Colin Mochrie: Winging it, nightly
The first rule of improv is never say "No." It's always "Yes, and..." Looking back over this 2006 interview, I notice that Colin Mochrie, a master of improvisation, said "No" to me. But it felt like "Yes."
"Whose Line Is It Anyway" put improv front and center and made household names out of Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood.
Well, maybe household faces - people may not know their names.
But they know they're funny.
"Whose Line" lives on in daily reruns - the skits take on a Monty Pythonesque shine when you anticipate Mochrie's bad dialects or dance moves.
This week, more than three years after the last show was taped, Mochrie and Sherwood bring their "An Evening With" tour to the New York suburbs with performances in Englewood and Stamford.
I reached Mochrie by phone at his Toronto home.
You're a Canadian from Scotland. Which makes you funnier?
"I get the dark side from my Scottish heritage. They're fairly brimming with dark humor. Being Canadian gives me that outsider feel, I guess."
Your biography mentions that you won a Canadian comedy award as a "Pretty Funny Male Improvisor." Those Canadians don't like the word "best," do they?
"No, we certainly don't. That would just be bragging."
And yet, you get along well with Drew Carey.
"He's a lovely man, incredibly generous. Which is something I always like in my multi-millionaires."
Is Ryan Stiles really dull when the camera's off?
"Incredibly. Actually, he's quite funny. Everyone is certainly a lot quieter than they appear on screen, except for maybe Greg Proops."
He's now doing the voice of "Bob the Builder."
"It's amazing where this world takes you."
And you're dressed as an angel on TV these days ...
"I'm the Snack Fairy" for Nabisco.
You got that job because of your work with Molly Ringwald in the sci-fi movie "Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone," right? They saw you stretch in that part?
"Exactly. They saw the latent acting abilities I had and decided to exploit them."
What's that live show like? Who's coming?
"It's Brad Sherwood and I. We like to say it's like a live version of `Whose Line Is It Anyway' without the tall guy, the black guy or the rich guy."
You and Brad have worked together for a while.
"We've been doing this tour for about three years now, so I think we're getting the hang of it now."
How many nights a year do you do it?
"I'd say between 150 and 200 nights a year. It depends."
Big houses, small houses?
"We usually do theaters, so anywhere from 1,800 to 3,000. We don't want to do arenas because improv is still more of an intimate art."
You're doing improv for a living. Is it hard to keep it edge-of-the-seat, like it's meant to be?
"Brad and I go out of our way to make sure we can make it as difficult for ourselves as we can. We try not to repeat anything. We're constantly coming up with new ways of getting suggestions from the audience so we don't get the same thing again and again. And trying out new games. It's difficult enough with just two people. But we're never happy with that. I suppose before too long we'll be setting ourselves on fire and doing the night that way."
It would be very fast improv.
"It would be. Yes."
What can we as an audience bring with us to prepare for your show?
"The beauty of our show is that we have nothing. We don't need anything. We just try to conjure up something from thin air. All we ask the audience to do is to try to be creative with their suggestions. We'll never take ‘gynecologist' or ‘proctologist' as a profession."
Really? You've raised the bar there.
"People will suggest that, but if they actually saw a scene about a proctologist or a gynecologist, I think people would be very uncomfortable very quickly. We're just saving them that."
I sensed from watching ‘Whose Line' that the ho-down was your least favorite game.
"Yes. No matter how we tried to hide that it seemed to come out in subtle ways."
It was that deer-in-the-headlights look on your face every time it started.
"There was nothing more horrifying. I think we did it every show and it always took one by surprise whenever it came up."
At least they stuck Stiles with the last line.
"I always tried to figure where was the best place to be in the ho-down. First was kind of the worst because you had to have something right away. Third and fourth you ran the risk of someone taking your verse. So probably second would have been the best. But I never got to be second."
You won't do the ho-down here. What games can people expect to see
"Moving bodies. We do sound effects. Ummmmmm. Huh. I'm sure there are others we do ... We have about 16 games that we rotate in and out. We're never sure what we're going to do."
Everything these days in New York centers around Julia Roberts, who is now acting on Broadway. What can Julia Roberts learn from improv?
"Oh, God. Ummm. Yeah. What what can an Oscar-winning highly paid actress learn from improv? I guess pretty much not to do it for a career. I think that would probably be the lesson she could take home there. I think she's doing OK with what she's doing.
"But I'm sure she's used improv in her work. Basically, all you have in improv is you have to listen to the people you're working with and accept anything that comes your way."
Does that make you a better husband?
"You would think. It's odd. Improv goes against everything you do in real life. You have to listen and you have to be open to things. It hasn't helped me with lying, which I thought it would."
"No. I'm the worst liar and I can never think of anything. If I'm stopped by a cop for speeding, I have no quick story. I just go, `Oh, just give me the ticket.' "
Go ahead. Ticket the Snack Fairy.