Canadian comedian Colin Mochrie is best known for being a member of the seminal improvisation television program Whose Line Is It Anyway? The show was a hit in Britain, where Colin Mochrie first joined the cast. He later moved across the Atlantic to the American version of the show in 1998 and stayed with the ensemble until 2007. Whose Line fueled a generation of improv adoration, and it even proved so popular postmortem that CW revived it earlier this year.
Mochrie and Whose Line cast member Brad Sherwood are brining their two-man improvisational comedy show, “An Evening With Colin and Brad,” to the Wilbur Theatre on Nov. 2.
In advance of the show, Mochrie spoke with Lucien Flores for an interview with The Daily Free Press.
LF: You recently wrote a book (Not Quite The Classics). How was it trying to be funny in the written word versus being funny in an improv environment? Was the process difficult or did you find it quite easy?
CM: No, it was horrific. It was much harder. With improv we’re basically playing off each other and making up stuff and…we set up this world where no matter what we do, it makes sense in that scene. If you try to transcribe it and act it as a sketch, it probably won’t work. With writing a book, you’re by yourself — you don’t have anyone to throw your ideas against. It’s just you and you don’t get that immediate reaction of a laugh when you write something funny. When you do improv you can see, ‘oh, the audience likes that, they laughed.’ But with a book, you’re just hoping that, while I find it funny, I hope that the rest of the world does.
LF: Was it rewarding when you actually finished it? Was that more rewarding than coming off the stage at the end of a performance? Was it nice to get that sense of completion?
CM: Yeah, it was. It was the first time I started something and actually finished it…because I had to. I was proud and very happy with the way the stories turned out. I wasn’t sure how it was going to work but it all came together very well. There is such a sense of satisfaction when you spent months honing each story, so I was satisfied and very glad when it was over.
LF: You’re on tour right now with Brad. What do you like most about performing with Brad that you might not get with performing with other people?
CM: It’s just that we’re both good friends. We’ve known each other for over 20 years so there’s a real trust, which is really important in improv because all you really have is yourself and that person. It makes it much easier if you just trust that person. I may not know where Brad is going in a scene but I trust him enough to follow and see what happens. After you’ve worked with someone for a long time, like Ryan [Stiles] or Brad, there’s just shorthand in the work and it makes it easier. It makes it fun.
LF: Do you have to stay mentally limber for improv? Do you do any pre-performance rituals or do you feel comfortable going up on stage without preparing much?
CM: Brad and I have been doing this for 11 years and we found that the show works best for us when we’re totally out of our comfort zones. Basically what we do is we just walk out on stage with absolutely nothing and then it’s up to the audience to make a show. The toughest part of our job is to make sure you just go out there with no pre-conceived ideas. You’re just really working with the people that you’re working with, using the audience suggestion and hoping it comes together.
LF: Sometimes you guys might bring an audience member or two up on stage. What is it like working with an audience member who might not be the most talented improviser? Is it a challenge? Do you have to work harder to make it work?
CM: Yeah, I mean we’re always working hard. The thing about bringing an audience member up is that if they’re great then it helps the scene. And if they’re not great, we find a way to help use that in the scene too. So it really is a no lose situation. It does make it harder when they’re completely at sea and nervous and it’s part of Brad and my job to make sure that the audience is as relaxed as they can be in this totally foreign atmosphere because they’re there to help us. We’re not there to make fun of them or belittle them — we’re there to actually support them and help them help us.
LF: I also noticed that you’ve been doing a few duo shows. You’ve done some with Brad, you perform with your wife [Debra McGrath], you have a web series with Patrick McKenna, and I think a lot of Whose Line fans might think of you and Ryan Stiles as a duo. Do you enjoy working in a pair more or is it something that has coincidentally happened a lot?
CM: It’s just sort of worked out that way. We’ve gone on tours with all the Whose Line guys. Of course that’s fun because you get to work with different people throughout the night but it’s also nice to have that challenge of two people just trying to do a show. You know, we don’t have Drew [Carey] there stopping the scene, that’s up to us. He’s not the one giving us the suggestions — again, that’s up to us. And there are a limited amount of games just for two people so we eventually had to adapt games and invent new ones so it’s been an exciting creative process.
LF: How is it now that Whose Line is back? Was it easy to transition because you had been working with or going on tour with some of the cast members? Or was there quite an adjustment period to get back in the swing of things?
CM: Ryan said it was like we just took a really long lunch break. It’s the same studio. A lot of the same crew. A lot of the same staff. So it was really just like coming home again. There’s always that worry of trying to recapture something that went so well the first time around but from day one when we just started working together, it felt so natural. We just fell into that groove again. The biggest thing really was having Aisha [Tyler] host and that was probably the biggest adjustment because everyone was being polite with each other the first couple of days. But we quickly got into insulting each other and having fun with that.
LF: Do you tend to watch the show and watch your own performances? What sort of feelings do you get? Are you amazed at the things that you guys came up with? Are you embarrassed at times?
CM: Absolutely embarrassed when I see myself. I don’t usually watch stuff. When I’m switching the channels I’ll see something and think, ‘my God, that’s embarrassing.’ I do enjoy the other guys. Ryan always makes me laugh. Wayne [Brady] is amazing. Brad and Greg [Proops]. I’m really proud of what the show has accomplished. I think it was probably a hard sell for network executives to hear, ‘alright here’s the show: you have four guys …they don’t really have a show. They’ll make it up in front of you.’ The fact that it actually got on to television still amazes me. I’m quite proud even though I’m embarrassed about what I do.
LF: Are you still amazed by the reaction the show gets?
CM: It’s been really great. When we were on the air, we were up against Friends and Survivor. We were getting killed all the time in the ratings. A lot of people have seen the show and we noticed…our audiences were getting younger. All these kids that weren’t born when the first show came out are catching up with it on YouTube and loving it. When we did our first taping on the CW I think it even surprised the CW executives that the entire studio audience was under the age of 25. They were a little worried that we were a little too old for their network. I think we showed them that if somebody thinks that something is funny, it doesn’t really matter how old the person is who’s doing it.
LF: Do you get nervous anymore before performing or have you done it so many times that you’ve gotten over those nerves?
CM: No and I hope that never happens. I don’t think there can ever be a time when you go out and go, ‘alright, I know exactly what’s going to happen here. Everything’s going to go smoothly.’ You can’t. I have managed to whittle it down to five minutes before the show where I’m nervous. You think, ‘there’s an audience out there who has paid money to see a show and we really don’t have one.’ Once you hit the stage, all of that goes away and it’s just fine.
LF: As a comedian, do you find that people expect you to be funny all of the time? Does that ever creature pressure for you that you might have to perform even outside of a show?
CM: It’s certainly not bad in my circle of friends because I have a lot of funny friends so I have no pressure to be funny. I tend to be quieter anyway. I feel much more comfortable listening to people. When I meet the general public or fans of the show, I always feel like I’m disappointing them because I can’t do jokes really. All my comedy comes from working with people and building on scenes. There’s always that awkward pause where we’re just staring at each other.
LF: You said that you tend to be more comfortable listening and I’ve seen an interview where you said you consider yourself a somewhat shy person. How did people react when you were starting your career? Was your family surprised by how well you were able to perform on stage even though you’re a somewhat shy person?
CM: I think the people that knew me, like my close friends and my family, weren’t that surprised because I always had a sense of humor. I was just not comfortable with social interactions. On the stage all bets are off. I feel incredibly comfortable there. I’m always on stage with people I totally trust. I know exactly what I’m doing. I feel confident in what I can do. I just don’t have those things in real life.
LF: People seem to turn towards humor to cheer them up when they’re feeling down. What’s something that you turn to cheer you up?
CM: I feel happiest when I’m at home with my wife and son. We have a really nice family dynamic. We have a lot of fun together. We’re about to celebrate our 25th anniversary and we’re gonna go to Italy for two weeks. That will make me very happy. I love going there and, of course, there’s great food and great wine. It’s not something I can do every time I’m down…go to some foreign country and drink their wine. I find just being with my family really does buoy me up.
LF: Is there a favorite part of Italy for you?
CM: We’re big museum buffs. We like to walk around the city and get lost and see where life takes us. We’re adventurous that way. We love to travel and we love new experiences. We’ve been to the Congo and we’ve gone to Belgium and France. Every place we’ve gone to, we’ve just had a great time. We never really planned anything — we just see where the day takes us.
LF: Have you ever been recognized in an unlikely place?
CM: When we were in Italy the last time, there were a lot of American tourists so I got recognized there. I got recognized by this Italian man who told me he learned English by watching Whose Line. I thought, ‘hmm that could be a little suspect.’ He used to tune in on this station in Italy that broadcasts the show and from that he learned his English. That was a little odd.
LF: That’s pretty amazing to learn English from a show that might not make sense…
CM: I know, I know, I can only imagine what kind of things he was saying.
LF: There are a lot of TV shows and movies that use a form of improv to develop stories. Shows, such as Curb Your Enthusiasm, might have a lot of improv in it. Are you a fan of those?
CM: I am a big fan. I was a big fan of all the Christopher Guest movies and Curb. It seems to add another layer of reality to it when it’s improvised. These people aren’t just spouting lines — they’re actually connecting with each other and coming up with a scenario. It has more of a real life feel to it. …Little things like people talking at the same time or laughing at something somebody said because they’re surprised by it. It becomes more conversational.
LF: What do you see as the major differences in humor between Canada, the UK, and the US?
CM: There aren’t a lot of differences behind the actual humor. It’s more references. All of the references are different. Americans tend to be more physical whereas Britain tends to rely on more verbal wordplay. Canada has a melt of both of them in a nice way. I think the bottom line is that it comes down to, if it’s funny, it’s funny. It doesn’t matter who produces it.