seriousness.
5 - Paul Merton would break the fourth wall and whinge to either Clive or the camera about something said during a game.
6 - Ryan Stiles would refer to an ex-wife in an unflattering context.
7 - Greg Proops would have words with Clive, usually on some faux Anglo-American difference of opinion, or just on the subject of the host's lack of hair or neck, or both.
8 - Steve Frost would wear something very loud.
9 - John Sessions would be uncomfortably dominant but capable of cracking up totally when someone funnier, usually Paul, came out with a punchline to all of his nonsense.
10 - Clive would ask the American participants if they "had" something in America, such as fridges, muggings and sport.
I cannot watch the US version which is shown sporadically on digital channels here. Drew Carey is too full of himself, making the show far more about the host's banter with the contestants than Clive would ever have dared, and the whooping and hollering of American audiences is as overbearing as you would expect. There was evidence of this when the New York episodes were filmed in the early 1990s, but with Clive in the chair at least he could puncture the overreactions with a pithy British putdown, which endeared him to everyone.
Jim did three of these episodes, and his Party Quirks were, in order, a tough Wall Street businessman ("You got a fax machine? I'm gonna need you!"), an old timer ("I remember when this house was just a barn!") and a boxing trainer ("Let me Vaseline your nose!"). He and his Interplay partner Christopher Smith, who appeared on each episode with him (the above clip is from their debut appearance), were polished performers who took the tough medium of improv to dramatic levels, while still prompting laughter for both recognition and actual gags.
And he was a songsmith too, with his talent for mimicry allowing him to make up a song about a spatula in the style of Sting ("You're one heck of a girl, scrape me up so gentle!") and a microwave oven in the style of Frank Sinatra ("My how you make, my how you make my coils glow!"). He even "won" two of his three outings, reading the credits in one as Popeye and another as Kevin Costner ("Stage manager was supposed to be Leveson, but look at this picture - does that look like Leveson to you?").
Jim himself would admit that he was peripheral on the show, and it remains a shame that he never got to perform in the UK for the UK WLiiA? audience. He also failed an audition for what his pal Christopher called the "Drew's Whose", which surprised me at the time and still surprises me to this day, though I recall Jim telling me on our brief round of correspondence that he was quite cool about the decision. Yet among the star names of the show like Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie (the two greatest improvisers of them all) and well-known British faces such as Tony Slattery and Steve Frost, I always remember Jim's contribution to WLiiA? with great fondness, possibly more than he does himself. I'm a fan, after all. As he says himself, roll on the next 50 years...