Arts & Culture

A night at the improv show

Former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, center, performs with comedians Colin Mochrie, left, and Brad Sherwood, right, at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association annual dinner in 2007.
Former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, center, performs with comedians Colin Mochrie, left, and Brad Sherwood, right, at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association annual dinner in 2007. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Sometimes, Colin Mochrie admits, it’s painful to watch himself on reruns of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” the comedy improv show that had separate runs in both the U.K. and America.

“I tend not to watch it because it does hurt,” he said. “There are times when I go, ‘Oh, I missed it!’ The person I was doing a scene with set me up with a great joke, and I missed it.”

But that’s the nature of improv comedy, he added. There’s no fixing it before the next show. “Once it’s done, it’s done.”

Mochrie, who performed on the British and American versions of “Whose Line” for 18 years, has been traveling with former “Whose Line” co-star Brad Sherwood for the past seven years, putting on live performances similar to the TV show.

Yet, while the setup is similar — comics create funny characters, scenes and songs with audience input — it’s also different, Mochrie said.

“There’s really no substitute for a live show,” said Mochrie, who will perform with Sherwood at the Cohan Center at Cal Poly on Saturday. “With television, I think people always thought somehow that we were cheat-

ing — that somehow we rehearsed it.”

In the live shows, it’s clear that the skits have not been rehearsed, he said, because there’s more random audience participation.

“They’re the ones who supply all the suggestions, they’re onstage with us for about 80 percent of the game,” he said. “So we’re trying to make them believe in us, even though there’s no reason for them to do so.”

Mochrie was born in Scotland, but his family moved to Canada when he was 7. Initially interested in pursuing marine biology, the future valedictorian got hooked on being an entertainer after appearing in a school play.

After college, he attended theatre school for four years, where he discovered improv comedy. While performing in Canada, he hooked up with fellow comic Ryan Stiles, who also appeared in both the British and American versions of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”

While Stiles also tours with a similar “Whose Line” format, he doesn’t like to fly, limiting his touring possibilities.

“We have an open invitation for him,” said Mochrie, a frequent target of Stiles’ bald jokes. “But, yeah, it makes it hard to tour when you don’t fly.”

Since the notion of having to come up with jokes on the spot terrifies some, it lends a certain discomfort to the audience, which the comics use to their advantage.

“We find that the show works well when we’re always on uncertain ground,” Mochrie said. “So we always try to, either through a suggestion or the game itself, make it so that we’re never totally comfortable onstage.”

While having a partner helps, it’s still a challenge for comics to generate jokes out of the blue. And the crowd anticipates difficult scenarios.

“I think they enjoy when they see us in trouble,” Mochrie said. “But we try to make it feel like we’re always going to get out of it somehow.”

Unlike a freestyle rapper, who can fall back on oft-used phrases when they’re stuck, the improv comic doesn’t have an ace in the hole, Mochrie said. But one thing the improv comic can do is lose all inhibitions.

“Part of improv is, for whatever reason, on that stage, you’re fearless,” said Mochrie, who gained a reputation on “Whose Line” for randomly kissing his male co-stars. “There are times when I flip by ‘Whose Line’ and I’m embarrassed by that guy who’s doing that stuff because I know he’ll do anything for a laugh.”

While “Whose Line” enjoyed a long run on television, its success opened other avenues for its regulars, which also included Wayne Brady, Chip Esten and Greg Proops.

In 2007, Mochrie and Sherwood were invited to perform at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association dinner with former President Bush at the White House. While Mochrie didn’t agree with Bush’s politics, he had no qualms performing there.

“He wasn’t my favorite president,” said Mochrie, adding the qualifier that he is Canadian. “But, I have to say, you walk into the White House, and that’s all you’re thinking about: ‘I’m in the White House. This is bizarre.’ And I have to say Bush was very charming and a lovely host.”

He didn’t have as kind of words for former Vice- President Dick Cheney.

“He scared me,” Mochrie said. “He was sort of hunched over, like Richard III. I think he was actually rubbing his hands, like Mr. Burns from ‘The Simpsons.’ He actually seemed evil.”

Their appearance was a year after Stephen Colbert’s scorching routine that openly mocked the president at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.

“That was something I could never do,” Mochrie admitted. “The fact that he stuck with his principles and he kept going with it while he was obviously making everyone uncomfortable — I just thought it was edgy, it was humorous and he was speaking the truth. So I thought it was great comedy.”

Mochrie’s comedy isn’t so blatantly political. But when audience members guide the jokes, anything is possible. While anything is game, though, the best audience participation entails a little creativity.

“We like when the audience kind of works as hard as we do, so we don’t get ‘gynecologist’ or ‘proctologist’ every time we ask for an occupation,” Mochrie said. “It makes it more fun for us when we have something we’ve never had before.”

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.