For most people, getting up in front of an audience unprepared is a nightmare scenario.
For Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood, it’s their dream job.
“I’m making a living in a profession that wasn’t around when we were kids,” Mochrie, 56, said in a phone interview from Montreal. “I was introduced to improv in theater school – it was called ‘theater sports’ – and was sort of intrigued by it. I found I enjoy doing it and it was fun for me and kept doing it, never thinking it would become a career.”
The two veterans of the popular improvisational show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” have teamed up for the past decade to bring their unscripted skills to audiences across the country. They bring their act to the Gallo Center for the Arts on May 31.
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The men met about 20 years ago while working together on an episode of the original British version of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” The show went on to have a successful run on American TV with host Drew Carey, and returned last year on the CW with new host Aisha Tyler.
Sherwood, 49, said the show’s enduring popularity is due to the universal appeal of improv.
“I think what it has going for it is a sense of humor that is inherently goofy,” Sherwood said in a separate interview from his Los Angeles home. “It’s not particularly sarcastic, doesn’t rely on cultural references, Lindsay Lohan or whatever else is in the news. It is just funny people coming up with unusual situations and coming up with big-picture silliness. So it appeals to a broader spectrum. This show is just us being stupid and ridiculous and having no shame.”
The duo’s stage show follows the same format, with lots of audience interaction and participation. Sherwood said the two work well together because of their almost sibling rivalry-like camaraderie.
“We share a lot of the same reference points and almost always know where we are going with something,” Sherwood said. “At this point, we’ve done improv together for so long you get a playful partnership where we try to trip each other up but also do the best comedy show possible.”
Mochrie calls their stage act “a long version of ‘Whose Line’ without the tall guy and black guy” (referring to castmates Ryan Stiles and Wayne Brady) and said it involves audience participation for 80 percent of the show. And, he said, that formula works no matter whom they bring up.
“The beauty of improv is, in a way, it’s a win-win situation,” Mochrie said. “If they do very well in the scene, that’s great. If they don’t do well, that can also be great. We never make fun of our audience members – they’re almost the third member of act. All we ask is that they try.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s automatic for either Mochrie or Sherwood. They have to believe in their abilities each night to be successful.
“Before the show, there is always that realization you have an audience who have paid good money to see a show and you don’t have a show,” Mochrie said. “We just have the sometimes idiotic belief that it’s all going to work out. Brad and I worked the show to make it the least comfortable it can be for us because that’s when the fun happens – when the magic happens. It’s when we’re in the almost impossible situation that is when it works best.”
Not that there isn’t a lot of trial and error while learning improv. Like any skill, getting good requires work, Sherwood said.
“You’re trying to walk into the dark and find what is funny,” he said. “It goes counter to what everyone does to get better. Musicians practice scales over and over and over until they are good. Athletes shoot hoops over and over and over again. You can only do this by going to clubs, coffee shops and being in front of an audience. It’s like a comedy martial art. You need to be ready for battle on stage and don’t know what is coming at you.”
Still, despite its flop-sweat-inducing potential, the comics said improv is part of all of our lives.
“Everybody improvises – it is what our life is made of,” Mochrie said. “We have no idea what will happen from one moment to the next. Our skill is making it funny.”