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Rare art of listening the heart of improv

Mochrie and Sherwood ready for Honeywell

Steve Penhollow

Whatzup Features Writer

Published October 31, 2019

Heads Up! This article is 4 years old.

Not only can anyone learn how be an improv comic, everyone should learn to be an improv comic.

This advice comes from one of the best-known improv comics working today, Colin Mochrie.

Mochrie returns to the Honeywell Center in Wabash on Nov. 8 with his longtime touring partner, Brad Sherwood.

The Key: Let go of your ego

A few years ago, it occurred to Mochrie and his wife, Canadian actress Debra McGrath, that improvisational comedy requires skills that are not much valued in contemporary society, such as really listening to other people, understanding what they are saying, and reacting in ways that show how well you listened and understood.

“It’s just basically doing things we don’t do in real life,” Mochrie said in a phone interview with Whatzup. “Listening and accepting others. Teaching (improv to) new people, it’s amazing how hard it is for people to let go of that, to let go of their egos in favor of teamwork.”

With the highest-rated news panel shows consisting of people shouting at each other, Mochrie said, it’s little wonder that the number of words being expelled these days is inversely proportionate to the amount of actual communicating that’s being done.

“Of course, nothing is getting solved,” he said. “No one is listening. And it’s really quite simple. If more people took improv classes, those improv skills are actually great life skills too.”

Mochrie joked that he should base a religion on improv comedy. Improv comedy isn’t a religion, but it has enough disciples to keep Mochrie and Sherwood gainfully employed for the rest of their lives.

Getting a boost from TV

Whose Line Is It Anyway? — which debuted in England as a radio show in 1987 — still airs as a TV show on the CW and features three cast members who first appeared on the British TV version: Mochrie, Ryan Stiles, and Wayne Brady.

Stiles tours with his own stage show, Whose Live Anyway? which came to the Embassy Theatre in early October.

The Mochrie/Sherwood pairing grew out of a Las Vegas production that was hosted by former Whose Line master of ceremonies, Drew Carey, and which featured a dozen comics who had made appearances on the TV show.

Sherwood pointed out to Mochrie that they weren’t getting much stage time in that context and wondered aloud if he might like to light out with him.

That was 17 years ago and they’ve been touring together ever since.

Both men believe that great improv comics are not necessarily born. They can be trained.

But hearing what goes through Sherwood’s mind when he is on stage can be intimidating to anyone who suspects that they do not have the same cognitive capabilities as a futuristic computer.

Your favorites (But Not Hoedown)

Sherwood likens his mental processes on stage to detective Tom Cruise investigating a case in the sci-fi film, Minority Report.

If you recall, Cruise’s character had access to a computer that didn’t require a corporeal monitor or keyboard and could predict the future.

Sherwood said improv possibilities pop up in his head the way the floating screens popped up in front of Cruise in that film.

“When something happens to me on stage, those screens come up,” he said.

We all improvise all the time in our lives, Sherwood said in a phone interview. But a professional improvisor must instantly come up with three possible ways to respond to something he’s heard or seen, and he must quickly choose the best (meaning, funniest) option from among those three.

“The key is how fast you can do that,” he said. “That’s the way I do it. Other people just literally say something without having given it a thought and then just deal with the ramifications of whatever it is.”

Mochrie and Sherwood play many games that are familiar from the show, like “Moving People,” “Sound Effects,” and a couple of skits that involve having to make up songs on the spot.

And there are games from the show that they refuse to play.

One of the luxuries of creating their own show is that they’re not compelled to play games they hate.

Like “Hoedown.”

“We went through a period of self-loathing, I guess, where we thought, “We’re going to put a little ‘Hoedown’ in the middle,’” Mochrie recalled. “And then we realized, ‘No. We really don’t want to do that.’”

And they have axed for the time being their climactic skit called “The Most Dangerous Improv Game,” which involves doing a blindfolded improv over live mousetraps.

Sherwood said they don’t want the show to get boring for the fans or the performers.

Keeping each other sharp

Mochrie and Sherwood have worked together for so long that Mochrie said he knows the general direction that Sherwood is going to take an idea or suggestion “90 percent of the time.”

So it’s important that they keep challenging each other.

“What I love about our relationship is that we’re always trying to make the show more difficult with us,” Mochrie said. “We don’t get comfortable.”

A stand-up comic can’t return to a city he’s visited until he’s written all-new material, Sherwood said. But improv comics can return as many times as the fans can stand because the material is al-ways new. It’s “written” on the spot.

The fans can “stand” quite a lot apparently, depending on where they reside.

Wabash is one of those cities that Mochrie and Sherwood return to annually or every two years, Sherwood said. They always fill the Honeywell Center, presumably with many of the same people each time. Mochrie said the show even has groupies of sorts.

“We’ve had people who have followed us around and seen 50 shows,” he said. “It’s insane. I am trying to think of who I would do that for. Even my favorite musical acts. Would I want to see them 50 times? Probably not.”


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