ABC’s new half-hour comedy “Repeat After Me” premiered February 17 and, despite its modest viewership, it proved to be a fresh take on a recycled idea. Ellen DeGeneres executive produces the show, and her mischievous mark is all over it. Like DeGeneres’s daytime talk show “Ellen”’s hidden camera segment, “Repeat After Me” distinguishes itself as funny, not because we get to watch celebrities make fun of people or watch regular people make fun of other regular people, but because we get to watch celebrities make fun of themselves.

“Repeat After Me”

B
Series Pilot
ABC
Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m.


Wendi McLendon-Covey (“The Goldbergs”) hosts “Repeat After Me,” dictating to celebrities via earpieces what to say to people who recognize them, but have no idea they are being filmed. In this episode, Scott Foley (“Scandal”) interviews a potential babysitter for his kids. “My six-year-old smokes,” he says, impressing upon her how “terrible” his kids are. Sarah Hyland (“Modern Family”) meets a French tutor, and says part of the reason she wants to learn French is because she has a French lover, so she’s “got French kissing down.” Randy Jackson (“American Idol”) speaks to the people tinting the windows of his new truck, asking if they do houses too, because he has a “huge mansion with lots of windows” in which he likes to “walk around nakey.”

After each scene, the actors tell the people being pranked that they are on a hidden camera show and bring them out to see the live audience. At the end of the episode McLendon-Covey chooses her favorite moment of the night — which for this episode is Foley curled up in the fetal position and doing his best impression of a crying baby while the nonplussed nanny attempts to comfort him.

What gives “Repeat After Me” its energy isn’t so much the unpredictable interactions themselves — though they are, for the most part, hilarious. It’s in watching talented actors make complete fools of themselves. They know how to maintain their momentum on camera, even in the moments when they are waiting for their next command, so the energy never lags. The actors of this episode complement each other particularly well; Foley says everything he’s told to but can’t quite keep the mischief out his eyes, Hyland is completely straight-faced throughout her whole ridiculous scenario and Jackson can’t stop making the rookie mistake of laughing before delivering his lines.

Another aspect of the show reminiscent of DeGeneres’s own segment is that McLendon-Covey’s jokes play on the fact that these are very recognizable celebrities interacting with regular people. Foley tells his potential babysitter that if she wants an autograph, they better get that out of the way first, and then he asks her if she ever worked with famous people before and if she has any good gossip. Hyland asks teasingly if her new teacher recognizes her from “Modern Family” and then brags with a cutesy laugh, “I’ve won a bunch of Emmys,” pointing proudly to the shelf behind her. Randy Jackson introduces himself quite simply as Randy Jackson “from television.” They all subtly poke fun at the kind of things people expect celebrities would say, and it never comes across as mean-spirited or exploitative towards the people on the show. “Repeat After Me” may not be new, and it may be a while before McLendon-Covey reaches the skill level of DeGeneres when it comes to improvising, but at least it’s not plagued by petty problems that characterize the majority of reality programs on television now.

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