Saturday 20 March 2021


We improvise almost continuously throughout the day whether it be stirring a cup of tea with a screwdriver in lieu of a spoon or thinking up an excuse on the spot when confronted by an angry partner over why the bins haven’t been put out. Improvisation tends to confound any expectations of normality and always takes things off on a tangent. I guess that’s why life is such a strange proposition. But improvisation, by way of this strangeness, is also a driving force for the hilarity that our lives are blessed with. And that’s why improv has been a crucial factor in comedy over the years. Two of the finest proponents of this are Tony Slattery and Mike McShane or, as they’re also known, S&M.

The premise behind S&M is very simple: Tony Slattery and Mike McShane improvise sketches based upon a simple premise. These premises are generated by the production team with each sketch introduced by a slide containing said premise. It’s then down to Slattery and McShane to craft a sketch based around this premise with minimal, if any, props. McShane, for example, finds himself portraying a performing seal trying to order food in a restaurant. Slattery, in another sketch, takes a look down the back of his sofa where he discovers an increasingly bizarre series of objects. And there are also a series of sketches featuring Slattery and McShane as a pair of lovestruck peas crammed, face to face, inside a pea pod.

You may notice that S&M sounds similar to that other Channel 4 show based around improv: Whose Line is it Anyway? And it’s not surprising to discover that, as well as starring two WLIIA? luminaries, S&M was also produced by Dan Patterson and Hat Trick Productions. The seven episodes, running to around 25 minutes each, popped up on our screens on Wednesday evenings at 10.30pm in late 1991. There was only one series of S&M produced and Channel 4 did not find room in the schedules for a repeat run.

By the time S&M was transmitted, Slattery and McShane had appeared in three series of WLIIA? and their improv skills were beyond any doubt. Certainly, you could pair any two of the WLIIA? players together and be guaranteed high levels of quality, but Slattery and McShane make for a nice set of contrasts. Just the right side of trim, charming, exuberant and classically British, Slattery is almost the polar opposite of larger than life, wildly talented and highly animated boy from Kansas Mike McShane. Comedy is all about opposites and the pairing of Slattery with McShane guarantees an entertaining visual spectacle. And that’s before the comedy is unleashed.

S&M can be summed up with one word: funny. Naturally, it's the victim, as all sketch shows are, of being a mixture of hits and misses, but enough of its sketches can be filed under hit to justify its funny tag. And even when there's a sketch which fails to adhere to the John Cleese statute on comedy, the sheer exuberance of the performances sees them over the line. Chemistry is also crucial to S&M's charm. Whether Slattery and McShane are rampaging around the set or slowly sinking into imaginary quicksand there's a yin and yang in place which never fails to deceive. And you can see that our two frontmen are having a ball. Corpsing can often feel tackily forced and pointless, but in S&M it feels a glorious celebration of the performer's talents - see Slattery rubbing the belly of McShane's performing seal who soon demands that he stops as he's getting hard.

Due to the way the episodes are edited, with sketches transitioning into other 'locations' seamlessly, S&M doesn't have the same spontaneity of WLIIA? But S&M is positioned as an offshoot rather than a clone, so this shouldn't be taken as a criticism. Perhaps my only real criticism of the series, and this is built upon a house of cards, is that it can feel repetitive seeing the same two performers with limited props in sketch after sketch. This is broken up slightly with the sections which, again indebted to WLIIA?, finds each performer taking it in turns to address the camera with quick gags on specific themes e.g. rejected ad campaigns. It still feels, though, that a little more variety, perhaps in terms of the number of performers, could have made it stronger. But I did watch these episodes one night after the other. And that's not how these were intended to be consumed, so it's no surprise that fatigue set in.

One series of S&M was probably as much as it needed and it retains a breezy brand of comedy three decades later. It's true that few people reference S&M as a watershed moment in the history of improv and even fewer remember the series at all. But it comes Curious British Telly approved, an honour that most television series' would give their eyeteeth for. 

A number of sketches from S&M are currently housed on YouTube.


  1. Tony and Mike were 2 of my favourite performers on WLIIA with a great dynamic together. When they no longer appeared and Whose Line had basically become the Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie show, I'd lost interest. Ryan and Colin were great, but to see them on every single show afterwards got boring. It's sad watching Tony's gradual physical and mental decline on the show. By the time of his last appearances, it's almost as if he isn't there with his bi-polar and addiction issues. When Tony was eventually let go from the show, Mike supposedly walked out in disgust at Mike's shabby treatment of his friend and never appered again either. It's good to see Tony making a return after the moving tv documentary featuring him last year and I can't wait to read about the Whose Line years in the autobiography he's working on.

    1. The young Tony Slattery was a true tour de force and should have been bigger. If you ever get the chance (or already have) to watch him in the Children's ITV series Behind the Bike Sheds then you'll be blown away with his performance.