"I want to be able to sing, dance, do comedy, do drama, the whole nine. Because why limit yourself? So as a kid you start to develop that skill set. And improv was just a part of that because I was lucky enough to have a very over-extensive imagination. I really was a sheltered kid so I read a lot. That had a lot to do with my imagination. And I just thought that instead of waiting tables when there's not an acting job, sing. And if there wasn't a singing job, dance. And if you couldn't do that, do something else."
– Wayne Brady
Guy MacPherson: I first saw you on Whose Line Is It Anyway? What year did you start that?
Wayne Brady: '98.
GM: And how long was the run?
WB: It's still on in syndication on ABC Family, so it really hasn't gone off. It moved from primetime on ABC to ABC Family. So it's still on. I think our deal is until the middle of 2008, maybe.
GM: That's pretty nice.
GM: When did you stop making new ones?
WB: Oh gosh, I really don't remember. Maybe 2003. But we're well over 110 or 115 shows.
GM: Did you ever do the British version?
WB: Yes, actually I started on the British version in '97.
GM: What were you doing before Whose Line? Were you doing improv?
WB: Yeah, I was doing improv. But folks know you from the time that they know you so that's when your life begins. But in reality improv was really such a small part of what I was doing in life. I was with a group called "A Houseful of Honkeys". We moved out here (Los Angeles) from Orlando at separate times. We'd worked together before. We had an improv/sketch theatre in Florida where I'm from in Orlando called Sak Theatre. I joined them in 1990. I graduated from high school in '89 and I joined the group in '90. That was kind of my training. But it wasn't just for improv; it was as an actor and writing and the whole nine. We were just crazy kids doing shows every single night of the week, doing four shows a night, doing shows wherever people would see us and really not caring anything about getting paid. It was a great feeling because that's where the experience built up. At the same time I was doing a lot of touring, doing a lot of theatre, touring around the country, working in theme parks. I worked at Disney, Universal Studios in Florida and Hollywood, 6 Flags in St. Louis.
WB: Yeah. Doing theme park shows, doing cruise ship shows. Wherever there was a show to be done, I would be doing it. I always promised myself that I would not do a job outside of the entertainment business. And I was lucky. From the time that I decided to do this when I was 16, I was working immediately. So even if it was a kid's party, that meant that I was entertaining.
GM: So you've never had an outside job?
WB: No, never.
GM: You're a lucky man. A lot of actors, as you know, are waiting tables.
WB: Well, not to be cocky, but I will say that a great deal of it is luck, of course, and happenstance, but it's also this: The people that I started off admiring, even as a kid, which drew a little bit of ridicule, were the Gene Kellys of the world, the Danny Kayes of the world, Ernie Kovacs and Sid Caesar, Sammy Davis, Jr. The people who did everything. And even great comedic giants like a Bob Hope, even Bob Hope from the early Road movies. Bob Hope was a song-and-dance man as well. Lucy Ball. Each of these people knew that in order to really prosper and in order to really work, you had to do everything. And those are the people that I fell in love with as a kid. And I said that's the kind of thing I'm gonna do. I want to be able to sing, dance, do comedy, do drama, the whole nine. Because why limit yourself? So as a kid you start to develop that skill set. And improv was just a part of that because I was lucky enough to have a very over-extensive imagination. I really was a sheltered kid so I read a lot. That had a lot to do with my imagination. And I just thought that instead of waiting tables when there's not an acting job, sing. And if there wasn't a singing job, dance. And if you couldn't do that, do something else.
GM: I admire those performers too, and I'm older than you. And even my friends think, wow, they're really old. Because they weren't of our time.
WB: Well, sometimes you have to go back - and it's a shame - but you have to go back X-amount of years in order to really hit pay dirt. Even when you try to find impersonations to do... We do a live version of "Greatest Hits", which we did on Whose Line, where we let the audience give me the song titles and I do each one in various impersonations and caricatures. And sometimes you want to do the most current, the hippest thing. You want to do the guy that's on the charts right now, but the sad thing is that the guy that's on the charts is a flash-in-the-pan and he's like 40 other people. So you have to go back. You have to go old-school to get to the people that had a distinctive take, a distinctive voice. You have to do the Sammy Davises of the world. You have to go back and do, like, Bob Hope or you have to do a James Brown impersonation because these are people that had such strong musical and/or comedic lives that it's easier to do a caricature of them as opposed to the guy that sounds like 40 other people singing the same exact songs.
GM: Were you always a mimic? Always good with voices?
WB: That came with the thing of, 'Sure, I can do it!' Just to get the job. I first was asked to do something like that years ago when I moved to Vegas in '92. There was a show at the MGM Grand called 'Rock Around the Clock'. It was owned by Legends. It wasn't a Legends impersonator show; it was an old rock'n'roll show. But they wanted people who could sing and dance and do the regular chorus deal and then turn around and really sound like some of the people that we were playing on stage. So in one show I'd go from singing Elvis to singing Little Richard to singing Jerry Lee Lewis. And I loved it. And it was the first time that I really discovered that I could do that and it was only because I grew up listening to that music that I had no problem.
GM: Did you audition for Whose Line? or did they come to you?
WB: Oh, yeah. Practically every sketch and improv person in the world, any time that Whose Line? would hold auditions, everyone turns out. I really never considered myself much of a games person; I always thought that my improv strengths lay in doing the characters and doing longer form improv and doing the music stuff. So I just knew that on the day of the Whose Line?
auditions that I was going to get canned so quickly that I made lunch plans. Because I'd seen the show and I just knew. It so happened that fear is an incredible thing and a wonderful motivator and it makes you think faster. And six hours later I had a job.
GM: That changed your life.
WB: Pretty much. Absolutely.
GM: And not only fear, but I think when you go into an audition or showcase and you have the feeling that there's no way you're going to get it, you can be more relaxed. And maybe if you went in thinking you had to get it, you'd tense up and then you wouldn't get it.
WB: That's exactly it. And I even teach that when I teach improv classes. I say that the best thing to do is just don't worry about everything else. Simply because improv is an imperfect art anyway. You don't know what you're going to make up, your partner doesn't know what you're going to make up, the audience doesn't know what you're going to make up. No one knows if it's really going to be funny, no one knows if it's going to make sense. So you can't stress out about any of those things. The most that you can do is have fun and try to build the best characters that you can. And take it easy. And if it's going to happen, it's going to happen. And luckily for some of us in a certain percentile doing improv, it happens 98 percent of the time.
GM: You always seem like you're having fun.
WB: You have to. Even if you're not having fun, you have to seem like you're having fun. When I get asked, "But don't you just freeze up on stage?", that's not an option. In a classroom situation maybe, but when people have paid to come and see you, or you're on national TV doing it, freezing up is not an option. You have to have something ready to go. Now, it may not be the best thing in the world, but at least something will come out of your mouth.
GM: And it's all part of being a professional, which you've been since you were 16.
GM: The show must go on no matter how you're feeling or whatever.
WB: The bottom line is it's an incredible profession and I've been lucky enough to be doing it for well over half of my life now.
GM: Whenever I interview improvisers, they tell me that improv is the most fun out of all the other things they do in theatre. It's very addictive. Is that what you find?
WB: Um, my answer's going to vary a little bit. There are times that I get sick of improv. And I'll be perfectly honest, it's the thing that changed my life but as with anything, if you do it too much you end up getting burned out. That's why I don't like to look at it as, "Oh, I'm just an improviser, I'm just this, I'm just that." I've got to do other things to keep it varied and keep it exciting to me. Or else I think if you ever burn out doing improv, then talk about letting your audience down.
GM: How many improv shows do you do a year?
WB: I can't even tell you. There are times when I do at least five shows a week for a few months at a time, then I'll take a break and go off and do another project. Or I'm working on a project and doing the improv shows. The thing that burns me out the least is when I'm doing an improv show mixed with music because it's always different and I'm really challenged doing the musical improv. So I love trying to one-up myself.
GM: In your show, what's your percentage of music to non-music improv?
WB: It's 60-40 because all of the music in the show is musical improv. There's a rap in the beginning where the audience gives me words that you'd never hear in an improvised rap and I have to make the whole rap make sense and tell a story. Then I do an audience song to a lady in the audience. Then later on my partner, Jonathan, and I do an Irish drinking song. And then I end up doing the greatest hits, which is about a 20 minute block of the show. So it's pretty even in terms of audience participation and character work versus the music stuff.
GM: It's you and this person Jonathan?
WB: I've got a two-person band and a partner named Jonathan Mangum. We've worked together since 1991.
"There are times that I get sick of improv. And I'll be perfectly honest, it's the thing that changed
my life but as with anything, if you do it too much you end up getting burned out."
– Wayne Brady
GM: Do you miss working with Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie?
WB: Colin was probably my - not to sound like a high schooler, but my best friend in the lot, but we only worked together, you know? I think folks saw the camaraderie on stage during the half hour and built this whole fantasy life of, "Man, those guys have such a great time! They must hang out everyday and have sleep-overs." And the reality is I only ever saw Ryan and Drew [Carey] when we were taping on various weekends. Colin, I would see him when he came into town or I'd go to Canada to perform. And Greg Proops and I would see each other on set and then whenever we would cross paths at the Improv downtown. So we really didn't see that much of each other. Those other guys saw more of each other because they all were in this certain circle and I was already on my own doing my own thing. So if anything, that made it even better because we wouldn't see each other for months and we'd have to spend a few days together taping and just have an incredible time.
GM: But do you miss working with them?
WB: Yes and no. Yes, because I enjoyed doing the show. But I don't sit up at night thinking about it because life goes on. We are all doing our own thing. I would welcome any day, any minute, any time to be on stage with Colin and Ryan and Drew and Greg Proops. Any day. But it's show business. You're always moving on to the next thing.
GM: That's the nature of the beast, isn't it?
WB: That's the nature of the beast. So I don't even think about it.
GM: Did you have a background in standup at all?
WB: No, I'm not a standup. I'm just an actor.
GM: Never tried it.
WB: Never cared to, never wanted to.
GM: I guess on your talk show you came out and did a monologue a little bit.
WB: But even the monologues that I would do, it's more so give me bullet points and I know that I can talk about something for x-amount of minutes because it's just my own personal take on it. And thank goodness that personal take happens to be funny.
GM: Did you have fun playing against type on Chappelle's Show?
WB: I had fun playing against what people thought was my type. I think it's stupid, actually, to say playing against type because you don't know me when I'm at home. What's my type?
GM: When you're on network TV, I guess, you have to be of a certain type. You have to be clean-cut.
WB: Nope. Not at all. I think that's inaccurate. I think it's easier for people to do their job, in terms of the casting director and the ad people and directors to say, "Okay, that's what you do. So that's all that you do." Then it's your job to go, "Well, no, I've got a lot more to offer than just that, so let me do something to shake that up." So I never asked for ABC or anyone to think of me as Mr. Clean-cut Guy or whatnot. You never heard those words come out of my mouth. It's just that I was on an ABC show doing an ABC sketch show and doing a syndicated Disney talk show during the day. So there were certain constraints.
GM: Exactly. I know when Greg Proops does his standup people bring their kids and then they're shocked. Well, you know, he's on TV. He can't say those words on TV!
WB: That's exactly it. You hit the nail on the head. So when someone says playing against type, it kind of ruffles my feathers just to a degree. It's one thing if you set out to market yourself as something, like this is the guy I am; hire me as this. My whole point is I'm a guy who does improv really well and does all of these other things. I'm a blank slate so what do you want me to be in terms of a role and I can be that guy. So that's been the fun thing. And luckily enough it started with the Chappelle thing being able to break loose of the Disney yokes to a certain degree. And now the things that I've been able to do on screen have just been a hoot. Just a couple weeks ago I guest starred on the FX drama, Dirt, playing this mob land henchman who has a couple of great scenes bullying this editor, to then playing a nice guy again on Everybody Hates Chris playing Chris's very perfect uncle, to on How I Met Your Mother being Neil Patrick Harris's gay black brother, to a movie that I just did, Crossover, a while ago where I play this amoral basketball owner. So that's the variety of life. I love it.
GM: Talking about nature of the beast, in show business you start doing something and then everybody thinks that's all you can do. And you have to prove to everyone that you can do other things.
WB: It's just an education process. And the point is to have fun while you're doing the educating. And if I'm lucky enough and able to do all that stuff and still go back on the road and doing what I love doing, doing the live shows and showing people that still after all these years the stuff that they see on Whose Line? truly is improvised. So that's a big kick for me, too.
GM: You would think that somebody in show business, like Paul Mooney, would understand this.
WB: That's a completely different issue. Paul is just into saying anything that can draw attention to himself. And it's a compliment, to a certain degree, because unless you were on the radar, you wouldn't be a target.
GM: It's still a little surprising to me that he doesn't understand that this is show business. [Mooney mocked Brady in his "Negrodamus" sketch on Chappelle's Show, saying "White people love Wayne Brady, because he makes Bryant Gumbel look like Malcolm X"]
WB: No, Paul understands.
GM: So it was just a case of "here's a name that people will recognize"?
WB: Exactly. If someone else in my position who happened to be black doing the Disney show with as much of a fan base as I have, Paul would have gone after them, too. But I'm very happy that he did. Good!
GM: It all worked out.