Colin Mochrie takes the old stage adage “life’s an improv” to a whole new level. He’s gone from Second City, to prime-time television, to sold out touring shows without ever writing down what he was going to say beforehand. In this interview we talked about his work on “Whose Line is it Anyway?,” his time at Second City, and his views on his life-long metier, improv comedy.
Kevin Sheil: I’ve heard some alumni of Second City who describe going in as being freshmen in high school and the main-stage actors are kind of like the senior class. And some people describe it as a big family where everyone’s in it together and supportive. Looking back on it–
Colin Mochrie: Sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh. It is like a big family, but it’s like a big dysfunctional family. It’s like anything else where you have a lot of people. There are some people who are incredibly supportive and there are others who are just dicks. But, it’s that thing where you learn how to work in that environment. It is one of the most stressful times. Not so much when you’re running the show, but when you’re putting up the show because there’s usually six performers–everyone’s trying to get their material on stage. It’s almost like going to war together. You’re in the trenches and you’re looking out for yourself but you’re also trying to keep your friends alive and sometimes it just doesn’t work out.
KS: That does kind of take us to where you first got involved with the British version of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” How did that come about?
CM: I was at Second City and the producers were doing a cross-continent audition. They were going to Toronto, Vancouver, Chicago, New York, and LA. And they came to the show I was in at Second City and they asked the cast to audition to them. They were leaving the next morning, so we had to audition at 8 in the morning, which is a horrific time for comedy. And because the cast had worked together for a while, everyone was being very supportive. No one stood out because we were doing what you’re supposed to be doing when you improvise; you support. So none of us got cast. Then, the next year we had moved up to LA. My wife had gotten a pilot sold. And they came through again. And because I didn’t know anybody I was auditioning with, it was like “Hey screw you, look at me.” So, a heartwarming story for all the young people out there.
KS: How did your experience working with the British version differ with the American version?
CM: The audience was probably a little more reserved than the American, but I’d find you’d get more interesting suggestions from them. A lot of the American audiences, we’d get a lot of pop culture where in Britain, they’d throw something like Charles II Advocation Speech at you and you’d go “okay.” And the censorship was the major difference. In Britain, you could do anything. I remember when we moved to America, there was a censor in booth for the entire run. Because there was no script to look at, they were sort of there to keep us on the straight and narrow. The first season we were doing it, they would actually stop us in the middle of a scene and say “can you make up something different?” And that would set Drew (Carey) off because he has a real button about censorship, so the next 20 minutes were unusable, because he would introduce every game as “Okay, now we’re gonna play cock-sucking arms” or something. It made it hard for us because we were never really sure where the line was. There was the obvious stuff–language–but then there were some things that I thought were really inoffensive that they bleeped, and made the audience think of things that were even worse. And then there were some things that they kept in and I thought “really?” It was very confusing so we kind of decided as a cast early on, we can’t really worry about it. We just have to make it up and if it gets on, it gets on.
KS: Do you have any memorable moments looking back at the show-times that you look back and think “well that was really good.”
CM: I don’t really remember a lot of it. That’s one of the curses of improv. It’s like, once it’s over, it’s like, gone. There have been times, when I’ll be flipping through and I see a “Who’s Line…” on and I’m watching it and I recognize none of the scenes. I recognize the scenes other people are doing that I haven’t been in, because I was actually watching them, but, the scenes I’m in–I have no recollection. Now having said that, there are a couple–the Richard Simmons scene kind of stuck. Because it was one of those that–as we were doing it–I thought “I’ve never heard a reaction like this.” It was just…wild. And in the final show edit, they actually cut out a lot of it–because the show had come to a stand still. It was just…and having to stand there for like 3 minutes with Richard Simmons at my crotch, it was just something you can’t erase from your memory.
KS: Nor should you.
CM: No. And then Sid Caeser was on the show and that was a great thrill because he was one of my comedy heroes so it was nice to have him on there. But the beauty of the show was that it took no time. It was three weekends out of the year. After one weekend it worked out that you had done 12 to 16 shows. It was fast and cheap.
KS: What was it like working with Sid Caesar? Sid Caesar came through, and he’s not the only one–a lot of people came through. Stephen Colbert, George Wendt, Robin Williams…Of all the guests that came through–on the American version it tended to be you, Ryan and Wayne–did you have any guests that you enjoyed working with?
CM: I’d have to say all of them. I’d say Sid Caesar was a special one because he was someone I really admired. Robin Williams was great. What I loved about him–he came on–and his energy was so high, it picked us up 150 percent. Florence Henderson was great. Richard Simmons was great. It was the guests who sort of came on and gave their all that were the most fun. It was because they were so in the spirit of the show and were there to give.
KS: What were your favorite and least favorite games to play?
CM: Well I would say Hoedown would be my least favorite.By the time we got to the last show, I think we’d done like 200-300 hoedowns. It was horrific. And my favorite game would change. There were times when you’d get into a rut with a game and it doesn’t really inspire you and then some game does for some reason. The one that was consistently my favorite was “Greatest Hits” just because I got a chance to sit down, which was nice, and then Ryan and I got to banter. There weren’t a lot of gimmicks to it. We could have fun together and then throw it over to the guys to sing and the songs were always amazing so, yeah, that was consistently my favorite game.
KS: You’ve said in interviews that the improvs on “Who’s Line…” were kind of adapted to work for TV, so it wasn’t the exactly the same as when you worked at places like Second City. What about your work at Second City did you miss when you were on “Who’s Line…?”
CM: The difference was on stage, you can take a lot more time setting up a scenario, setting up your character…With “Who’s Line…” it was pretty much…you had to have everything set up with your first line of dialogue and then it was just fast and schticky, whereas you could be a little more subtle in Second City, take a little more time, work on the character more, get more character laughs than goofy laughs. I understand why it had to be that way for television because everything has to be in three minute chunks, so you didn’t have the chance to just go on and on and I missed that.
KS: Since “Who’s Line” ended, even before that, you’ve appeared in a bunch of TV shows and films both in the US and Canada and you’ve also toured a lot, doing live shows. Which do you prefer?
CM: I prefer live shows. I love television and movies as a fan. It’s really hard working in that environment. I’m still shocked that “Who’s Line…” made it to American television, because I think the pitch was “It’s four guys you’ve never heard of, who don’t have a show. They make it up.” Based on that, I don’t know how they even got past the door. So many things go into making a show a hit or making a show a bomb. Depending on interference or help, you know, you have the producers, network directors, a lot of times the performers are sort of the last bit of the puzzle. What I love about doing live shows is, we succeed and fail on our own merits. We can’t blame someone if the show didn’t go well. We can’t say “well they cut my best part.” It was like no, it was my fault. So I liked having the responsibility of the shows and it’s just the most fun I have. Brad and I go out there, you know, we go do two and a half hours of just goofy fun. And it’s really hard to beat.
KS: Speaking of goofy fun, I’ve heard you describe a mousetrap game…If you cold just describe what that is for people who don’t know what that is and why you’d do that to yourself?
CM: Yeah, good question. It was actually Brad’s idea–we have the stage and there’s 100 live mouse traps set on it and we’re barefoot and blindfolded and we do a scene in the mousetraps. And it’s stupid, it’s basically just us hurting ourselves, but the audiences love it. We’ve tried to get it out of the show but people get upset. In addition to the 100 on the floor we’ve actually even started hanging like 20 from the ceiling, so it’s just…it’s stupid. It has no redeeming value. It’s rarely the best improv scene, but people just love seeing minor celebrities get hurt.
KS: What was it like working on Improvoganza?
CM: That was fun because I hadn’t seen everybody for a while. For me that show was just a reason to catch up with people like Greg and Jeff and Wayne. It was just odd because we were in front of a drunken audience every show.
CM: Yeah, I’m not a big fan of drunken audiences, but yeah the show was fun. What I really like about it was I didn’t work with Ryan all the time, who I enjoy working with and we have a good relationship, but on “Who’s Line…” we were in everything together and it was getting to the point where you’d think “haven’t we’ve made this up before?” So it was nice…I got to do things like musical games which I would never be allowed to do on “Who’s Line.” I got a chance to do things I’d never done before.
KS: I guess…talking about improv, what do you think are the most important factors for a good improvisation and for a good improviser to have.
CM: The big thing, and it seems to be the hardest thing because it goes against everything we do in life–you have to listen. Because all you have are your ideas and the people you’re working with. So they could throw something out that is, to them, some minor sentence and it could spark you to something that will take the scene in a whole different direction…The other thing is accepting and supporting what the people you’re playing with are doing. If you have a great idea and the person who you’re working with gets theirs out first, you have to immediately drop yours and support their idea. And that can be very hard to do, especially if you think “oh, well I’ve got the greatest idea in the world but oh…” You didn’t get it out. Those are the two things; being able to accept someone’s ideas and build on it and listening. And I guess having no shame would also be good.
KS: I saw your interview a few years ago on “The Wayne Brady Show” and you mentioned you would take your pants off in shows.
CM: Yes. That’s the no shame part. And then at some point you feel cheap and think “oh well that’s just easy laughs. I’m gonna try and keep my pants on for the entire show.” And then there would always come a time when I would say “no, the pants have to come off.”
KS: “This is happening.” You’ve been doing improvisation for a number of years now. Do you find that you have certain fallbacks. Maybe not jokes necessarily, but I guess certain styles, or do you always try and keep it fresh?
CM: One of the things Brad and I are always trying to do in our show is, we’ve found the show works best when we’re off balance and not secure. So we’re constantly coming up with new games that challenge us, trying to find ways of getting suggestions from the audience, suggestions that we’ve never heard before and suggestions that will throw us, because we find that’s when the survival instinct kicks in and you just go for it. You get really dangerous in improv when you try to start doing preconceived things or fall back on things because they tend to stick out as not improvised. I can’t tell you why. You just go “oh they’ve done that before.” We try to definitely keep off balance.
KS: A lot of the reason people like improvisation if because it’s like witnessing failure.
KS: It’s watching someone juggle who doesn’t actually know how to juggle. Which I guess might be the the mousetrap game in a nutshell.
CM: (laughs) yeah.
KS: One broad question. Looking back at your career and knowing what you know now, what do you wish you’d known when you were just starting out.
CM: Yeah, good one. I wish I’d known how much luck was apart of this career. I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career, starting with “Who’s line.” Improv is really my only skill. I have nothing else. It’s criminal how untalented I am, so the fact that this one show came along and sort of showcased me and gave me a career is incredibly lucky…It’s difficult to hear, but sometimes hard work doesn’t always pay off. You need the luck. I think everybody gets their lucky break at some point. The thing is, be ready for it. I was constantly, before “Who’s Line…” working in bars and small places doing improv, just keeping the skill set going. So, yeah, I kind of wish I could have relaxed more before I got into the career because really I had no control over what I could do. All I could do was be ready, have as much fun as I can, and hope for the best.
In the past, I’ve sometimes had trouble describing The Truth to people. The words “radio drama” can sound archaic, conjuring up ideas of pre-television soaps with novelty organ music, or detective stories with internal monologues that overuse the word “dame.” The new podcast The Truth is most definitely neither of these things. Every two weeks, the show brings us a new piece of audio fiction, ranging in genre from sci-fi, to comedy, to horror. Actors voice largely improvised performances in between the rigorous outlining and editing processes that go into making the show, giving The Truth a happy mix of spontaneity and calculation. In short, it’s difficult to describe because there’s virtually nothing else like it right now. It’s one of the few programs out there that can truly be called singular. Last week, I spoke with the show’s producer Jonathan Mitchell over Skype. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Brendan Bourque-Sheil: So I read that you had studied music composition in college.
Jonathan Mitchell: That’s right.
BB: So what were you focusing on at that time?
JM: The way I got into this was that I was writing a lot of music at University of Illinois, where I was going to undergrad. It was very Avant-garde, experimental, you know–learning composition mainly through studying late twentieth century classical music. Contemporary classical music I guess.
BB: So like Phillip Glass or Stephen…
JM: Stephen Reich, yeah. Actually I was particularly into sound mass composers like Xenakis and Ligeti. But I really lit up when I started taking a recording studio class. There was something about the immediacy of recordings and that sense of feedback that I just responded to. The idea of using recorded sounds and natural sounds as a musical element was really interesting to me. I learned the recording studio through studying the history of contemporary experimental electronic music, starting circa WWII I guess.
And so like all the early pieces that we did were using just the technology–or similar technology–that would’ve been available during a particular time period. One of the first pieces we did was a musique concrète piece, which was basically just taking sounds recorded in the natural world and manipulating them into a musical context. I really loved that idea. It made immediate sense to me. It made actually a lot more sense to me than a lot of the music I was being exposed to in school. It had a more visceral quality to it, without being traditionally musical in a tonal sense.
BB: What you’re describing sort of reminds me of a band called The Books. Do you know them?
JM: Oh yeah. Sure.
BB: Was it anything like that?
JM: Well it wasn’t so rhythmic. It was more like sound mass composers really. More like sound collage, but really musical sound collage. Like taking sounds and reversing them and slowing them down through effects, that kind of stuff. But as I worked more and more in this vein, I started using speech as a sound source and I really liked that the linguistic aspects could give meaning to the piece that were different than the sonic aspects, so you could have two levels of meaning to it. And so I started experimenting around with that and around the same time I was really interested in film–almost obsessed. And I wanted to take a film class at U of I. They only had one film class. I would sign up for it every semester and I wouldn’t get in. But I did have this recording studio access and so I thought “well maybe I’ll just make a movie without pictures” because that’s actually something I could do at the time. And this was about 1990-91 or so, so it was before making videos or films or even recordings was really accessible. You kind of had to have access to a studio in order to do a high quality recording. I had that and so I started to think maybe I could tell stories and use some of the vocabulary I’ve been learning about through electronic experimental music and apply it to storytelling.
So my masters thesis when I went to Mills College was essentially a radio drama, although I didn’t call it that at the time. I wasn’t really thinking of it in terms of radio drama. I was sort of young and idealistic. I thought of it more like an opera without singing; that’s what I called it. The idea was just to use spoken dialogue but set it in a way that emphasized the musical qualities of it and use sound and music and speech and storytelling and kind or combine them all into this sonic expression.
And so eventually I needed to get a job and I started working in radio because I had a lot of those skills already. And it’s a lot easier to make a living making documentaries in The United States. I was really interested in documentary too. The most interesting opportunities I was getting were usually documentary-based or somehow reality-based. So I just followed that for a while and always tried to do little radio drama things on the side and tried to explore it as much as I could. And over the course of the past ten or fifteen years or so, I’ve helped start three or four shows. I worked at Radiolab for a bit and that really matured my sensibility for what makes a good story. And I felt like I really wanted to do something that expressed my own sensibilities as a producer. I felt like radio drama was a good combination of the skills that I had to offer, so I went for it.
BB: You mentioned that Radiolab went into helping you figure out what makes a good story. With The Truth, because it can be such a unique program, it’s kind of hard to pinpoint what influences it creatively, but everybody has creative influences. What are some programs or some individuals who you look to when you’re creating The Truth?
JM: In terms of my true influences, probably filmmakers. Like, when I was a sophomore in college, the thing that made me want to do this in the first place was I saw Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Stephen Soderbergh, and that really changed my perception of what films could be, I guess. So Stephen Soderbergh is someone who’s always really been inspiring to me. And of contemporary filmmakers, I’d say Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite. I think he’s probably the best filmmaker working today.
In terms of radio, I think Joe Frank had a huge influence on a lot of what we call contemporary creative radio. Like he had this huge influence on This American Life and Radiolab and really the way that stories began being produced in a widespread way around 2000 or so, which is to kind of do things that are a little improv-based, using music in a particular kind of way. So that definitely had an influence on me. I guess also just working in music. Frank Zappa had a huge influence on me. I remember there was an album called We’re Only in it For the Money that I listened to constantly when I was in college. The way he edited things and manipulated sounds and was so free stylistically going from one genre to the next. He really was indiscriminate in terms of what kind of materials he considered using.
BB: You’re pretty indiscriminate too as far as genre is concerned. On The Truth, it’s everything from contemporary realistic fiction with a sort of comedic feel to people literally living underground. Are you making a conscious effort to use a lot of genres or is that just how it happens?
JM: It’s mostly just how it happens. I guess once we sort of notice that we’re doing a particular kind of piece a lot, we consciously try not to do that for a while. Like right now we’re trying to get away from sci-fi types of stories, because we were doing that a lot for a while. We don’t want the show to be defined by a particular genre. It’s always been very appealing to me to have the opportunity to experiment around with a lot of different story-telling approaches. I think it’s mainly driven by what I’m interested in and what the people who are part of our collaborative team are interested in.
One of the reasons why a lot of the stories are so different is just because they’re each being developed by a different person. We have a core group of maybe six or seven people and the way it’ll work is, someone will bring in an idea for a story and we’ll all brain storm what can be done with that idea. The next week, they’ll come in with an outline. And we’ll give feedback on the outline–talk about what’s working, what’s not. You know, maybe in their outline it will feel like “well the story doesn’t really start until the end, so let’s actually start at the end and develop a different ending.”–That kind of stuff. So we go through several rounds of that. And it usually takes about a month to get an outline to a point where we’re ready to record. So it’s being sort of developed by a particular person on the team who started with the idea. Like, the last story we did, it’s called “That’s Democracy.” That was Louis Kornfeld’s idea. He developed the outline and we all talked about it every week for about a month–a month and a half, until it was finished. I actually put a copy of it on the website so you can go see it on that page. But we added a lot through improv. We did a lot of development to the story when we recorded it and then as it got edited, so it was really being rewritten throughout the entire process.
BB: So there’s not really a stage where it’s like, “once it gets to this point, we stop changing it…”
JM: That stage is when it goes up to iTunes (laughs). It’s not done until it’s done. That’s part of it. What we’re making ultimately is a recording. We’re not making a script. We’re not making an outline. We’re making a recording, so we try to take advantage of all the opportunities that gives us in terms of how we can write the story.
BB: The episode “Total Transparency,” was completely improvised in one take and then just edited right?
JM: That’s right.
BB: You could’ve done more takes. You could’ve had people add things in. I’m sure it occurred to you at many times that things could’ve gone differently. Why did you choose to limit it to one take?
JM: That was an experiment to see if we could do that. We spent about three hours just improvising ideas. I think that day we maybe recorded four or five different stories and that was the one that really worked. It doesn’t always work to just do free improv. It usually doesn’t work actually. If it does work, it’s kind of luck (laughs), because improv is very different than storytelling. It has different sets of strengths than a written story. What we found is that in order to make a satisfying story, it almost always works better if you have an outline, and have thought through where the story’s going, what all the elements are, what the premise is, what the ending is. If you think out all that stuff in advance, it gives you so much more freedom to make interesting twists or to make it actually mean something at the end. Improv is much better in doing comedy–things that aren’t really reliant on story so much. So we come up with a story and then we apply improv to the story that we’ve written.
But that particular one, “Total Transparency” was just an experiment because the other thing was, I’m trying to keep the podcast pretty regular, like every two weeks. And some of the stories take a lot longer to do than others. The way I have it organized right now is that we’ll alternate it. We’ll do one story that’s a little more labor intensive and then the next podcast, I’ll try to do something that is pretty easy to do. Maybe that’s taking a piece that I’ve already done, or, in that case, I brought the actors into the studio like two days before the podcast needed to go up, so we didn’t really have time to rehearse it. I really needed to just have a story to put up. So that’s why I didn’t go back and change it or anything.
BB: Since you have people who are a lot of times improvising based on an outline and then–as you said–you have people who get assigned a story and then other people add to it, there’s a very collaborative feel to it. Do you prefer working collaboratively?
JM: Well there’s a lot of advantages to it. It’s faster. The ideas tend to be better because more people are contributing–you have a broader set of ideas to choose from. I’d say it works for this. It depends on what stage you’re talking about though. It’s not really a free-for-all. We’re collaborating in terms of generating ideas and trying to think through what this thing is, but ultimately, it all has to be funneled through an editing process in order to really be cohesive. So I’d say certain aspects of it are highly collaborative and certain aspects of it aren’t really so collaborative. It’s about finding an appropriate balance between those two.
BB: It’s knowing when to do it.
BB: How are you working with the people who you’re working with? Why, when you wanted to do this, did you come to them?
JM: I first met Ed Herbstman through Hillary Frank.There’s a long history to this, but I had produced a story for Weekend America and Hillary was my editor, and that story was called “Eat Cake.” I did it using some improvisers who I had seen perform in New York. I took improv classes at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater for about a year or so and started going to shows and was looking for people to work with. I saw a bunch of performers that I really liked who I thought would work on the radio really well. So I invited them into the studio and we tried to do a story and that’s what ended up being “Eat Cake.”
BB: And Eliza Skinner was working on that.
JM: Yes. She’s very, very talented, and very talented at musical improv too. Anyway, so that piece turned out nicely although Weekend America got cancelled. And the producer of it moved into a development position at APM and Hillary and I knew that he was looking for shows to develop and so we pitched him the idea of doing a fiction show because we all liked how that piece turned out. And he got us a little bit of money to produce a pilot–segments–and one of those was a piece called “Moon Graffiti” that was an alternate history of the moon landing and Hilary had met Ed a couple years earlier and I was looking for actors to play the astronauts. She suggested I talk to Ed. I met him for lunch and decided he could play Buzz pretty well.
And it turns out Ed is really, really good. He’s a really smart guy, a brilliant performer, and he runs a theater in New York called Magnet Theater. It’s an improv theater much like UCB that offers improv classes and has shows every night of the week.
And so we ended up working on a piece for This American Life together. That took a long time to do–longer than I had wanted to take–and as soon as we finished it, I just wanted to do something that took like a month. I wanted to do something very, very quickly. So I was talking to Ed about this and we talked about getting a group of performers together and meeting regularly and finding a way that we could do pieces much more quickly and use improv more in the development of stories. He knew lots of performers. He suggested a lot of people to me. I looked at them and together we formed a group of people who we thought, you know, their voices would work well on the radio in the way that I wanted and who were also good writers and improvisers. And we just started meeting every week. The performers, almost all of them perform at Magnet Theater regularly. And for different stories, we’ll need different kinds of actors for different characters. We kind of look around at who’s there and find people who would be good for it. And on a sort of ad hoc basis, we invite people to be in stories.
BB: Essentially what do you think is the responsibility of your show? What are you always striving to do?
JM: I guess to tell a good story. That’s pretty much it. I don’t want to waste peoples’ time (laughs). I want them to be good stories that people are glad that they heard and feel like-when they’re over–that it was time well spent. I mean, there’s other things I want to do, but that’s the broad agenda. I really like the idea of dramatic fiction. I like the idea of doing things that have a certain kind of authenticity to the performance style. I don’t like, for example, things that are too cartoonish. I like things to sound a little more realistic.
BB: The improv definitely helps with that. It makes the dialogue so organic.
JM: Yeah, that’s the idea. I think a lot of that is also how it’s edited too. It really needs to be tightly edited in order for that to work. Another big part of it is that I want to use sound in a really integral way to the way the story is communicated, in much the same way that filmmakers might think about how something can be cinematic. They think about visual storytelling. I think about aural storytelling.
BB: Making the most of the medium.
JM: Yeah, and making it more immediate so that ideas are communicated very efficiently and taking into account how people actually listen to things and what sound is really capable of communicating. I guess ultimately also, because my background is in music, I really think of what I’m doing as a musical form in a way, in that it has a rhythm. It’s a combination of sounds that are orchestrated to create a certain effect. So I really want to apply a kind of musical sensibility to what I’m doing and make the sound design and the music and the words and the story all work together and make something that’s fun to hear.
The podcast is available for free through Soundcloud and iTunes. To find out more, visit the show’s website at thetruthapm.com