Colin Mochrie talks 'Whose Line Is It Anyway?,' Harold Ramis, Sid Caesar, the art of improv and more
Best known for his work on the long-running improv show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Colin Mochrie said he still follows modern improv, including in his current home of Toronto.
“It’s great to get involved with that because it keeps you on your toes,” the Scottish-born, Canadian-residing comedian said by phone. “One of the worst things you can do in improv is get comfortable.”
Yet Mochrie is part of a two-decade improv institution in Whose Line Is It Anyway? Starting on the original British show in 1991, he became a mainstay of the American version with Drew Carrey, and returned for the 2013 CW reboot with Aisha Tyler.
During the hiatus, he appeared on similar programs like Drew Carey’s Improv-A-Ganza and live performances, including one with fellow Whose Line? performer Brad Sherwood. The duo’s current tour includes a stop at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on Sunday.
In an interview, Mochrie discussed Whose Line Is It Anyway?, his time at Second City and the recently departed Sid Caesar and Harold Ramis. Here are excerpts.
Although both are in front of a live audience, what do you find is the difference between performing on Whose Line Is It Anyway? and these non-televised shows?
It’s more relaxed onstage in a way. With television, everything has to be done in a three- or four-minute segment, so you just jump into the middle and get your shtick out and then you’re done. Whereas onstage, when you get time finding the comedy in every part, we can take times building character. So our scenes tend to go on a little bit longer than they do on Whose Line? Also, the live show’s even more interactive with the audience than the TV show is. Every scene starts with a suggestion from the audience, we have audience members onstage with us. So it truly is an interactive show.
When you first started out in comedy, was stand-up or acting in film ever an interest, or has it always been improv?
Stand-up, never — to me, that’s the scariest of all the comedic arts. I don’t know how those guys do it and God bless them for doing it. But yeah, I never had any interest in stand-up. Yeah, I would’ve loved to have done films — every once in a while, I still do. But improv I think is where I have the most fun. Even after I’ve been doing it for over 30 years now, I still look forward to going to work. So I’ll keep doing it until I’m dead.
You were at Second City for a while. Who was there with you in your class?
Well, Ryan Stiles, we’d moved out together from Vancouver and he was in Second City, he got me an audition. So there was him — you probably wouldn’t recognize anyone at all, it was all Canadians. Mike Myers had just left the main stage. It was a really good group of people still working in the business and doing quite well.
Were you a fan of any of the Second City folks before you started, the SCTV folks?
Oh, absolutely, SCTV was a big influence in my early comedic career, I loved all those guys. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve managed to get to work with all of them. They’re just amazing people and pioneers in sketch comedy. So yeah, they were a big influence.
And were you a fan of the Second City actors in Chicago — the Saturday Night Live folks, Harold Ramis?
I was definitely a big fan of Harold’s movies, Caddyshack and all of them. He of course was on SCTV the first couple of years and it was him who shaped the direction it was going in. He had a major influence on how that show went. And I still remember the first year of Saturday Night Live, how it was a breath of fresh air and this kind of dangerous comedy. Sketch, like standup, is one of the hardest things to do well, and the fact they’ve been doing it for over 30 years is amazing.
Speaking of late, great comedic minds, what was it like working with Sid Caesar on Whose Line is It Anyway?
If someone had come up and said, “Okay, your career has to stop right now,” I would’ve gone, “Great, fine,” because it was such a thrill to work with him. Again, someone I was a big fan of when I was growing up. The fact that he and his group of actors and writers did a 90-minute live show every week is just amazing, so the fact I got a chance to actually improvise with him was amazing. It truly was one of the highlights of my life and my career.
What is the experience like working on something like Whose Line Is It Anyway? that’s been on for several decades and several different versions now?
It’s bizarre — it’s bizarre that it keeps coming back. Of course, I’m very happy that it does because I work. But the best part about it is it doesn’t take a lot of intense work. We shoot maybe three weekends out of the year. At this point, we’ve all worked together for almost 20 years, so we know each other really well. It’s such a nice, fun job that it seems almost criminal to be getting paid for it. It’s the same production company, the same producers, there’s a lot of people working in the offices and on the set who have been there since the beginning. So it has a really nice family feel to it — it’s like every ten years, we have a family reunion. Again, hopefully that keeps working out.
How is Aisha Tyler as a host compared to the show’s other ones?
Clive Anderson, who started it in England, was your almost stereotypical British host — he was acerbic, very witty, loved to get into a war of words with Greg Proops. Drew was more your typical American, he was kind of your everyman, gave as good as he took. But Aisha, she has so many different parts to her. She’s beautiful, works all the time, but she’s also a big nerd — she’s into Game of Thrones, comic books, video games. She’s almost like the perfect woman. So for us, we’re still trying to find ways of hacking on her because it’s hard when she’s sort of your dream woman.
It’s still ongoing, but what do you think Whose Line is It Anyway?’s legacy will be in the history of improv comedy?
I think it sort of put improv out into the public consciousness. I always tell people, “Please don’t think Whose Line? is the be-all and end-all of improv.” I always thought of it as an introduction to improv — almost vaudeville improv because it is shticky because of the medium it’s on. But hopefully it’ll introduce people to long-form and Harold and specific kinds of improv throughout the country and even in your community. It got kids out there doing it — people started getting excited about improv. Once Whose Line? started, improv groups started popping up in colleges, elementary schools, families started improvising together. I hope it’ll be a happy legacy.
-- Jimmy Geurts, tbt*