Do you remember that scene in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” where Steve Carell’s character goes into a salon to have his chest waxed? Anyone who has watched the DVD commentary for that movie as many times as I have knows that said painful, bloody hair removal was not faked for the camera and that Carell’s hilarious outbursts were genuine. Even when the injustice is nowhere as extreme as nearly having your nipple ripped off, Steve Carell, with his rare brand of hangdog handsomeness, is so adept at registering humiliation that it almost seems unfair to critique the pilot for the new sketch comedy show “Riot," which he executive-produced and guest-stars in. Last night’s highlight was “The Office” star shoving his torso into a smoking oven to put out a fire.
The show was adapted from an international improv phenomenon – titled “Slide Show,” or “Anything Goes” around the globe – in which a team of improv comedians must perform sketches under extreme conditions. The centerpiece of the program is a stage that remains tilted at a 22-degree angle. An equally tilted camera makes the stage appear level to the viewing audience. The resulting scenes feature the actors under extreme duress as they try to freestyle jokes while being dragged down by gravity.
Last night’s premiere felt like harmless summer programming, though a bit manic for my tastes. It reminded me of the early days of the U.K. version of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” but with a more self-congratulatory air. As with most improv comedy, the best moments arise when the participants are utterly committed to the bit at hand. Journeyman sitcom actor Brian Palermo stood out among the series regulars and held his own against Carell and fellow “Office” mate Andy Buckley – particularly in a recurring setup that requires players to meet certain dialogue marks or literally be hoisted out of the scene into the rafters.
It is possible that the rest of Palermo’s teammates will distinguish themselves, but with only seven episodes left to go in “Riot’s” short-run season it is more likely that the quality of each installment will hinge upon the guests that grace its slanted stage. Fortunately, future episodes promise a steady, sliding stream of stellar comedians from Jason Alexander to Cheryl Hines to Michael Ian Black.