Interview with Colin Mochrie

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 laughs)

 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.

(laughs)

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.

(laughs)

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.

KS: Really?

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.”

(laughs)

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.

CM: Yes.

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.

(pause)

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.

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