Improv king Colin Mochrie on living in the moment

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Colin Mochrie will perform two-man improv show at Cerritos Center for the Arts on May 1.

By JACKIE MOE

Funnyman Colin Mochrie’s off-the-cuff wit is unmatchable.

From the hit U.S. and British comedy TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway? to headlining theaters around the world for decades, he has proven time and time again that there is no scenario that can’t be funny. 

Before he became an international comic sensation, the Scotland-born and Canadian-grown Mochrie honed his comedy chops at Toronto Second City. In addition to performing in TV shows and films and selling out shows internationally, he and his wife Debra McGrath co-wrote, co-produced, and co-starred in the Canadian sitcoms Getting Along Famously and She’s the Mayor.

Mochrie and his Whose Line comedy costar Brad Sherwood will make a stop in SoCal at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts for a two-man improvisational show on May 1. The comedy show is pure improv that presents new material every night from audience suggestions and participation.

Would you say improv is a learned skill or more of a natural instinct? 

Mochrie: No, it is certainly teachable. Everyone says how difficult it is, but the reason that people think it’s difficult is because it goes against everything we do in real life, which is listening and accepting people’s ideas. So you can teach someone how to do improv. There was someone that once said that you can’t teach someone to be funny, but you can teach ’em to be funnier. So I think basically anyone can be improvised. I mean, it’s what we do actually from day to day. We have no idea what’s happening, you know? We have a certain framework of you know, like I’m going to work today and then I’m gonna see friends, but that’s it. Everything else is totally made up.

Beyond the stage or television, how have your improv skills helped you in life?

Mochrie: My wife and I actually made a conscious effort, like maybe 15 years ago, to use the rules of improv in our life. Maybe say yes to things that are a little outside of our comfort zones, just to see where it takes us. And the very first thing we were tested on once we had made this pact with each other was to go to the Congo to do some work with World Vision, to sort of focus on these kids, to try to get foster care for them. And the Congo was never really one of our vacation destinations, but when we went, it was really one of the most amazing trips we ever had. We were in the jungle, there was abject poverty, but these people had such a light and it was a really great experience for us.

So I’ve tried to walk into all situations as an open slate and try not to make any judgments, and not go in thinking, “Oh, I know how this is gonna play out.” Just sort of play by ear and go along with it. And I find that really helps me, especially with traveling. Brad (Sherwood) can get very upset or worried about something like missing our flight. And my thing is, “But we haven’t yet. Let’s just see what happens.” And most of the time it works out. So I try to not get upset over something that hasn’t happened yet, just because I think it could happen. And I found that’s really helped maintain some sanity, especially with travel. There’s just times that are totally out of my control. What’s gonna happen, is gonna happen. And we’ll just deal with it as it comes along. And it’s really worked out nicely for me.

Is your improv muscle always twitching, preparing your next move?

Mochrie: Oh, I wish I could say yes. I mean, I would say a lot of times, yes. But as I say, we’re human and in some of your relationships, you try not to look ahead. I’m very lucky with my wife in that, you know, Deb and I have been together 33 years now, and it’s working out. And I think because we do have downtime. We have things that we look forward to like our anniversaries and trips that we plan. But the rest of the time, we’re just kind of enjoying each other in this pandemic. You know, I try not to speak positively about the pandemic because people get upset (laughs) but it was really actually pretty good for me in that it was the longest I’d been home in literally 20 years.

So it was nice to go, “Oh look, we still get along!” I’ve sort of learned to relax a little. I was doing two different tours and doing a movie and I was just going from airport to airport and city to city. So I realized this downtime is really kind of what I needed; just to sort of sit back and go, “You know what? It’s time to just take it a little easier.” I love working, but I don’t wanna get to the point where I’m waking up dreading thinking about where I have to go next. I love performing. I love being on stage, and I want to keep that fresh.

Speaking of fresh, after decades of performing, how do you keep your shows fresh?  

Mochrie: Most of the work that Brad and I put into the show — and when I say work, I’m using the term very loosely — is to make it as uncomfortable for us as possible, so that there’s no way we can plan anything. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get suggestions from people. So we don’t get the same suggestion that we get every time we ask for an occupation. So that keeps it fresh for us, getting something that we’ve never had before. We’ve found different ways of asking for things. Recently we asked for an occupation and we asked for the oddest occupation that someone in their audience actually has. And there was this woman there and her job was being the person who was at the other end of the telephone when you’re trapped in an elevator.

I thought, oh, wow, that is cool. First of all, it’s a job that no one would ever suggest to you because you wouldn’t. And I thought, wow, good job. So how often do you really work? Unless you work in a city that has horrible elevator service. So when things like that happen, it really inspires us and keeps it fresh for us. So that’s the main thing is to find good suggestions; we’ve been doing sound effects for 20 years and all the games, so we’ve got that down. 

As the improv king, can you tell me about a time that you’ve been actually stumped or just nothing would come to your brain? 

Mochrie: There’s never been a time

Never? 

Mochrie: No, I’m lying. But the beauty of improv is once those things happen, you banish them from your mind. You don’t remember anything. There have been times where I may not have been on top of it and that’s when I tend to lean back and depend on whoever I’m working with, with Brad or whoever, and then just support them all I can until I sort of get secure footing. 

The true beauty of improv is it’s really hard to get thrown in a way, because even if you know absolutely nothing about the subject you’re given in this world that you’ve created, everything I’m saying is the truth. So if I’m doing the history of Cerritos and I’m saying Cerritos was first colonized by Dutch Amish who were looking to make a brand new cereal, that becomes the truth, because that’s what I’ve just made up. So I don’t know what your truth is but in this alternate universe, this actually happened. So, it does make it easier when you don’t have to stick to facts. I guess our shows are all alternative facts.

How has the history of comedy changed since your Second City days? 

Mochrie: You go through different stages. I mean, when you first start improv, you’re like totally fearless and you’ll do anything to get a laugh and that stays with you forever. But there’s also a rushed quality, I found for me anyway, when I was first starting out, and now I feel I’m like the wily veteran. So I’m a little more timely with things I try to explore comedy in this particular idea until it’s totally exhausted, where when I was younger, it would be like a hummingbird splitting from comic idea to comic idea. So I feel like I’ve certainly gotten more confident over the years. 

What I found is I also often get asked to join in theater groups across the country and work. And it’s usually with people I don’t know. And I love that because it sort of keeps me on my toes. Now, the downside of that is my name is always served for the poster, but that’s not how I work in the show. I’m there to be a part of the group. So that is something I’ve learned over the years is I don’t have to be front and center every scene. I don’t have to be driving every scene. I have just as much fun supporting a scene and coming in and out as I do rather than being the star of the scene. I don’t have to be the number one guy, I can come in, get my couple of laughs and then leave.

I’m sure you’ve been asked this a billion times, but as a longtime fan of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” I have to know. Is there any particular moment for you that was the most memorable or special that you actually think back and laugh on?

Mochrie: There’s a couple of moments that are very special to me. One, Robin Williams was on the show, and I mean, he was such a big inspiration to all of us. We were all fans and he was an Oscar winner, and he came on the show and he was just one of the performers. He was lovely. I always love when you meet someone you admire and that they’re a lovely person too. So that was doubly a wonderful experience. Also when Sid Caesar was on, who I was a big fan; he had the first kind of variety show on television and his writers were like everyone from, you know, Carl Reiner to Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. And they would do this 90 minute live show. That was just amazing. So he came on the show and laughed at something I did, and that made my life.

And another thing I remember, just because people send it to me all the time, but the scene with Richard Simmons. I remember vividly because there was one moment where in the final editing of the show, they had to cut down the laughs because it went on for over a minute. It was when Richard’s head was bobbing around my genital area, and I thought, okay, gosh, how much longer can this go? And of course the part of me is going, yes, keep going, keep going. (laughs) But I do remember that moment and just thinking, oh, God bless you, Richard Simmons for being so committed. Those moments I swear I could re-watch over and over again. 

What advice would you give 20 year old Colin? 

Mochrie: The advice I’d give is don’t sweat, live in the moment. Cause that took too long for me to learn. And I was like a worrier when I was younger and between that, and you know, life is a marathon. It’s not a sprint. When I went to theater school, it seemed like everybody that was in my class in my school seemed to get jobs right away. And it took me a while. And really, I didn’t become the international superstar I am today till I was like 42. So my thing is, you know, things will happen when they’re supposed to happen. Don’t sweat. Just be prepared for when that moment comes.

Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood

Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 18000 Park Plaza Drive, Cerritos, CA 90703

7 p.m. Sunday, May 1

https://www.cerritoscenter.com/

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