11 September 2009


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...


jim meskimen said...

Very, very flattering, Matthew, and thanks very much for reading my blog about me turning fuh...fuh...fifty.
Thanks for posting that "Helping Hands" bit, which I think is really amazing. Ryan and I seem to be of one mind, as grim as that must seem. I just remember, and you can see it on the tape, that doing that routine just about threw my shoulder out of joint. Ryan is a tall drink of water. And of course it is a rather unnatural activity.
Anyway, I am very grateful that you were so kind, and I appreciate you letting others know.
I wonder if you have ever dropped in on my videos at http://www.elbowsonthetable.com. There are a series of shorts there that I wrote and directed that might amuse you.
I kind of wish I had made it onto the WLIIA American show, as most of those actors did very, VERY well from essentially playing around, but I have no regrets about the career I have had and am in the middle of.
I am working with Tim Roth this week on his show, Lie To Me, and he is a very gracious guy and of course a wonderful actor. I play a Czech counterfeiter whom Tim's character interrogates, and it occurs to me that "Czech counterfeiter" might have made a good Party Quirks suggestion.
All the best, thanks for the kind words.
Jim Meskimen

Sky Clearbrook said...

I loved WLiiA and continued to watch it beyond the point where I was getting bored with it (1994-ish). I agree with you on points 2 and 3 in particular; those are the principal reasons I grew weary of this show. Lawrence's caterwhauling singing technique just became unbearable and Slattery's "get out" in any situation where he couldn't think of anything witty was - as you say - to do something for shock value. A very unimaginative man.

Also, to begin with, John Sessions was brilliant, but his (apparent) luvvie demeanour began to grate after a while. He was brilliantly pilloried in Viz (possibly in a Roger Mellie strip?).

The only thing I'd seen Sessions in previously was Robbie Coltrane's brilliant, Laugh??? I Nearly Paid My License Fee/Master Of Dundreich.

Charles Nove said...

Clive Anderson.

Sky Clearbrook said...

That no-neck-can't-turn-my-head-independently look means he's surely the male Sandi Toksvig.