"If you don't think swear words are funny, you're dead inside."
Much-loved comedian and occasional host of Network Ten's The Project Tommy Little knows he's onto a good gig fronting Foxtel's new Australian iteration of classic British improv show Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Ensconced in the presenter's seat, he also gets to team up with the writers, crafting the deviously funny set-up scenarios hurled live at a brace of comedians that includes improv stalwarts Cal Wilson and Steen Raskopoulos, Flight Of The Conchords and Hunt For The Wilderpeople star Rhys Darby, Tegan Higginbotham, Susie Youssef, Bridie Connell and Tom Walker. He's been constantly impressed by where they run to, unfazed, faced with the rapid fire of each set-up.
"I can sit back, watch the best performers in the country go at it and I just get to occasionally give them shit," Little cackles, brimming with contagious energy before a launch event at Taxi Kitchen in Melbourne's Fed Square. "What a job. What a fantastic job. They do all the legwork, and I get on the poster and go 'it's my show.' No, it's not."
"What a job. What a fantastic job. They do all the legwork, and I get on the poster and go 'it's my show.'"
Revelling in his paid heckler work, Little says the team is just the ticket for a grand return of improv to Australian television sets after the short life of Working Dog's Thank God You're Here, fronted by Shane Bourne, was brought to an end after four series and one channel hop, back in 2009.
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Little loved the British original as a kid, which started out on radio before heading to the small screen on Channel 4 where it lived until 1999. "It was one of those shows you could watch over and over again and it blew your mind," he says. "The only thing you ever thought was that they can't be making it up, they're so good, there's got to be scripts."
Though the show was resurrected Stateside, where it continues to be broadcast to this day on The CW, the format there is largely unchanged. Little says that was never an option for Australian audiences, who can expect much more of a late-night vibe and a healthy appreciation for swear words.
"We've turned it into a party," he says. "We have a live band, the new set looks fantastic and it's actually filthy. We're all live performers, so when we did this show with a live audience, we wanted to put on a fucking show. I thought it would all get cut out in the edit, but it didn't. We're all grown up, nobody gives a shit about swearing anymore. I work on a prime time news show and I can say shit. If you don't think swear words are funny, you're dead inside."
The results have been TV magic, he says. "When we recorded the show live they were about two hours long. It wasn't like, 'ooh, we're going to be lucky to get a good half hour out of this,' it's was like, 'we're going to have to cut some gold'."
New Zealander Cal Wilson, a Melbourne import, is a renowned stand-up comedian and juggles TV and radio duties alongside a regular column in The Age newspaper. Easily standing out at Taxi Kitchen with her hot pink hair, she apologises for how gushing she is about the show.
"It's a much more collaborative and joyful experience than stand-up," she says. "My comedy career started off in in improv, so it's always been something I've loved, and I would have been devastated if I hadn't been involved."
Little makes for a great ringmaster, Wilson says. "It's so lovely having a comedian as a host because even though he doesn't come from an improv background, he understands funny, so he learnt really quickly when to pull scenes down and where to end things. It's nice to know that you can take the mickey out of each other and it's all fine. He's so funny and so great when he interacts with the audience. I'm just gushing again."
Bouncing off the team has been a real pleasure. "I admire them all so much. They're such lovely people, there's not one arsehole in the bunch. They really set it up for us to have the best possible experience."
Wilson hopes that camaraderie translates for audiences at home and that together they can help improve improv's street cred. "Improv gets a bad wrap sometimes because when theatre sports or improv is bad, it's awful, like it is horrendous, but when it's good, it's magnificent," she insists. " There's nothing like the feeling of seeing a moment conjured from nowhere that will never happen again."