- - Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Fans of improv comedy will instantly recognize funnyman Colin Mochrie, who for six years starred alongside Drew Carey, Ryan Stiles and Wayne Brady on the top-rated “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”

The laugh-out-loud show returns to TV this Friday on a new network, CW, and will feature Mr. Mochrie along with Mr. Stiles, Mr. Brady and funnylady Aisha Tyler. The Canadian comic talked about his start at Second City and the worst live gig ever.

Question: How do you pronounce your last name?

Answer: “Mockery”?

Q: With that name, do you feel like you were destined to be in comedy?

A: Does seem that way, doesn’t it? It just worked out.

Q: Who were your comedy heroes?

A: So many. Buster Keaton. Charlie Chaplin. Jack Benny. Dick Van Dyke. I was a big Bob Hope fan [and of] his early movies with Bing Crosby. Monty Python. Jonathan Winters. Sid Caesar, who actually did “Whose Line.” That was pretty cool. Robin Williams. Anyone who made me laugh, I just sort of studied them and stole their best stuff.

Q: What first got you into comedy?

A: In high school, my plan was to become a marine biologist. I was heavily into science. A quiet, shy type. A friend of mine dared me to go out for the school play, and I got it. And I got my first laugh. That was pretty much it. Game on.

Then I went to theater school. Did the acting thing and saw a demonstration of improv. I thought, “That looks easy. You don’t have to learn anything.” This was in Vancouver, and it became a huge cult thing. The theater let us go on after the main show. Within months, it became this huge success with people lining up around the block to see it. Things kept going from there. I never thought this would become my career. It was just something I loved doing.

Q: Was the appeal of improv really because you didn’t have to memorize jokes or learn lines?

A: It came more naturally for me. And I prefer working with a group. I figured, if you’re going to die, die with friends rather than alone. [laughs] It is the closest thing I’ll ever get to the feeling of jumping out of a plane. It is exciting standing in front of an audience who are expecting a show, and you don’t have one.

Q: When you step out on stage, do you have an outline or skeleton of what you’re going to do?

A: It depends on the show. With Brad [Sherwood] and I, we tour together and we have a list of improv games. That is all we have — a bunch of cards, and we ask the audience to pick. Whatever suggestion we get, that is what we use for that scene.

I work with another group in Toronto, and we do one-act improvised plays based on a playwright. We’ve done Pinter and Chekhov, which is also a lot of fun and different. What I love about improv is people coming up with different ways of doing it — long form, short form. It’s exciting.

Q: You trained at Second City in Canada, as did “Whose Line” co-star Ryan Stiles, yes?

A: Yes. Last century. [laughs] [In] the late ‘80s, Ryan and I were in the same company. We had grown up together in Vancouver. He was the one who got me into Second City. He had moved to Toronto and called me and said, “There is an opening in the touring company. Come and audition?” So I did. And the woman who auditioned me became my wife. Worked out beautifully. My entire life was Second City for a while.

Q: Second City launched a lot of comedy careers, like John Belushi and John Candy. Was it competitive?

A: It was Canada, so we weren’t really competitive. [laughs] We were all happy. I was in a really good group, both in the touring company and main stage. There was a little competition between Toronto and the Chicago Second City, which I think is gone now. Now it is like the mafia.

The people that have gone through always surprise me. People you expect like Tina Fey, but then you have people like Ed Asner and Alan Arkin. Heck of a training ground.

Q: How did the original version of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” come about?

A: It started with the British version. I got hired for that in 1990. Best gig ever. They would fly us over to London, give us a bunch of money for per diem. Every year they would say, “I don’t think this is going to get renewed.” Then the next year they would call and say, “We have money.” I thought, “Wow, I love showbiz! This is what it is like all the time.”

The producer had always wanted to do an American version. At that point, Ryan was on “The Drew Carey Show” on ABC. Drew was a fan of the show. On his say-so, they got the show happening. It then became this big success.

Q: Why did it end?

A: The network moved our time slot against “Friends” and “Survivor.” We still made money as a show, because the show is so incredibly cheap to produce. But we got trounced in the ratings. [I’m] surprised it lasted as long as it did — six years.

Q: What has changed about the new version?

A: The collective ages of our cast is older than the entire lineup of the CW. [laughs] Mark Pedowitz, the president [of CW], was part of ABC when we did “Whose Line” there. He always wanted to bring it to the CW, so when he got the chance, he did. The new show may be a little more lax censorshipwise. Aside from that, it is the same sort of setup. More guests. Nothing against the guests, and they have always done great, and been very committed, but I find it kind of a dis to the fourth improviser.

Q: With the guests, do they try to shoehorn a young face in with you guys?

A: They are usually from CW shows, but we’ve also had Penn & Teller. A lot of the guests I don’t know. I just look surprised and happy.

Q: Is it harder to work with guests who are not at the same skill level?

A: Part of our job is to make the guest feel comfortable and to work them in. It is like when we bring audience members up. If the audience member is great, that’s great. If they suck, that also can help us.

Q: Who was the best celebrity guest ever on “Whose Line?”

A: One of the funniest scenes we ever did was with Richard Simmons, who is not known as an improvisor. He was committed and ready to do it. Which is all you can ask for.

Q: Plus he was rocking the dolphin shorts and tank top.

A: Yeah. Oh yeah.

Q: Who else will show up?

A: Greg Proops still does it. Keegan-Michael Key has done a couple [of episodes]. [Plus] Gary Anthony Williams and Heather Allen Campbell. We only use people with three names now. [laughs]

Q: Do you have a middle name?

A: No, I’m too established. I hope to get down to just the one name: Colin. Like Cher.

Q: There is also a touring version of “Whose Line?” with Greg [Proops] and Joel Murray?

A: And Ryan [Styles] and Jeff Davis.

Q: Is that associated with the show?

A: No. It’s kind of a rogue way of touring — using the name without using the name for legal reasons. We have all toured in various combinations. I did one with Ryan, Greg, Brad and I with Jeff Davis. We went across Canada. Ryan doesn’t fly, which is a touring problem. If he does fly, he can only fly for a two-hour stint. Ends up taking five flights to get to Rhode Island.

Q: You are also touring as a two-man show with Brad Sherwood.

A: The format is pretty much the same. Some games familiar to “Whose Line?” people. Because it is only the two of us, we use the audience more. It’s been great. We have been doing it for 12 years. What I love about it is some of our scenes can go 20 minutes. On TV, everything is three minutes if you’re lucky. It’s nice to be able to make the comedy cow dry. I’m not good with metaphors.

Q: You’ve done thousands of live shows at this point. Do you remember the best and worst shows ever?

A: You rarely remember the best. We’ve had a lot of good shows. When we did the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, it wasn’t the best, but it was fun.

The worst ones are usually corporate gigs, because the people are there to win awards. And to drink. They don’t really want to be entertained. The best you can do when you get out of a corporate gig is to say, “Hey, that wasn’t too bad.” We had one where we were hired by GE. They said, “First, you’re going to do a 20-minute show for 25 executives. Then you’re going to teach them an improv class. Then, here’s the surprise! They don’t know about this, [but] you’ll take them out to Times Square, and they will do a show at rush hour.”

We said, “How do we make them do that? We have no power over them.” They said, “Oh, no, they’ll do it.” And God bless them, when we said, “Now we are going up to Times Square and do a show,” they said OK. It went well, surprisingly.

Q: I read that your big-screen breakthrough should have been in “Man on the Moon” but you were cut out of the film?

A: That was my Hollywood moment. My agent was contacted by the casting director for the movie. I went to meet her. She said, “I don’t know who you are, but my assistant loves the improv show you do, and, hey, Milos Forman is doing a movie. There might be a part in there for you.” She picks up the phone, calls Milos Forman, and I hear, “OK, OK, OK.” Hang up and sends me right from there to meet him.

I’m driving over and have no idea what the part is. I walk in, met him, [and] he says, “Here’s the part. When Andy Kaufman was sick with cancer, he went to this New Age place in New Mexico to be healed with crystals. They found out he was terminal and wasn’t going to make it, so they kicked him out. You’re the guy who has to tell his pal he has to leave. I read this thing, and then [director] Milos [Forman] says, “Do you want it?” I said, “Yes.” He says, “OK, go to wardrobe.” I thought, “Wow, this is the easiest business ever!” So I got to do a scene with Paul Giamatti directed by Milos Forman. I felt really good about it. [laughs]

I was hoping the scene would be in the DVD. It was a funny scene, and, hey, an Oscar winner directed me. For Christmas that year, my wife bought me the script to show that my part was still in the script — not in the film. That was sweet. I know she loves me.

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