It’s hard to trace back exactly how old improv is. Sure, Second City may have been founded in the 1950s, but the idea of improv has been around for way longer. In fact, the earliest record of it dates back to the Atellan Farce of 391 BC. Suffice to say, it’s not an entirely new concept, however it is one that still remains as fresh as ever to this day.
For decades in the 20th Century, improv had been thriving, particularly in more Metropolitan cities like Chicago, Toronto, Los Angeles, and New York. It was a hip thing to go and see a Second City or Groundlings show. But despite it being widely-recognized in a lot of circles, the mainstream public didn’t really register improv as being a thing.
Then comes along this little show on the BBC, Whose Line is it Anyway? The premise is simple. 4 guys, 4 chairs. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. They have some improv games that you’d typically play in the classroom, except they are going to do it on national television. And somehow, the show proved so successful, countless spin-off’s (including 2 American versions) have kept the show running for 28 years.
One of the key ingredients to the show’s success is Colin Mochrie, who has been performing with the show since those early days in the U.K.. Colin can currently be seen on the new incarnation of Whose Line, which was brought back in 2013. He also currently tours the continent with Brad Sherwood performing their own two person show. And on March 23rd, Colin was awarded the inaugural John Candy Award in Canada.
We recently spoke to Colin from his Toronto home about all things improv, Whose Line, and comedy in general.
Being in Canada in the 60’s and 70’s, when ‘Second City’ was really hitting its stride, was improv something you were that aware of growing up?
No, it was not until later. When I was growing up, I think the only improv I ever saw was Jonathan Winters on talk shows. It really wasn’t part of the public consciousness. I think Whose Line made it more well known as a format. When you said you improvise, people thought you did stand up. It wasn’t until I got involved with Theater Sports in 1982 I think. When I first saw a demonstration of it, I thought “How come I’ve never seen this before?” And I got involved, never realizing it was going to become my job. So it worked out nicely for me.
Was comedy something you had wanted to go into growing up? Were you a big comedy fan as a kid?
Yeah, I always had a strong draw towards comedy. From the silent days of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin to the great American sitcoms of the 60s, Andy Griffith, Jack Benny, Dick Van Dyke, then Monty Python. So it was something I was certainly drawn to. It wasn’t until I did this whole thing and got my first laugh that I thought ‘Okay, this is what I want to do all the time now.’ It wasn’t something I thought I was going to do, it was just something I really enjoyed watching.
When you started doing improv, you were doing improv games, which was unheard of to the vast majority of people. How long did you have to keep trying to explain to the average Joe what improv is? At what point did it all finally become more common?
We still kind of have to explain it at times. People still think “So you have these sketches.” No, no. We make it up. We get something from the audience, you watch us do that, and then we just make it up. When I first started with improv in Vancouver, basically we had to go to the McDonald’s next door to grab people to come see the show and they had no idea what it was. And then within a year, we were getting line ups around the block and it sort of became a big hit. And then when Whose Line came along, people had more of an awareness, obviously, and they sort of knew what it was. But as I say, still today, when you say you improvise, people think you do stand up. It’s really irritating, I’m sure to both stand ups and improvisers.
How were the audiences once they got in there in those early days, despite having no clue what it was? Did they start to get it?
They started to get it. Oddly, quickly they started to get into it because it is so different from anything they had seen at that point. They were having an involvement in putting this show together. We had nothing without the audience, so it was all on their input. It’s one of the reasons I think we have a little more leeway than stand ups. When audiences watch a stand-up, they kind of sit back and go “Okay, make me laugh.” Whereas improv, because they know we’re getting everything from them, they have this invested interest in the scene going well because we’re using their suggestions so they get a better view of what we’re going to do with it. But yeah, there seemed to be no problem getting them involved. The set up of the show was such that we really got them warmed up and they sort of figured out what they had to do.
If you’re improvising with people you’ve never worked with before, is there that fear of “What if I can’t connect with these people?”
Oh absolutely. I would say that trust is such a big thing. You have to be able to have trust with the people you’re working with. I mean nowadays I work a lot with people I don’t know just to sort of keep me on my toes. It sort of makes you go back to the basics of improv, where you really start to listen and you’re there to support your partner and add onto what they’re saying. When I work with the guys from Whose Line, it’s just like goofing around with friends. We’ve known each other so long, we’ve worked together for so long it’s really second nature. So it’s really nice I find when I work with people I don’t know so well.
Do you think you could ever really perfect the art of improv, or is it something where you’re constantly evolving, even after all these years?
I would love to say “Yeah, we can perfect it.” I would love to be able to walk onstage every night and go “I know exactly what is going to happen. Everything’s going to be great.” Because of the nature of the beast, basically there’s a 50 percent chance every time you go out there that it’s going to work or it doesn’t. And I think that’s part of the reason why improvisers love to improvise, because there is that danger of “Oh, it may not work. What are we going to do with this?” So you never really get comfortable with it, because you’re constantly in survival mode.
Is doing a 2 person improv show with Brad an adjustment, having just one other person to build off of?
Yeah. In the show with Brad and I, we don’t get a chance to relax at any point, because it’s just us, so we’re constantly going from one bit to another. Testing our limits, seeing where we’re going to go. When you’re working in bigger groups, you can sit back every once in a while. Or if you’re not in a scene, you can watch. If you had a bad scene before that, you can sort of rev yourself up again. So I like the two man format just because it keeps us going and keeps us involved in the show.
And I’m sure it also helps that you’ve known him as long as you have, when it’s just the two of you together out there.
It is a little tougher. I have done it. There’s a guy in Canada who contacted me and said “I’m thinking of doing a show. I’d like to do a show [with you]. I’m going to do a mini-tour.” I thought “What the hell? Sure. I don’t know you, but let’s do it.” And it worked out really well. And it certainly is easier with Brad, because as you said, I had known him longer and there is that incredible trust thing with Ryan and those guys when I’m working with them. I usually know about 80 percent of the time where they’re going to go in a scene, but when I don’t, I kind of trust them to follow along and see what happens. Someone I don’t know that well, I just have to trust that they know what they’re doing and hope for the best.
With Whose Line, what would you say was the biggest adjustment from doing it in Britain and doing it in America? They are a lot looser over there with censorship and stuff, so you must have had some more restraints here.
Yeah, that was the biggest adjustment. Basically it was the same cast, the same producers. So by the point that it came to America, everybody knew what was going on. The only difficulty was the censorship. In Britain, nothing was ever censored. Swearing, content, whatever. It ended up on television. With the American Whose Line, we were never really sure where the line was. There were some things that I thought “Well, this will never happen,” and then it ended up on air. And then there were some things that were quite innocuous that didn’t. There was one point where Ryan was having a hoedown and made sort of a masturbation verse, and they bleeped out the word “hand”. That’s kind of weird. And there was a thing where I was supposed to be attracted to Greg Proops, so I kissed him and that was in our first season of Whose Line. And the first couple of shows, we had a censor who was in the booth. And they would stop the show. They’d say “You can’t do that. You’ve got to do something different.” So the time I kissed Greg, in the scene before I killed 3 women, and nothing. That seemed to be fine. Anything to do with sex made them little leary. And then after a couple of shows, there was sort of an agreement that we would film the show, and then afterwards, the producer and the censor would go over stuff and fight over it then, as opposed to sort of stopping the show and ruining the momentum.
Does having restraints on what you can or can’t say allow more room for creativity, or does it only hinder it?
It would make you think about it more. I tend not to be a dirty improviser anyway, but when something is put into your mind, you start thinking “Wait, is this dirty?” And then after a while, you just go “You know what, I’m just going to do whatever I’m comfortable with. It’s really up to them to figure it out.” Before in the 60s and 70s, stand-ups had all these limitations about what they could talk about, whether it was sex or religion, and they still managed to be funny. So you find a way around it.
When Whose Line came back to America in 2013, had anything changed as far as what you can say or do now that you couldn’t really before? Because now, things are seemingly a lot more relaxed.
Yeah, well it’s certainly more relaxed than the days we were doing it with Drew. It seems the Aisha [Tyler] part of Whose Line, we seem to have less restraints. But you never know. Before we did Whose Line, we did a show called Trust Us with Your Life, which was being shot in Britain, but it was an NBC show. So they had an NBC censor come over and sort of tell us what we couldn’t say. And basically it was you couldn’t use any swearing at all. I think Drew allowed one “dick” a show. If you were playing an old person, you couldn’t shake. So those were the three rules we had. There was a lot of freedom in there, but immediately you start thinking “Okay, well I want to play an old shaking hooker who’s really slutty.” The show was pretty mature. We have families come to all of our shows, and we have people come up and say “We used to watch the show with the kids. There was a lot of stuff that they didn’t understand, which was great.” So there was something there for the adults and the kids. We found a way to find that middle road where we could be sort of naughty but not disgusting.
In 2001, you guys had Robin Williams on the show as the fourth improviser with you, Wayne, and Ryan. He’s one of those guys that is just off and running, and you have to make a conscious effort to keep up with it seems. So what was that experience like for you?
It was probably one of the highlights of all of our careers. I think we all were big fans of Robin and he was someone that also sort of brought improv into the public consciousness. So when he joined us, as you say, we all have to be on our toes. The energy level alone made the energy bumped up 100 percent. He was so energetic and so into every scene. There were times where I was looking at him and going, “This is an Oscar winner who is playing with us.” It was fantastic, and not only from the professional side but personally he was just a very sweet man. He was one of those guys who knew the crews names immediately. He was filming out in Vancouver and he had to take a flight after the show back there, and he was saying “No, no. I want to finish doing this.” He was inspiring. He was always on, there was never a dip in the energy. And he treated all of us like equals which was amazing.
What improviser, living or dead, would you most want to work with?
Oh jeeze. I would have loved to have worked with Jonathan Winters. Steve Carrell, Kristen Wigg. There’s so many funny people who are so quick out there that I’d love to work with.
Were you reluctant to return to Whose Line at all when you first heard they were bringing it back?
I think we were all excited to do it again. We were very successful when we first started [the original U.S. version] as a summer series, and they put it after Drew’s show, which I think was the top ABC show at the time. Then they realized how cheap the show was, and so they put us up against Friends and Survivor, so we were going to get slaughtered in the ratings. But we still get recognized a lot by people. I feel like it could’ve been a bigger success than it was, even though I can’t really complain. My first show, my daughter was 2 months old, she’s now 28. We had a good run. And when it came back with Aisha, it was a chance to play with the guys again. And it only takes 2 weekends, so it’s not like it takes up a lot of our time. It leaves us free to go out and tour again and other projects.
Are you guys coming back for another season?
Yes. We are back this year, but because they have a surplus of episodes from last year, we don’t have to actually tape anymore. So hopefully we can come back next year.
You and Brad Sherwood are constantly touring. Are you someone who enjoys life on the road?
Yes and no. I love doing the shows, and I think that will always be a constant. Brad and I always have a great time. It’s the actual travel that sometimes gets you down. Going through security, the world is changing it seems every couple of weeks. That part gets tiring, But the actual being in a different city doing the show, usually in a lot of beautiful theaters, that part never gets old.
What do you want your legacy to be?
There are times as an improviser, I’d say most of the time, when you sort of downplay what you do. You just say “I’m going up with my friends and just being goofy and that’s my career.” And then so many people come up and say, “My dad was dying of cancer, we would watch the shows with him. It was a half hour we didn’t have to think about anything but laughing.” We’ve had so many of those stories of people coming up to us, after 9/11 some therapists were recommending watching Whose Line for the trauma. I’m proud of what we’ve done with Whose Line. I don’t know how they pitched it to get it on air. “Okay, we have a show. 4 people you don’t know will not have a show until the end of the taping. There’s nothing for you to see, they’re all going to make it up.” And somehow based on that, we’ve been running for 28 years.
To find out where to see Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood live, visit their at their website.