The master of improvisational comedy, Colin Mochrie, is probably best known for his work on the British and US versions of the television show Whose Line is it Anyway? But some fans may be surprised to know there is also a very big Vancouver connection.
A graduate of Vancouver’s Studio 58, Langara College’s professional theatre program, Mochrie received his professional start as a member of the Vancouver TheatreSports League. It is this connection to our city’s improv-based comedy troupe that brings him back later this month, in a series of fundraising shows for the company.
While the opportunity to reconnect with family is another big reason for Mochrie’s return to our city, along with lending his star as draw for the fundraisers, it also provides him with an opportunity to hone his improvisational skills.
“It refreshes me, improv-wise, because I’m working with the people who I’ve gotten to know over a couple of years, but I’m not super familiar with them,” he explains by phone from his home in Toronto.
Working with such improv stars as Ryan Stiles, Brad Sherman, and Wayne Brady, Mochrie says he knows pretty much where any one of the three might be headed when performing a scene.
“With the Vancouver TheatreSports, I don’t,” he says. “So, it brings me back to the basics of improv, where I have to listen, I have to accept. It’s always a great refresher course, and there’s some challenge in improvisers that you can always learn from them.”
One may be forgiven in thinking Mochrie found his love for improvisational comedy while studying at Studio 58, but that is not the case.
“I was basically just thinking theatre. The head of the program at the end of the year told me I had a head for low comedy, which I took as a compliment,” he says dryly.
Instead, Mochrie discovered his love for improv at a TheatreSports demonstration.
“I saw the improv, and I thought, “oh that looks like it’d be something fun to do”. So, almost immediately I started taking classes, and then I got involved with the League, and it ended up being a career,” he says.
Asked if there was a moment during his time at Vancouver TheatreSports that has stayed with him, Mochrie says the nature of the genre doesn’t lend itself well to memories. “The weird thing about improv is once you’ve done it, it kind of goes away unless it really sucks.”
But he does recall one such “sucky” moment working at the now-closed City Stage Theatre on Howe Street.
“The thing started to go down fairly quickly, and then the audience started getting restless, so I ran into the first couple of rows, put people up on stage, and said, “you think it’s so easy, you do it.”
It would be another five years before Mochrie would make the decision to move from Vancouver to Toronto.
“I’d been in TheatreSports for a couple of years, I was getting to do some plays, and I felt I was starting to do the same stuff over-and-over again, and I thought a change might be good,” he says.
It also helped that his friend, Ryan Stiles, had just moved to Toronto and had started working at Second City. “So, I just thought I would check out the scene and see what would happen.”
Mochrie went on to work with The Second City comedy troupe for three years, before landing the role in the UK version of Whose Line is it Anyway?
A new art form in Britain at the time, the producers came to North America looking for talent, including an early morning group audition for The Second City cast in Toronto.
“It was at 8 o’clock in the morning, always prime time for comedy,” he recalls.
Having worked together for some time, The Second City cast ended up doing what Mochrie says you are supposed to do in improv: make the other people look good.
“Everybody was really supportive and being an ensemble, so nobody stood out,” he says. “Because of that, I think none of us got hired.”
It wouldn’t be until the following year in Los Angeles when Mochrie got a second chance to audition.
“I auditioned with the people that I didn’t know. So it was more like, “screw you guys, look at me.” And that’s how I got it,” he says. “A valuable lesson for kids out there.”
Mochrie has another piece of advice for those looking to establish a career in improvisational comedy: perform as much as possible.
“Unfortunately, you can’t really learn anything from reading a book, you have to go out in front of an audience and fail a couple of times,” he says. “You quickly learn what your strengths are and what your weaknesses are, and it’s like any muscle, the more you do it, the more toned it gets, the stronger it gets.”
Living his own advice, Mochrie went onto work on the British version of Whose Line is it Anyway? for seven years and moved almost immediately to the US version, where he enjoyed another nine years on ABC, and returned for the revival on The CW network.
Having appeared in some 400 episodes of Whose Line, Mochrie does admit some of the improvisational games start to get boring, especially those that receive a lot of airtime.
His favourite though, is a game called “Greatest Hits” in which two improvisers are the hosts of a television commercial, trying to sell a CD compilation of ‘greatest hits’ based on audience suggestions.
“It was a chance for Ryan (Stiles) and me to sort of banter and then hand over to the musical guys,” he says. “I always felt that the guys who did the songs never really got the credit they deserved. People always thought they were cheating somehow, but they’re just amazingly talented at it.”
While “Great Hits” is a favourite, ironically perhaps, it is the musical improv games which scare Mochrie the most.
“Brad Sherwood and I have been touring for the last sixteen years, and we’ve actually started adding a musical game in there, which is good, and it terrifies me every night,” he admits. “I’m getting better at it, and it’s so much fun to just be challenged like that.”
In fact, Mochrie goes on to say it is the inherent challenges in performing improv which are a big part of its allure. “I think that’s part of the reason we all got into improv, it’s like skydiving, but you’re totally safe the entire time.”
But while musical improv may frighten him, Mochrie says that besides a couple of seconds before he goes on stage, he actually finds performing somehow comforting.
“It’s the most relaxed I am in life,” he says. “I know I’m working with the people I trust, I know what I’m doing up there, so I feel very secure on stage.”
While Mochrie has enjoyed a generous career with improv, he has also appeared in other television, film and stage projects. It is the stage though where he feels the most at home and in control of the finished product.
“With television and movies, except for Whose Line? because we have an audience there, you’re really one of the least important cogs in the production,” he says. “Because of editing, it can change drastically from what you did to what it ends up. And that’s why I always loved doing improv, all the onus was on us. If we sucked, it’s because we sucked. If we did well, it was because we did well, and I like that responsibility.”
In addition to his work on stage, television and film, Mochrie also branched out as an author in 2013 with the release of his book “Not Quite the Classics”. Challenged by his agent to write, Mochrie was at first, reluctant.
“I said the reason I improvise is because I’m lazy, and writing a book seems like a lot of work and I don’t really have any ideas about what to write about. Based on that, he got me a book deal,” he says drolly.
Not surprisingly, the book uses improv as it base, taking its central idea from a game he learned during his time at Vancouver TheatreSports.
“First Line-Last Line is where you get the first line from the audience, and the line that ends the scene, and then you sort of start with that line and then work towards the end,” he explains. “So I used the first and last line from classic novels, and made up the middle.”
Looking forward to his upcoming visit, Mochrie was a little surprised to hear the folks at the bar of the Vancouver Improv Centre where he will perform have concocted a signature cocktail called “The Colin”.
Asked what he thought “The Colin” should contain, he came up with a mixture of vodka and pineapple juice.
“Always with an umbrella,” he concludes.