In 1995, Wayne Wang and Paul Auster had a blast making a movie called Smoke. The title itself conveys something of the vaporous nature of the conversations in it, which seemed to waft in whatever direction the wind blew them. During the shoot, they kept the cameras rolling at the end of each scene, so while the actors were still in character, they could play around with improvisation. The result was a second film that was even more vague and nebulous – Blue in the Face – as in when you talk so much you turn blue from lack of oxygen. And that little gem of a movie is reminiscent of the repartee between Andreu Buenafuente and Berto Romero that has fueled nine seasons of their radio show Nadie sabe nada (We haven’t a clue what’s going on), and which is now embarking on a new era on HBO Max.
The radio show had already been on YouTube, filmed as is, but the HBO signing means this improvisation space can finally be equipped with the kind of purpose-designed set (and TV resources) it deserves. For example, more cameras, better image quality, more freedom to interact with the audience, and a background that’s a bit easier on the eye than a radio studio’s acoustic panels. The upshot is a program you can watch without even realizing it is also a radio show.
Other than that, this additional format will make no changes to the pair’s original formula – one of pure ad-libbing for no other reason than to be amusing and to be amused. Keeping such a show going without a script for nine years is only possible when the hosts can really bounce off each other, which is very much the case with Buenafuente and Romero, or Romero and Buenafuente. Despite their different styles of humor, together they make a good pair because each is the perfect foil for the other’s antics. To start with, Buenafuente plays the role of the straight man, the one who, no matter if they really let themselves go (and they do), never breaks character. It is a role he has perfected after many years hosting late shows and dealing with a whole cast of outrageous characters, while he acts as if he’s truly aghast. Romero is more the buffoon and is less predictable. He follows perfectly in the Spanish comic lineage from Mortadelo y Filemón to Faemino y Cansado, something that is very refreshing in a world in which American comedy has tended to upstage more local humor.
What they also have is that certain tone, that comic instinct or sensibility, combined with a well-honed craft. That’s essential because done badly, improvisation can easily go off the rails, if there’s no one able to steer it enough so it doesn’t become completely inane. Nadie sabe nada doesn’t have that problem because in the hours and hours that the two have spent in front of the microphones, and cameras, they have well and truly perfected their craft. The audience knows that, even if the dialogue isn’t heading in any particular direction, the journey itself will be entertaining – thanks to that comic tone – and there will probably be some kind of surprise just around the corner – which is where the comic sensibility comes into play. In this sense, it is one of the purest forms of humor in that it doesn’t aim to be political satire, nor biting commentary that sails too close to the edge of what is actually funny. No, what this program offers is an opportunity to switch off from the daily humdrum and get swept up in humor that is free-flowing but that is also the product of great care. Because, albeit that the show’s content is improvised, the lexical richness and precision with which the pair describe little slices of life is what separates Nadie sabe nada from the multitude of other shows that use the term improv to cover up the fact that their material is sloppy. A small example of how the right word can add a nice nuance and veracity is when, in the first episode, Romero talks about having received a blow to his ‘noggin’, more commonly used to describe a bull or horse’s forehead area, and this is one small example of how the right word can beef up content and add some stock to the broth.
Launching a TV format for Nadie sabe nada is also quite interesting from the point of view of the positioning of streaming services, given it is HBO Max’s first move to expand the breadth of its catalog in Spain. Where previously its offering was limited to series, movies, comedy specials and documentaries, now it has its first entertainment show. That it does so with such a prestigious format, and with the likes of Buenafuente and Romero involved, throws down the gauntlet at a time when others have taken the more populist route, sticking close to the ‘realities’ of conventional TV.
When everything’s said and done, behind Nadie sabe nada is a defense of creative freedom which is one of HBO’s hallmarks. Over its nine years, the program has created its own mini universe. For example, one day Buenafuente accidentally said ‘Samanté’ instead of ‘Namasté’ and ever since it has been one of the show’s regular gags. The same thing applies to the families of the comedians – through their sharing of snippets from their daily lives they’ve inevitably built a bond of intimacy with the audience. Now the additional forum that television provides may well see the Catalan duo attract a more global following.