Interview by: Dustin Yenser
Like many improv comedy performers of my generation, I grew up watching “Whose Line is it Anyway” on endless repeat on Comedy Central. No matter how many times I’d seen an episode before I loved watching the improvisers come up with their jokes and characters on the spot, feeling like they also had no idea what was going to happen next. My love of improv led me to help start a series of improv comedy nights through the Drama Dept at Emmaus High School, join Penn State’s premier improv comedy team, Full Ammo Improv, and take improv classes anywhere I could find them. I even had a short career as a professional improviser with the Associated Mess and other Lehigh Valley-area troupes. Improv performance has been a huge part of my life and I owe a lot of the inspiration to “Whose Line” and performers like Colin Mochrie.
Colin was always one of my favorites. I loved his ability to really think on his feet and keep the audience’s suggestion at the front of the performance. Some improvisers rely on slapstick and impressions, which are certainly funny in their own way, but I always think the biggest challenge is staying focused on the audience’s suggestion and letting the comedy flow through an exploration of the topic. Colin is one of the best. He and partner Brad Sherwood are bringing their two-man (plus audience!) show to the State Theatre in Easton next month on Friday, October 13. I recently had the chance to interview Colin about the show and his career as a performer. Here is our conversation:
Dustin: Hello, this is Dustin Yenser with the Valley Ledger, a local online news source for The Lehigh Valley. Thank you for making time for us today. I cover performing arts for The Ledger but I honestly don’t have a lot of experience as an interviewer, so if it’s okay with you I’m just going to make it up as I go along.
Colin: Dustin, sometimes I think that’s the best thing to do.
Dustin: Great. For our readers who may not be familiar with improv comedy, what can they expect from “Scared Scriptless?” Would fans of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” recognize some of the games?
Colin: Yes, I like to call our show “Whose Line” without the dead weight. We do a lot of those games but also with audience members onstage as well. And it’s all based on suggestions from the audience.
Dustin: For our readers who might really want to have one of their suggestions used, what’s the secret to getting a suggestion accepted.
Colin: Keep it interesting. Any time we ask for an occupation we always get, “Proctologist! Gynecologist!” and we’re never going to take that. Try to think of something creative that we might not have heard of before. At one show a woman suggested “The person who waits for calls from people trapped in elevators.”
Dustin: How did your time at Second City help you grow as a performer? Did you have any particular mentors or classes that helped you grow?
Colin: Just getting out there and doing improv was a huge help. At Second City the first two acts of the show-it’s scripted pieces that you’ve come up with, then the last third it’s all improv and using that improv to come up with different scene ideas and seeing how it works. So it was great just to be able to improvise every night because it truly is a muscle that needs to be exercised. And it also-you know at Second City you quickly find out where your strengths and where your weaknesses are, so for me I had, I never felt easy talking to audiences. So during the improv set I would say to the cast members, “You know if you need someone to sort of waste a little time while you’re getting costumes ready or whatever, I’ll go out and do that.” So by doing that I learned to sort of connect with audiences and entertain and not be so scared to do it. So it really was a great learning experience for me.
Dustin: Great. So on that subject you had mentioned kind of being nervous about talking to the audiences in that way. What advice would you have to a younger person who’s maybe interested in trying theatre but has that feeling of stage fright?
Colin: I’m trying to think. Because I was a very shy-and still am fairly shy, I mean because of the success of “Whose Line” I’ve had to come out of my shell a little bit, but for me I found theatre was a place where I felt safe in because I knew the beginning, middle, and end of whatever the story was going to be. I was working with people I trusted and was confident with…so I would just say “Do it.” So often we stop ourselves from doing things for no reason other than we’re afraid we’re going to be embarrassed or afraid we’re going to fail. For me, it’s always worse not to do something as opposed to failing. At least if you’ve failed it means you’ve tried. And from failure you can always learn something. When you fail at something it’s always an opportunity to teach you something. So just take a deep breath and jump in there, just jump in the pool and do it.
Dustin: Sounds good, I like that advice myself. You had mentioned doing theatre and that you might know the beginning, middle, and end, but obviously with improv that’s not always the case. Did you start out with more traditional scripted plays in school before you jumped over into improv?
Colin: Yeah, I mean when I was going through school improv wasn’t a thing at all. So I was at theatre school and there was an evening a friend of mine was doing a play reading. And part of the evening was this improv thing and I saw that and thought “Oh that looks like it would be fun,” and got into that and quickly found that I had an affinity for it and just worked from there. But I’ve been very fortunate I’ve been able to go back and forth. I mean I do the tour with Brad but a couple years ago I did “King Lear” where I played The Fool, me and all these (laughing) Stratford Actors. So I’ve had a chance to be able to do scripted stuff too. I mean I do love the improv because all the onus is on us, all the responsibility. You know if the show goes well it’s because we’ve done well; if it sucks it’s because we sucked. Whereas you know in theatre and in television and in movies you have so many other people from executives to directors, producers, so sometimes it doesn’t always work in your favor.
Dustin: Yeah. You had mentioned with improv feeling that the onus is on the performers, on the actors. In your growth as a performer, when did you feel the first project or the first show that you really created yourself, that this show, this performance wouldn’t exist without me, they can’t just recast it because I made it? Do you ever have that feeling about a show that you’ve created?
Colin: Well, only the “Colin and Brad Show,” only because my name’s in the title. And even then they could get anyone else and just change the name. I mean, “Whose Line” again, everyone’s kind of replaceable. You know people always say “You guys are the show,” and it’s like, well because you’ve gotten to know us. But if there were four totally different improvisers, just as skilled, then those are the people you would be loving. I’m trying…there’s a show I created with my wife for Canadian television, and I think that one we were kind of both irreplaceable on, it was called “Getting Along Famously.” So it’s also nice to know we were producers on that also so we had all the responsibility.
Dustin: How is this show, “Scared Scriptless,” with just you and Brad different than in a larger cast like “Whose Line” where there’s four people or even more, how does that dynamic change when it’s just the two of you?
Colin: I mean with a bigger cast you have little rest periods where you can recharge and this we’re onstage the entire two hours; no one’s spelling us off. So it really is-it’s a great mental workout. I think we both-we’re both kind of stage hogs anyway so it’s good for us to be there all the time. Like I say, it is a muscle and the more you do it-I’m still learning about improv even though I’ve been doing it for 40 years. But there’s never a time where I’m walking out on stage with Brad or anyone thinking “Okay, I know what’s going to happen, it’s all going to be great…” because sometimes it still isn’t so it just really hones my senses so I just focus on listening to my partner and take it from there.
Dustin: You had mentioned working with your wife to create the show “Getting Along Famously” for Canadian TV and I know that you were honored with the John Candy comedy award, so I have to ask, is it true that Canadians are just funnier than Americans?
Colin: Well…that won’t get me into trouble, will it? I think we’re in a unique position in that we got a lot of the great comedy from America, we got a lot of great comedy from Britain and we understood both points of view and we sort of melded it into our own sort of skewed viewpoint. So I would say maybe per capita we’re funny. I mean we’re much smaller. So I might say that. I mean Americans are funny, let’s face it…from time to time. But I have to go with Canadians because I’m Canadian!
Dustin: Do you have any favorite improv games or setups that you feel like if it’s that game you’re confident you’re always gonna have fun with it?
Colin: Yeah, the one I’ve been having the most fun with right now is the one that I’m least confident. We have a game that involves music and I am not a singer.
Dustin: I’m not either.
Colin: I enjoy it because it fills me with fear and every time I get through it I feel like I’ve won a major battle of some sort. I always look forward to it with great anticipation, a little bit of fear, and it’s been a great time.
Dustin: Great, I’m glad to hear that. Do you have, as a performer, do you have any warmups or routines or rituals that you do to prepare before you go onstage?
Colin: No. I wish I had some incredible warmup routine, but basically it’s just relaxing so that I feel confident walking out onstage with Brad with nothing and making that seem like “Yeah, that’s fine!” Oof, what a workout!
Dustin: For me I usually just make sure I have nothing in my pockets so I don’t drop it.
Colin: Yeah, and checking your fly is always important.
Dustin: What is the kindest thing that another performer has ever done for you onstage?
Colin: Oh! Um…I can’t think of specifics, but I can tell you Ryan Stiles, my longtime friend, is-and this is something I learnt from him as an improviser-he gets as much pleasure setting you up for a joke and having you do it correctly, as he does getting the laugh himself, and for me that’s an incredibly kind act. You know, your ego does get in the way at times and you do want to get that laugh, but he taught me that it truly is an ensemble and you do get as much satisfaction setting up someone for a laugh and them getting it.
Dustin: That’s very nice. To go along with that, do you know of any times that you feel you really helped out a fellow performer, like maybe they were losing the thread a little bit and you kind of saved the day?
Colin: Oh, all the time with Brad! He’s basically useless. I can’t think of any particular one. I try to play a lot with different improv troupes. Partly to help them get some focus but also it’s really good for me to work with people I don’t know because that does get me back to the basics of improv of listening and accepting and not making any assumptions. So I’ve been really fortunate and I’ve worked with great companies around the world and had a chance to work with great improvisers that people wouldn’t know because they don’t have a TV show. So if I can get any focus just to improv in general I’d like people to know it’s more than just “Whose Line.” People are constantly coming up with new ways of exploring improv and different styles and platforms. Yeah, that’s kind of been my focus, sort of getting the word out there.
Dustin: What was it like for you and your wife as funny parents? Did your daughter think you were funny growing up or were you just “dad”?
Colin: Well, I mean, we are very amusing, so she does find us funny. I mean, I think for awhile her favorite performer on “Whose Line” was Greg Proops, which ,you know, was disappointing. She has a great sense of humor too and a great laugh. Humor was a very big part of her upbringing. I mean I still do dad jokes which I get the eye roll but, I don’t know, it makes me proud too at the same time.
Dustin: I know you and Brad have come through Easton, the Lehigh Valley area a few times before. Have you ever spent any time just exploring Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton, this area, or do you have any experiences here outside of just performing?
Colin: I don’t think so. I think Bethlehem is a place where we actually managed to spend a day. It was around Christmas so it was just going around to the shops and doing some last-minute Christmas shopping but usually we get in, we do a sound check, do the show and then we leave the next morning and never really get a chance to see the place but I’m hoping that changes a little more.
Dustin: Yeah, it is nice to get out and see the place from time to time. So I just want to thank you again for taking the time to talk to us at The Valley Ledger. Have a good afternoon and a great show!
Colin: You too, take care!
After years of being a fan, I got to talk to one of my favorite improvisers. You can’t make that up.
Information about Colin’s upcoming show at the State Theatre and to get tickets visit https://statetheatre.org/events/colin-mochrie-brad-sherwood-7