Fred Willard chats with tennis star Serena Williams on his new TV show, "Trust… (Nick Ray / ABC )
Improvisation in comedy is at once like jazz and like sport. (It is arranged, often, as games, with rules and restrictions to guide and to challenge the players.) And as with jazz and sport, part of the fascination is to see what can be accomplished in the spur, the heat and the pressure of the moment; how the players individually excel and work as a team. When it is good it is exciting like good jazz and when it is bad it is painful like bad jazz — or like adept or inept game-play — but either way you make allowances: You cut the comedy some slack. The chance of failure is what makes it fun, even when (chances are) it is often not funny.
"Trust Us With Your Life," which premieres Tuesday on ABC, comes from the producers of the popular ad-lib comedy "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" and like that show, it is based on a British model (the BBC series "Fast and Loose"). It takes the improv-games format of "Line" and marries it to "This Is Your Life," the long-running (and fitfully revived) classic-era proto-reality series, except where in the original celebrity guests were ambushed as with a surprise party, here they are in on a joke of which they are also the butt. It is (see above) often fun, even when it is not funny.
And where as in "Life" the guests were confronted with real figures from their past, each with a tale to tell, here they see episodes from their past re-imagined by comedians Wayne Brady, Colin Mochrie (both from "Line") and Jonathan Mangum (from "Fast and Loose"), joined each week by a different guest comic.
Fred Willard, who has found his Fred Willardness adaptable to so many different venues, is your host, game-master and celebrity interviewer. Irony and enthusiasm are so tightly entwined within him that he seems constantly to be mocking the thing he celebrates and celebrating the thing he mocks. At any moment he offers something for everyone.
The celebrity subjects are nicely varied and do not entirely suggest a roster of people who have nothing better to do: Ricky Gervais, Serena Williams, David Hasselhoff (he could be singing to Germans), Florence Henderson and Jerry Springer are among those to be riffed upon. I have seen episodes that feature Jack and Kelly Osbourne and billionaire businessman and basketball team owner (and former bouncer) Mark Cuban, who remembers living in a house on the beach with two flight attendants for roommates.
"Is this a movie you saw or is this for real?" asks Willard.
The segments include one in which the guest rings a bell or honks a horn to indicate the truth or falsity of an improv; a "ventriloquist" routine in which one comic speaks for another; a bit in which the action is "rewound"; and a segment where the players are every so often directed to break into song, with results that can be surprisingly good, or lead to constructions like, "I want my sausage / I want it in my face, I want it nausage" — which, from a comedy standpoint, is also good.