14 Memorable Improvised Moments on Scripted TV
The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Parks And Recreation. Every so often, unscripted lines by actors find their way into TV episodes…
Warning: contains spoilers for each show listed below.
“Neigh way, José! I improvised that line. I mean, it was written, but I gave it the old BoJack spin” – BoJack Horseman
The notion that great TV dialogue spills spontaneously out of actors, hitting neither keyboard nor pen on its journey from brain to mouth, is a pervasive, seductive and, for the most part, completely inaccurate one.
While besotted fans may love the idea that their favorite thesp is the real genius behind it all (and some actors, in rare and uncharacteristic instances of egotism in the profession, even give that impression themselves), the general truth is that great scripts are the product of painstaking labour on the part of writers.
There are, of course, rare exceptions. Performers with the talent of say, Robin Williams in Mork & Mindy, who are more or less given free rein, or those shows that positively encourage improvisation (HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, BBC Two’s The Thick Of It, Channel 4’s This Is England…). And every so often, an ad-lib addition to a tightly scripted show will be so good it’s left in. That’s the case in the examples below, all of which made it past the script gatekeeper and onto our screens…
The Walking Dead
In season five episode “Remember,” which sees Rick and the gang enter the Alexandria Safe Zone and start to assimilate into suburbia, one character isn’t having any of it. Norman Reedus’ Daryl Dixon is suspicious of the whole set-up and refuses the spruced and tidy makeover leapt at by the rest of them. One scene sees Carol decked out in a neat cardi, blouse and slacks, a very different aesthetic from her viscera-daubed Rambo look of previous episodes. As Carol walks away, Daryl says over his shoulder “You look ridiculous.”
That line was an ad-lib from Norman Reedus. Reedus explained to EW, “Carol is my girl. I like to f—with her as much as possible. It just kind of came out. She actually yelled off-camera “Thank you!” which was really funny as well. Melissa and I have such good chemistry—actually, all the cast members with each other have such good chemistry—that those things happen all the time. We all throw in little things that are our own, and sometimes they make it and sometimes they don’t. Everyone cracked up after I said that and Greg [Nicotero] had the really good sense of keeping it.” Episode director Nicotero later corroborated Reedus’ account, telling Entertainment Weekly, “When I did the cut, I was like, I’m leaving that in because that is exactly what Daryl would say.”
The Breaking Bad Insider podcast, hosted by the show’s editor Kelly Dixon, is a must-listen for fans. Episodes are long, in-depth and packed with interesting discussion from the drama’s makers, from creator Vince Gilligan to lead Bryan Cranston and many more.
The podcast for Granite State, Breaking Bad’s penultimate episode, welcomed Cranston and director Peter Gould. At around the 48:58 mark, Gould discusses the scene in which Walter White offers to pay “The Disappearer,” played by Robert Forster, $10,000 to stay for an hour in the cabin where he’s hiding out. While the pair prepare to play cards, Forster deals the deck, symbolically turning up “A King. Two Kings.”
That line was of Forster’s invention. Director Gould explains: “The scene as scripted ends with ‘Do you want to cut the cards?’ And that was just to keep the card-playing… that was the out of the scene. These guys… I kind of was lazy with saying ‘cut’ for once and these guys kept going with the scene. […] There are a number of variations, and then Robert starts dealing and calling out what the cards are. […] He did it once and it was ‘let’s keep doing that’.”
That wasn’t the only time a cast-member’s addition made it into a final episode cut. According to Vince Gilligan, the line “Everybody dies in this movie don’t they?” said by Walter in season five’s Hazard Pay when Walter and Walt Jr are watching Scarface was an addition from Cranston. “There’s that great line that Bryan Cranston ad-libbed that is not in the script for the episode: ‘Everybody dies in this movie.’ Who knows if that’s foreshadowing or not?”
Parks And Recreation
As Chris Pratt explains in this clip from the Paley Center Festival in 2012, despite being a tightly scripted show, the multi-take set-up of mockumentary-style sitcom Parks And Recreation allowed its cast room to experiment with the odd ad-lib. “Every person in the cast has had improvised material in the show,” agrees creator Mike Schur in the same recording.
“The funniest line ever spoken on our show,” continues Schur, “was improvised by Chris Pratt, which is when Leslie has the flu [episode 3.2 “Flu Season”] and she’s being led out and he’s just at the computer filling in at Ron’s desk and he says ‘I typed your symptoms into the thing up here and its says you could have network connectivity problems’ Improvised line! I’m not kidding, as a writer, it made me furious! I’m still really upset and angry. He did it once, the camera happened to be on him once and I think it’s the funniest joke that’s ever been on our show.”
Other cast ad-libs that made it include Retta’s “Do I look like I drink water?” retort as Donna to Rashida Jones’ Ann in season four’s “Campaign Shake-Up,” Chris Pratt’s “Douché” reply to Aubrey Plaza’s April in season two’s “Telethon” (more genius from the Pratt there), and Patton Oswalt’s impressive eight-minute Star Wars-themed filibuster as Pawnee local Garth Blundin in season five’s “Article Two” (most of which was cut, understandably, for the final episode).
In series three’s wedding episode, “The Sign Of Three,” Sherlock Holmes and John Watson memorably go on John’s stag night before they’re interrupted by a case. What follows is the sight of two inebriated consulting detectives attempting (and failing) to act sober while they clue for looks.
At a Q&A for the series three finale, episode two co-writer Steven Moffat remembered a moment in which Benedict Cumberbatch’s memory momentarily failed him while apologizing for Watson snoozing during the drunk consultation scene:
“There was a lovely moment also – probably my favourite line in it – where Benedict says ‘Apologies on behalf of my…thing’ and it’s because Benedict in that moment forgot his lines and just said ‘thing’ and Mark and I went ‘Oh that’s good, let’s keep that in’ [laughter]. It was lovely.”
The Vampire Diaries
Sometimes a single improvised word is all it takes to alter the tenor of a line. That was the case in one highly emotional scene between Damon and Elena (Ian Somerhalder and Nina Dobrev) in The Vampire Diaries’ season five finale, “Home.”
Trapped on the other side and unable to be seen by a weeping Elena, Damon tells her goodbye. She begs, “Please don’t leave me,” and he replies, “I don’t have a choice, baby.” Sharp-eared Vampire Diaries fans noted Damon’s use of an uncharacteristic term of endearment and set about investigating.
They got their answer from The Vampire Diaries director Chris Grismer on this SiriusXM Entertainment podcast. When asked about the use of “baby,” Grismer says, “I think Ian added that. I don’t have the script in front of me but I remember on the day that was really nice but I don’t think it was in the script.” No, Somerhalder’s addition isn’t as lengthy or creative as some on this list, but judging by Tumblr, it certainly left an impression on fans of his show.
Miller and Hardy may have provided the most entertaining bickering in Broadchurch’s first series (a personal high point being Miller threatening to piss in a cup and throw it at Hardy), but in the show’s second run, the conflict between another pair proved almost as popular.
One exchange in particular between rival Junior Barristers Ben and Abby, played respectively by William Andrews and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, captured viewers’ imaginations. In episode seven of series two, Ben tells his opposite number “Abby, I wanted to say… I think you’re a truly horrible person”. Cue applause, cheering, and quite possibly, a new range of slogan t-shirts.
According to Andrews on Twitter, writer Chris Chibnall was kind enough to let him and Waller-Bridge improvise that now-famous line. “All chibnals meaning though [sic]. We made it more cutting,” he explained.
Marvel’s Agents Of SHIELD
Speaking of t-shirt slogans, that’s exactly where a reportedly improvised line from the Agents Of SHIELD season two finale, “S.O.S.,” ended up.
On Twitter this May, SHIELD producer Geoffrey Colo announced that the episode had won an Entertainment Weekly award for Funniest Moment in a Drama courtesy of Iain de Caestecker’s Breaking Bad-inspired line: “Science, biatch!”
No, it’s not Shakespeare, but Fitz’s cheeky response to Gordon asking what he had done to inhibit his teleporting powers quickly became a fan favourite. On Twitter this May, actor Clark Gregg called it the “best ad lib in the history of television.”
Game Of Thrones
Seeing as Game Of Thrones spends the GDP of a small country on each episode, risky off-the-cuff additions to the script are an obvious no-no. One instance of sanctioned improvisation though, occurred in the show’s second season.
In the season two finale, “Valar Morghulis,” Iain Glen’s character Ser Jorah Mormont, has to speak a line of Dothraki ordering Dany’s followers to steal gold and jewels from the house of Xaro Xhoan Daxos in retribution for his having betrayed Dany and her dragons to the warlocks. Mormont tells them “Mas ovary movekkhi moskay,” a line of approximated Dothraki entirely of the actor’s own invention.
The improvisation was required, as Game Of Thrones language consultant David J Peterson tells it, because he was unavailable when the request came through by email. Judging Glen not to have done a bad job on the faux-Dothraki, Peterson later retrofitted the fictional language to explain the words. You can read more about that at The Guardian, here.
The Office: An American Workplace
Like Parks And Recreation (which started life as an abandoned spinoff of the earlier show commissioned by NBC before morphing into the series we know and love today) The Office welcomed cast ad-libs, particularly on its “to camera” segments. Rainn Wilson, who played Dwight Schrute, apparently gave Steve Carell a run for his money when it came to riffing around the script. Writer Mike Schur said in 2007 that “Rainn has never not given an alternate version” when it comes to his interview segments.
The show’s most famous improvisation though, was non-verbal. In the season three opener, “Gay Witch Hunt,” Michael Scott makes a foolhardy attempt to prove he isn’t homophobic by kissing a gay employee, Oscar, on the lips. As relayed by this IGN report about a The Office panel at Paley Fest 2007, that kiss was all Steve Carell’s idea, much to Oscar Nunez’s surprise.
Paul Lieberstein, who played Toby in the comedy, remembered that the script originally called for Michael to kiss Oscar on the cheek. Instead “One take, Steve just won’t let Oscar turn away. He got closer and closer.” Relive the moment for yourself, here.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Ask a Buffy fan what nationality all monkeys are, and they’ll quote you back one of the show’s cast ad-libs. While the genius of Buffy is undeniably in the writing, a few moments improvised by its actors made their way onto the screen and into fans’ hearts.
The most popular has to be Seth Green and Alyson Hannigan’s Animal Cracker-based exchange in “What’s My Line Part 2,” which, according to producer Marti Noxon on the season four DVD commentaries, was all their own work after Oz tells Willow, “you have the sweetest smile I’ve ever seen.” What follows is a dramatic monologue about the curiosity of the monkey being the only Animal Cracker that wears clothes.
According to Golden and Holder’s The Watcher’s Guide, a couple of ad-libbed moments from season one’s “The Puppet Show” also made it through. Xander using Sid the dummy to reference The Shining by saying “Redrum, Redrum” was the invention of Nicholas Brendon, and Willow running off stage in terror was Alyson Hannigan’s idea.
According to actress Susanna Thompson, Moira Queen’s dramatic final moments in Arrow included an addition she made to the script. As relayed in this interview with Give Me My Remote, Moira’s line to Thea after she stands up to sacrifice herself to Deathstroke, “Close your eyes, baby,” was unscripted and made it through the edit:
“I knew he could shoot Moira at any time. And the last thing I wanted was for Thea to see that. And she’s right there. And I was just going over it and over it in my head, prior to getting to the set several days in advance, and I thought, “This is what she would say. And I’m not going to tell anybody, I’m just going to do it.” And the first rehearsal I said it, Marc Guggenheim [Arrow creator] told our script supervisor, “Keep it, keep it, I love it. Keep it.”
The talents of Tatiana Maslany know no bounds it seems. Not only can she play a million different characters at once, but she’s also a dab hand with an ad-lib.
In answer to an audience question in this Orphan Black panel [around 19:00], Maslany and her co-stars go into a little of the improvisation that takes place on the show. It seems that Sarah’s interrogation scene answers weren’t scripted, nor was the Helena revenge scene, the body-burying scene in the garage, Rachel’s breakdown scene, Cosima and Delphine getting high… The list goes on.
The actress’ most celebrated ad-lib though, has to be Tony’s off-the-cuff response to Felix’s painting of Alison: “The one with the soccer ball looks like a douche”. According to Orphan Black creator John Fawcett on Twitter, “Tatiana improvised that line. I heart her!”
A shorty but a goody here, from Jensen Ackles, who memorably improvised the use of Dean Winchester’s unofficial catchphrase “Son of a bitch!” in the season three episode “Bad Day At Black Rock” to make his co-star crack up on screen.
Watch this clip of Ackles giving an exuberant delivery of the line, and see Jared Padalecki turn his face away from the camera to stop his laughter being seen, as he confesses at this panel.
Ronald D. Moore’s episode commentary podcast for Battlestar Galactica is a treasure trove for BSG fans. For one, it’s where we learned that Gaeta’s sarcastic “So I guess a pity frak is out of the question then?” riposte to Starbuck following their mess hall confrontation in season four episode “A Disquiet Follows My Soul,” was improvised by Alessandro Juliani.
Helpfully transcribed here, this is how Moore remembered it:
“There is a good ad lib here at the end of this scene with – as Starbuck leaves, when Katee was exiting the scene, AJ just said, “I guess a mercy frak is out of the question?” and everyone busted up and I said, “that’s brilliant, let’s use that,” and he kind of looked at me like, “really? OK.” And I was like, “yeah, let’s.” And that became like the button on the whole scene.”
This article was originally published on September 2nd, 2015.