In all honesty: the thought of performing on stage in an improv troupe scares the feces out of us. The thought of having to be hilarious and insightful, often at the same time, at the unexpected drop of a rubber chicken is enough to make us find a gang-banger to narc on so we can hide out in the confines of WITSEC, far away from any that may try to force us into an improv class.
A couple of men who bravely face, and even thrive inside of, the fearsome beast of be-funny-or-be-ashamed entertainment are television vets Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood. The former regular players on the successful television improv showcase, Whose Line Is It Anyway? have continued to improv up and down the highways of North America.
The duo bring their show, Two Man Group, to the Winspear Opera House on Saturday, and we weren't going to pass on the chance to force Colin Mochrie into improvising a few answers for us here on the Mixmaster. Mixmaster: The pressure of improv seems to be rather intimidating. Even after all these years, do you find yourself feeling intimidated under such pressure to perform? I was fairly lucky that I found I had an affinity for improv at an early age, and that it was something that I might even be good at. I've also been really fortunate to have worked with really great people in my improv career and that's really a major part of it. You need to be out there with someone you trust, because that's all you really have: that and your brain.
Are the skills for an effective improviser something that can really be taught, or is it an instinctual attribute? Anyone can learn how to improvise. The rules are really pretty simple and it's something we do every day in our normal lives. Our entire lives are improvised. Every conversation we have is improvised. The challenge in that is to then be funny. To me, you can't teach anyone to really be funny, but you can teach someone to be funnier. I think you have to have that comedic talent and way of looking at things; which certainly helps you when you're improvising.
With so much experience and so many shows under your belt, certain jokes must bomb from time to time. What's going on in your brain when a joke doesn't work? Oh, I wouldn't know. You'll have to ask Brad [Sherwood] about that one! No, really, you go into sort of a survival mode. You go back to your basics and what the scene is about and how it began and what direction you can take it in at that point. The beauty of improv is that if the scene doesn't work, you can move onto the next one and everyone forgets about the crappy one. That's a nice little fail-safe for us.
In terms of creating content for the shows, do you and Brad have a process in place? We always try to make sure that when we come back to different cities, we do different scenes. That's the most planning we really do. I hate to use the word "planning", because so many people already think that it's not all made up. Most of our work goes into making new games and getting new information from each audience so we don't go over the same things. We work best when we're off balance and we're not quite sure what to do.
So, there's no sitting down and writing or creating together? It's all on-the-fly? Brad and I live in different cities, so it's usually on the road when we spend our time together. Because there's only two of us, it can seem like there's a limited number of games we can create, but then, over dinner we'll riff on an idea that comes up and then there's a new idea for the show. It's an ongoing creative process and what's great about working with Brad is that we're very similar and that we're never content with the show, even thought it works in a lot of ways. We're always trying to find something new and different.
You were a part of the three Drew Carey Show episodes that were aired live on prime-time television several years back. That's still something that hardly is attempted. Is it just too tall of a task for most shows? Yeah, when we we're doing those shows, I thought "My God, we are so amazing!" Then I thought, "Hey, this is what they used to do all of the time when television first started." It was all live and off the cuff. For those Drew Carey shows, we did three performances for different time-zones. It was tough for the cast, and also for the crew. A lot of people that film sitcoms aren't used to thinking on the fly like that. When Drew added bits of improv to the show, the cameramen wouldn't always know who was going to talk or when. It all worked out and it was a ball, but I think the actors, other than Drew and Kathy [Kinney] was terrified. It really is scary.
During those shows, and the others that have done it such as E.R. and 30 Rock, I've found myself morbidly hoping for a mistake or some sort of flub. That's not wrong, is it? That's the fun part. There is a sense of danger that it could all fall off the rails in that setting. With comedy, you can get around the mistakes faster. I remember when George Clooney did (2000 made-for-TV movie) Fail Safe live. Now, there's no joking your way out of that type of drama. I give those guys high marks.
I've noticed that much of the cast from Whose Line Is It Anyway? has done quite a bit of game show hosting. What's the connection there? I think that job is the closest thing to improv on television. On a game show, you kind of have a script, but you also have that human wild-card element where they can say and do anything at any time. An improv background certainly helps you deal with that so that you can hopefully turn it all into television gold.
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Your son (That Guy With Glasses contributor Luke Mochrie) is now beginning to show the world his talent for comedy. When did you first start to notice his sense of humor developing? Well, my wife is also an improv comedian and was in Second City for many years, so he pretty much has some of that in his own DNA. And in our everyday lives, we're pretty light-hearted, so I think he just naturally picked it up. It's interesting how the humor develops. When kids are young, it's all about silly stuff, but as they get older, it gets to be about word-play and funny concepts. It's been really interesting to watch his growth as a funny person; going from weird things like pretending to walk into walls and into making funny observations on life. It's quite heart-warming.
Do you find that humor often comes from unexpected people or circumstances? A sense of humor is a great thing to have as a person, even if you don't do it professionally. A lot of the funniest people I know aren't in the business - they're just funny. Those are the people you gravitate towards and help you forget whatever problems you may be going through. A sense of humor is an important trait to have.
Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood perform their show, Two Man Group, at the Winspear Opera House on Saturday March 3rd.