"People always talk about the cast of Whose Line? are the best improvisers in the world. We're not. We're the best known improvisers in the world because of this show that just happened. And we were lucky enough to be in the right spot at the right time."
– Colin Mochrie
Colin Mochrie: Guy?
Guy MacPherson: Colin?
CM: How you doing?
GM: I'm good. How are you?
CM: I'm good, thank you.
GM: Good. Are you ready to just talk so I don't have to ask you any questions?
CM: Well, why should I make it easy for you?
GM: Come on, man! This is our fifth time!
CM: I know. I feel your pain, believe me.
GM: Alright. Well, I've come up with some questions.
CM: Oh, okay.
GM: And you can rate them as you go along. If you don't even want to answer them, that's fine, too.
GM: But you gotta give me something.
CM: I will. I'll see what I can do.
GM: I saw your tweet about dreaming about dying and everyone was yes-anding ("Had a dream that I literally died on stage and no one noticed because they were too busy yes anding....) That's the principle building block of improv, right?
CM: It is.
GM: Do you like it? Do you support that?
CM: I do support that. It's something, actually, Deb and I have been trying to put into our life, where we'll say yes to things that maybe make us a little leery, something that may worry us. And it's ended up being pretty good. So we say yes within reason to things.
GM: Can you give me an example?
CM: Pretty much right after we decided to do this, we were asked by World Vision to go to the Congo to do some commercials about sponsorship for children there. In previous years, it may have been something – because we'd heard some horrible stories about the Congo – we may have been a little afraid or leery of it, and we thought, no, let's do it. And it was one of the most amazing experiences of our life. We went right after Christmas, which, as you know, in North America is just an abundance of consumerism, and we're in the jungle in these villages that were beyond poor just meeting these great people who had nothing but there was still a joy to them. Deb had all the kids doing the Hokey-Pokey by the river. It was great. It was truly one of the best experiences of our lives.
GM: How long were you there?
CM: Two weeks.
GM: That's a great example. I'm glad you'll be yes-anding all my questions.
CM: Well, exactly. It's what I'm going to do. Now that I've made this decision, there's no backing out of it.
GM: Sometimes in improv you want to say no, don't you?
CM: There are some times, but you shouldn't. It's the hardest thing to teach new improvisers to do that. Everyone has an ego so it's very hard to let that go. If you're entering a scene with someone and they get their idea out first, if you had the greatest idea in the world, it doesn't matter; you have to push it aside and go immediately for whatever idea came out first and support that and make it work. We were asked by GE to teach one of their executive teams an improv course because they felt that would help them work together better. Brad Sherwood and I were doing this and we came up with this two-hour improv plan. We spent the entire time trying to get them to say yes. Somebody would say something and immediately their first reaction would be, 'No, let's not do that; let's do this.' We had two lines facing each other. We said, 'Just go in the middle; start a scene.' The minute somebody doesn't accept an idea, they go back to the end of the line. And both lines were just whizzing by. And then finally somebody said yes and this scene happened. And you could see everybody go, 'Oh!' And then we had to say, 'Well, that's all the time we have.' It took two hours to get one person to say yes. I hope it stuck with them but I'm not sure.
GM: I know Vancouver TheatreSports does corporate training as well. Is there any research into whether improv has helped these professionals in their careers after you guys leave?
CM: I don't know if there is. I would hope that there was. If anything it gives them more courage to be in front of a group and do some public speaking or get their idea out there. Another GE thing we had, they said, 'Here's the thing: you'll teach a workshop' – it was all GE executives – 'Here's the surprise: Once the hour workshop is over, you're going to take them out into Time Square during rush hour and they'll do a show for an hour.' After an hour improv class! And what do I do if they say no? I can't force these executives. They said, 'Oh, no, they'll be fine. They'll be fine.' So we did the workshop. Two of them, English was not their first language. And then afterwards we said, 'Okay, here's a surprise! We're going out into Time Square right now. There's no stage. We're just going to be on the sidewalk and we're going to do a show for the passersby. And they all went, 'Yeah, alright.' Okay, so I guess we succeeded. They definitely yes-anded. So we went out there and God bless 'em, they did an hour show and they did very well, considering.
GM: Just on the street?
CM: On the street. Brad and I were stopping passersby getting suggestions from them. It was unusual.
GM: You really have to keep your mind open, like you say, if somebody gets their idea out first. Sometimes the weak link gives a terrible suggestion.
CM: Yeah. Those are the people who end up being shot during a scene. We kill them fairly quickly. A lot of times I work with people I don't know just because it makes me go back to the basics of doing the yes-and and listening to them rather than bulldoze and get my ideas through. So that's why I always love going to, well, Vancouver. I get to work with these great improvisers who I don't work with all the time and don't really know that well so it really makes me get back to basics and do what you're supposed to do as an improviser.
GM: Talented people can have long careers in show biz, but sometimes people think the inverse must be true, that if you don't have a long career in show biz then you're not talented. There must be so many great performers out there who aren't hugely known to the masses. And you get to perform with them. Do you ever see these people and go, 'Wow, why aren't they more well known than they are?'
CM: Oh, pretty much every time, whether it's here, or there's a group called Dad's Garage in Atlanta; they have amazing improvisers, too. In Portland, I've done work there. And it's all luck. The fact that you're talking to me is only because this show came along at the right time for me to take advantage of my one skill and get us all out there. People always talk about the cast of Whose Line? are the best improvisers in the world. We're not. We're the best known improvisers in the world because of this show that just happened. And we were lucky enough to be in the right spot at the right time. But yeah, there are thousands of amazing improvisers out there who do amazing work every night.
GM: And that's true across the board in any artistic field. There are people you've never heard of that would blow your mind when you finally see them in some small little place.
CM: Oh, absolutely. Two days ago we went to the SCTV event that was happening in Toronto. They were having a reunion. Jimmy Kimmel was interviewing them and Martin Scorsese is directing a documentary about them. And it was great listening to them. And they were sort of saying the same thing, that, 'Yeah, we had a great time, but we were all so lucky that this show came out at the time that it did, and we managed to be a part of it. We were kind of working in a vacuum because nobody really knew what the show was and it was so low budget and the executives didn't really meddle in anyway,' so they were free to do what they wanted. To have all of those elements at the same time is amazingly fortunate. It's really hard to do these days, to be able to do your own thing without any kind of interference.
GM: You're playing both the Vogue Theatre and the Improv Centre here. I know you go out and play huge theatres, too. What are the pros and cons of big versus small.
CM: You have to make bigger faces in the big ones. That can hurt after a while. I think every improviser loves the more intimate spaces because you really feel like you're close to the audience and you can look into their eyes when you're asking them questions. It just has a lovely feeling. Everything has to be a little bigger in a larger space, obviously. But weirdly with improv, Brad and I do shows in 2000-seat theatres and it still has a weird intimacy about it for some reason. I guess just because of what the art form is, the audience is so engaged the entire time because they're yelling out things, we have them up on stage with us, so it's more interactive and there's more of a happy feeling.
GM: I guess with the advances in sound technology, people aren't straining to hear, and sometimes they use a big screen, I guess.
CM: Yeah. Yeah, some of the bigger theatres have screens. We're always amazed because our show really couldn't be simpler: it's two guys, two stools. All we need are microphones. And still even nowadays sometimes it's tough to get that going. I don't know why. A lot of these theatres have major Broadway musicals come through but sometimes they seem a little flummoxed by two guys on a stool.
GM: They want a bigger set or something?
CM: Yeah. First of all, a lot of them aren't really sure what we do so they go, 'So you just want two hand-helds?' Well, no. We use our entire body. We're making up stuff. We don't have anything planned. So that kind of throws them. There are a couple of theatres in the States that we play all the time so it's become great. We just walk in there and they know exactly what we do, how we do it, so sound check is maybe 15 minutes. But we've gone places where it's been an hour-and-a-half just to get everything running. As I say, it's two guys with microphones.
GM: You say most improvisers would prefer a more intimate venue. I'm sure some performers across the arts reach a certain level where they might prefer the smaller venue but they might think of that as a step back in their career so they never play them. You get some standups who play only arenas, which has got to be the worst place to hear comedy.
CM: I would think. This was a while back when Whose Line? with Drew [Carey] was happening, but once we did a 10,000-seat basketball arena. That was really difficult. That's a hard place to do improv. First of all, you couldn't hear any suggestions whatsoever because it was just a solid wall of sound. Brad and I recently did a show in a 500-seat theatre, which was great. It had been a while since we'd done one of that but it was lovely. It's almost like you're at a party in the kitchen with your friends just goofing around.
GM: When I read about performing or political speech before they had microphones, how did people listen?
CM: I have no idea! When I think back, when I was with the touring company at Second City, we would go to large theatres in Calgary and Edmonton, like the Winspear, and we didn't have microphones. And yet we never seemed to have a problem. Were we better trained in those days? I don't know.
GM: Or maybe the audience was trained to be really quiet.
CM: I guess that could be it. We were better at listening in those days. Listening seems to be a lost art these days.
GM: Were you a fan of comedy growing up? Records or TV?
CM: Oh yeah. TV definitely. I seem to recall just watching it 24 hours a day, which I'm sure isn't true. But we were watching, you know, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Andy Griffith and SCTV, Monty Python. And I was always a big fan of the old stuff, too, like Chaplin and Keaton, Sid Caesar, Jack Benny, Bob Hope. I was really drawn to comedy and watched the successful people and maybe actually just blatantly stole from them.
GM: Who, in particular?
CM: John Cleese for sure. A little bit of Jack Benny. I always loved the way he used silence. I always try to do that because sometimes improvisers are a little afraid of quiet. Nothing's funnier to me than an overlong pause. I try to bring that back.
GM: Somebody on Facebook the other day listed their top five sitcoms of all time. They were all relatively recent. I responded with mine, and I had Dick Van Dyke as number 2. I love that show.
CM: That was a great show. I mean, the cast, the writing. Carl Reiner, I think, wrote the entire first season in a summer. It's amazing to me. It's funny, and the fact that it still stands up. It's just funny characters who were real.
GM: And set in a comedy writers room, so that was more excuse for Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie to crack jokes.
CM: Yeah, and it was an exciting locale at that point because I don't think anybody in the public knew what happened in a comedy writers room. Although it's not completely accurate it certainly was close enough that people got a feel of what it was like.
GM: I see on Twitter you're getting more political than you've ever been.
CM: You know Ryan Stiles joined Twitter just because of Trump? It's the only reason. All he does is do Trump stuff. That's kind of amazing something in the world today actually made Ryan Stiles, years after the internet had been formed, to actually get involved. It's really hard not to. I mean, I don't do a lot of it because I get tired of the trolls. You know what? We're not really having a discussion here; you're just saying horrible things to me. I could get back into that for sure but what's the point?
GM: I know years ago you performed for Karl Rove and I forget who else. If the White House asked you today to perform at a similar function, would you do it?
CM: No. I would have to pass. When we were asked to do it, Bush was in power. He certainly wasn't in my top 20 presidents but it's an honour to be asked to do it. We ended up going to the White House and meeting the president and Dick Cheney, who was scary – he was hunched over rubbing his hands. But it was interesting talking to President Bush, a man who I didn't really admire, but just seeing that side of him. He was very funny, he was incredibly charming, he told us about the history of the office, and I saw that even though I think he went about things the wrong way, he really wanted to do the best he could for the country. And I don't think that's happening right now in the White House. I think it's an every man for himself sort of feel.
GM: So he told you about the history of The Office starting with Ricky Gervais?
CM: (laughs) No. No, different office.
GM: Oh, okay.
CM: Keep up, Guy, keep up.
GM: We'll end with four Proust questions for you.
GM: What's your greatest extravagance?
CM: Oh... Comic books.
CM: Yeah, I've always been a comic book guy. It's getting a little harder now. I used to love reading comic books because the story was done in one issue. Now it's spread along fifteen different titles and it goes on for years. I don't know how many reboots DC has done but I'm totally lost now. I'm not sure who's alive or what their backstories are. I try to wait for the end of the year and then buy anthologies so I can catch up on what the storyline is.
GM: Did you have a favourite comic character?
CM: Growing up, Superman and Batman were the two. I'm guessing that it was probably before Marvel. And then when Spider-man and Fantastic Four came along, I really got into them also. But Superman and Batman were obviously my two faves.
GM: What's the trait you most deplore in yourself?
CM: My need to be liked. It can be overwhelming at times. It means that I usually end up not being able to say no to things that I think I'm just going to be taken advantage of here. They won't like me if I say no. I have to get rid of that because I've ended up in some horrible things. Not so much the projects but too much work for getting nothing back, really.
GM: That's why you went into improv.
CM: Exactly, where I just go make up some crap and then go have a drink.
GM: A place where you would get to say yes and you would have to say yes.
CM: I know.
GM: But now you say you're trying to put this in your life, yet it's a trait that you deplore in yourself.
CM: I know. I've got a lot of work to do. I'm trying to work on the yes-but principle. 'Yes, I'll do that, but here's what I need.' Maybe I have to be a little more specific.
GM: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
CM: It's not really my achievement but I'm really proud of the fact that Whose Line? sort of got improv into the public consciousness. I know a lot of improv purists weren't fans of the show, and I totally understand it. Because of the medium, it had to be fast and shticky and big, as opposed to real improv where you can take your time and become characters. We didn't have that luxury; we had to come up with a TV show so we had to be more jokey than you usually would on stage. I always said Whose Line? is an introduction to improv. It's sort of the Vaudeville of improv. It's not the end-all and be-all. There are so many different types and they're all absolutely valid. But I think we should have got more credit for at least getting it out there.
GM: How many people would even know of improv if that show never happened?
CM: I'm still amazed. I'm doing this job that didn't exist when I was growing up and it's all because of Whose Line?
GM: Last one: Which historical figure do you most identify with?
CM: Oh... Good one. I'm going to give that a rating of ten. Who would I be? Probably Simon Bartholomew, one of the disciples. Nobody really knows much about him.
GM: Yeah, I was going to ask, Who's that?
CM: Exactly. But he was part of the gang. So he must have done something, but nobody really knows what he did.
GM: He was part of the troupe.
CM: He was part of the troupe! Exactly. He wasn't the main guy. He may have kept the narrative going, who knows?
GM: That's a good answer. I'm going to give that answer a ten.
CM: (laughs) Thank you.
GM: Anything you want to say about Vancouver TheatreSports League before we go?
CM: No. It's going to be a lot of fun. You know you're going to see quality improv from these guys and I'm just going to keep up.