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MacGyvers of Improv

Bryan Reesman • Feature • January 1, 2010

Colin Mochrie (left) and Brad Sherwood

Brad Sherwood & Colin Mochrie take their mad improv skills to new heights every night.

Brad Sherwood and Colin Mochrie are best known as part of the fun-loving comedy group on ABC’s Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the hilarious improv show that was spun off from the decade-long running British series of the same name (of which they were both regulars). But they certainly have even more experience with spontaneous humor conjuration. For the past six years, in addition to their TV work, the duo has performed live together around the country, touring theatres and playing corporate events.

The dynamic comedy duo has honed its improv chops considerably more than most actors or comedians. The highlight of their recent tour was watching them traverse a stage full of mousetraps while blindfolded, barefoot and singing an opera with lines starting with sequential letters of the alphabet—the theme of which is picked by the audience. Unlike their televised gags, in live performance their pieces extend for a longer time period. Naturally the show offers a lot more, and audience participation is essential.

During the NYC stop of their current U.S. tour—they will continue performing between mid-January and mid-February, with more dates to follow—Sherwood and Mochrie chatted with Stage Directions about the art of improv and comedy.

Stage Directions: I found your appearance at the Just For Laughs festival on YouTube. You did the audience-fueled Shakespeare dialogue and then the “lie down” comedy sketch, where you performed a sketch lying down on the floor while being videotaped from above.

Brad: That was fun.

Where did that come from?

Brad: That was a game that I used to do in a group called Theatresports. We didn't do it with set pieces or furniture, we would just do it on stage. I thought that because we had the technical stuff for the show that they were shooting in Montréal that we could have a camera overhead. That was the first time we had done it, and it went perfectly. It was literally the first time we had ever done that game.

Colin: We were asked to host a gala, and usually the hosts have some big production number at the top of the show. Because we don't like to actually work into anything and write something, we thought it would be kind of fancy, and we’d still be improvising. We were shocked at how well it worked out. It was the most nervous we’d been in a long time doing improv.

Brad: And we never wear tuxedos, but this was for a special event. When we knew we were going to get messy, we didn’t want to get our own clothes messy.

Certain comedians are known for famous bits. But when you're dealing with improv you have to be coming up with new things. How conscious are you of what you do—your own mannerisms, styles and your own clichés?

Colin: We try to stay really conscious of that, because we get a lot of repeat business when we go back to certain towns. We've been in Red Bank, New Jersey for every year that we’ve toured, so six years in a row. We’re constantly coming up with new games that we can do, finding new ways to ask for suggestions so we don't get the same suggestions and trying to keep it as difficult for us as possible.

Brad: And both of us are sort of purists, so we constantly do what we can to tweak the show and change it so that we don't fall into a rut and start doing the same old gimmick or take the same suggestions every time, because we want to challenge ourselves. What's fun about performing live and doing improv is the thrill of it being different and having to be a comedy MacGyver and take these disparate items and turn them into something funny.

Musicians that play together frequently learn about each other's styles, riffs and favorite ideas. Performing live on Whose Line or in concert you must become aware of what other people do. Has it become easier to work together or do you try to find new ways to throw each other off?

Brad: We’re constantly trying to throw each other off and pull the rug out. I make the analogy that when you're doing an improv show with someone you're building a sand castle and having a snowball fight at the same time. So you're working towards a common goal to create something, but at the same time there's this fencing repartee back and forth between you.

Colin: We find we work best when we’re off balance. When you get comfortable in improv, that's when you tend to repeat yourself and that's when you're going by rote, so we’re always trying to keep each other off balance.

When did the idea for this tour first come up, and how has it mutated and evolved over the years?

Brad: I went out on the road and was doing comedy clubs with a buddy of mine, trying to figure out how to do a two-man improv show without having a moderator or someone calling the shots. We developed a successful two-man show through trial and error on the road. I came to Colin—because we were performing all the time in Vegas with the whole group—and said, “I think you and I could do a two-man show on the road.” So we gave it a two-week trial one fall in November, and it went great. Ticket sales were great, and we've been doing it ever since.

Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood on stage during one of their live shows

You like to go out into the audience during your shows. Are you ever afraid of crossing a line with certain audiences or audience members?

Colin: Our job is to make the audience feel relaxed enough and trust us enough that they know when we call them up on stage we’re not going to make fun of them. Presumably. [laughs]

Brad: We’re hosts of the party, and we want all of our guests to feel comfortable. Generally, the first people we bring up on stage are very hesitant. People are very leery of coming up on stage, but after the first game pretty much the entire audience is volunteering and wanting to be part of the show.

Colin: We need the audience in our show. We have them on stage for about 80% of the games, so we can’t have them scared to come up. It's an unnatural thing to be in front of an audience when you're not used to it, so we’re trying to make them as comfortable as possible so they can have fun and we can have fun and the audience can have fun.

Brad: Our show is never about humiliating them or putting them in a space where they’ll be so uncomfortable that they wish they weren’t on stage. It's the friendliest, goofiest kind of play you can have interacting with an audience, whereas standup comedians make fun of the audience and grill them and insult them, and it's very adversarial. We never have that adversarial relationship with the audience.

Have you two done a lot of standup?

Brad: I did standup a couple of times in college, but it really wasn't my thing. I like working with people.

Colin: Yeah. My thing was: If I'm dying on stage, I'm going down with friends—not by myself, naked in front of an audience.

Brad: And it's too much work to constantly have to change your act. If you’re a standup you have to scour the newspapers and find all the stuff that's going on topically and dissect it to find where the comedy nugget is and how to turn it into part of your act. We don't have that. We just live in the world and observe it, and we don't do something terribly topical at any given moment. We’re not having to tear apart what's going on with Britney Spears or with the President or with society to find out what's going on in our act.

The thing I find funny about Stephen Colbert is that many of the people who he is making fun of are probably also some of the fans of the show. There is a huge irony in that. They think he's a flag-waving Republican, and he's not. He plays up the part and enjoys it, but I don't think they get it.

Colin: No, they don’t.

Brad: His work is never done. He has to always be on top of what's going on. He has to pour over the news and find where the humor is in it. He's like a shark—he has to keep moving to stay alive. We can rest and not feel like if we miss a day of news that we have lost a huge opportunity.

You don't want to get lazy, either.

Colin: You can never get cocky. We've tried. It just doesn't work. We’re constantly humbled.

You still have to come up with new material. When people give you a genre or theatre style to do onstage that you're neither aware of nor comfortable with, how do you play with that? What is the first thing that comes into your mind when someone says “flamenco”?

Colin: The beauty of improv is you don’t really have to make sense. You just have to be really committed to what you’ve chosen. I may be way off in what flamenco dancing is, but in my mind I'm spot on and I'm doing it correctly, and it's up to the audience to figure that out.

Brad: Half of it is faking it and then just committing full force. If you go big, then it doesn't matter whether you missed the ball or hit it out of the park.

Colin: You're constantly lying. You're a great liar if you can convince people that what you're saying is true.

Brad Sherwood (left) says working with a partner in improv is like “building a sand castle and having a snowball fight at the same time.”

What are some of the funniest things that have happened on stage?

Colin: The thing with improv is—it is so of the moment that once it's gone, it's gone. You can't really remember anything that's happened. People constantly ask, “What was the funniest thing you've done?” I have no idea.

Brad: You can't remember the show because you're so in the moment of processing the information instantaneously that you’re in this heightened, adrenaline-filled state, and because you're only saying it once it’s not necessarily something that's going to stick with you the next day.

Colin: You remember things like the guy sitting in front of an audience wearing an inflatable horse suit, those kinds of things. There was one time we were doing a scene and a woman came up and started shouting at us to do something about menopause.

Brad: She walked on stage and demanded to be in a scene. She was drunk. It was in San Diego. So I proceeded to do a rap song about how annoying women in menopause are, for interrupting me and being demanding.

Colin: She got upset and left.

Brad: But the rest of the audience loved it. It was a fan we didn't want coming back to the show anyway because she would just stand up and interrupt us.

On Whose Line, there was a certain formula at work. Colin, you're known for your manic energy, and Brad, you're very sarcastic. Even though you were having fun with your co-stars on the show, has it been refreshing to get away from that formula and get into scenarios where you’re not being put into a scene because it's what your strength is?

Brad: They definitely put us into a batting order on that show, kind of making us do the same things over and over again. Even though it was improv you felt like you were fulfilling this one little thing. Whereas, with our live show, not only do we get to go across the board in all of our skill sets, but the scenes can last longer. On that show each scene had to be between two commercial breaks and was about three minutes long. Our scenes go longer in the live show, where we can explore and milk the scene and really get a lot of humor out of it, as opposed to three jokes and then you're out.

Colin: Whose Line was tough because the fact that they actually got it on American television was a feat in itself. I think the pitch for it was “four guys you don't know making stuff up and you don’t have a say in what happens.”

Brad: The producers of a network want as much control as they can, and they were told these people were going to be entirely in charge of the content and the comedy level of the show. There's no script they can see, there are no rewrites and no approval from the network to prejudge what they're going to do. Actors would just stand in front of cameras and wing it. Execs don't like to give that much control over to the actors.

Colin: Because Ryan and I had worked well together and had known each other for years, they always put us together. It was great, but after a while you get into that thing where you think you’ve done this bit before or start to get that comfortable thing that you don't want in improv.

Was it the same situation with the British version?

Brad: It was the same producers. They had the same recipes and formulas—let's put Wayne and Brad in the singing games, let's put these two in a game together where they basically argue with each other. They had me do all the guessing games and stuff like that.

Colin, you've done plenty of commercials, and Brad, you’ve done many appearances on VH1. What's it like knowing that the end result is going to be a soundbite? How have you taken your skills and applied them to those tight situations?

Brad: The VH1 stuff is the skill set of standups. They give you topics, and then you rant on them. So you can write a couple of ideas down, jot down some notes, and in front of the camera you kind of go riffing on it. That’s more like doing a standup act. It's pre-crafted viewpoints on the pop culture references of the day.

Colin: With the commercials you’re pretty much a prop because you have the advertising people and the clients, and they'll have their specific ideas. They just want you to do what they want. They don't want you to go wacky.

Brad: What usually happens in commercials is that they have three ideas for the way they want the thing to play. They do all three of those, then the director asks you to do your three takes with some different twist, and invariably that's the one they end up using. So they end up using the magical twist on their idea that you came up with. That’s the one that made everybody on the crew laugh and the client finally signed off on. It's funny—it’s not the idea that they came up with—but it's the one that sells the best.

It feels like a lot of the lines on those VH1 shows like I Love The ‘80s have been fed to the interviewees.

Brad: Anytime that you say a line that they want to say, it tends to be to the set up for whatever the topic is. Your soundbite is: “Watergate was the whole scandal with Nixon…” So you don't end up saying anything funny. You're laying the groundwork. So as much as possible, after the first few times I did that, I did not do their preamble setup, because otherwise all I was was the narrator. I learned fast to never give them that and do your own take on it, so the things they will stick with are your little funny jokes.

In your comedy team, who is the straight man and who is the funny guy?

Brad: It changes game to game, night to night.

Colin: Usually whoever gets their idea out first, the other person then becomes the straight man. So it's a constant fight to get that idea out there. But then you have to accept it because that's what improv is all about.

Brad: Sometimes it doesn't develop until the middle of the scene, whatever the idea is we’re both going with it. Then once someone has a stumble or establishes himself as the inept person, then you’ve established the status and figured out who is Abbott and who is Costello. Whoever is the bumbling guy is obviously the funny guy, and whoever is lambasting them is the straight guy, and that really changes game to game.

Colin: I think we also have a Laurel and Hardy thing where, depending upon the circumstances, both can be funny. The status can change in a scene and the straight man will become the funny guy.

How did your training at school prepare you for your careers?

Brad: We both did Second City. We both did Theatresports, which is an improv-based group. It's all in the doing. It's kind of like becoming a good blues guitarist—you just get up and play every night in the club and learn your instincts and your rhythms and what works. It's kind of like a martial art—you go train and learn all the moves, but then in actual practice when you're defending yourself you just have to work on instinct. You’re not doing the exact movement that you did in class. You're adapting it to the direction that the fist is coming from.

Colin: You’ve got to get your ass kicked quite a few times.

Do you remember the first time you got up on stage in school and what that experience was like?

Colin: Oh yeah. It was such a life-changing thing for me because I was studying to be a marine biologist and I was dared by a friend to try out for the school play and I got my first laugh there. I thought, “Oh, okay, this is what I want all the time.” So it just totally changed the direction of my life. It changed me, I think. All of a sudden I just wanted to be a funny guy.

Brad: I was always a funny guy. I moved around so much that I never had friends for more than about a year, so I developed a sense of humor as a defense mechanism because I had to become liked by people. I found that making people laugh was the way to ingratiate myself to them. That was my social armor to get people to like me, otherwise I would've been a loner and a serial killer.

Colin: It's a fine line.

Have you ever gone on stage and bombed and tried to figure out how to win the audience back?

Brad: This past Tuesday night. We were doing a corporate gig—

Colin: We weren't bombing, though. It was a smaller audience. It was a corporate event room about maybe this size. It's just a whole different muscle you have to use, and you’re just treading water. Usually our theatre shows are relaxed and informal and it never feels like there is any pressure on us.

Brad: But when you're in a tiny, little dining room with 30 people sitting at tables, the air in the room just evaporates and shrinks up, and even when you get a big laugh it doesn't last the way it does in a 1000-seat house. So the moment that those 20 people that laughed at your big joke are done laughing it’s dead quiet in the room. It’s like you have to start over with every moment. It's so hard to keep it rolling the way you do in a big theatre.

That sounds intimidating even if you're a seasoned veteran.

Brad: It is. Those are the only shows that we really go into with any sense of fear.

Colin: You never go out there going, “This is going to be a great show.” There's never a point where we go out there 100% confident that what we’re going to do is going to work. It’s always, “I can’t believe we’re doing this again,” and at the end of the show, “I can’t believe it worked again.” Because you just don't know.

Brad: It's always in the unknown. I always make the analogy that it's like jumping out of an airplane and hitting your parachute on the way down. You just don't know how you're going to land.

What are Brad and Colin’s golden rules of improv?

Brad: First and foremost is listening. You have to listen to your partner on stage. Don't be in your head. Take what they say and then work with it.

Colin: Then be accepting of their idea. There are times where I’ve come out with a great idea for something, but if Brad gets his out, I have to support his.

Brad: He might have a great idea where he’s an astronaut and we’re going to go chase Martians, but if I say, “Let's go bake a cake,” that’s what we’re doing.

Colin: That's the idea I’ve got to go with. It's not like I'm not going to try to get my idea in there somehow or in some organic way in the scene. It actually goes against everything you do in real life. You have to listen to people, accept what they say and build on it.

Brad: It's almost like you’re trying to find your way through the woods together. I'll say, “Let's go left,” and he won't say, “Let's go right.” He will say, “Okay, let's go left.” Then the next direction he'll say, “Now let's fork off to the right,” then we do that. Then I'll say, “How about we climb this tree?” Then we'll do that. It's the ebb and flow. You have to accept what they're doing because you're both changing the direction of the journey the entire time. And then you’ve just got to do it over and over and over and over and over again at coffee shops, theatres and comedy clubs until you get good at it.

Colin: The rules are really simple. It's just listening and accepting. That's basically it. And it's actually the hardest thing for people to do.

Brad: I think the pitfall for beginning improvisers is that they so want to be funny that they don't trust the natural process of discovering, exploring and then going on the journey. They want to come in with their suitcase full of funny ideas or bits or characters and just start spewing those out, which may not be organic to what's happening on the stage. Then they look like they're planning everything or doing a bit they've done before because they don't trust themselves yet to hear what that person said, process it and then turn that into a joke. They're so afraid to leave themselves open to failure or not having something that they want to come in with all their ideas.


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