If you’ve seen Jeff B. Davis on Whose Line Is It Anyway? you know him as a dapper lad with a quick wit and a perpetual twinkle in his eye.
In his suits and shaggy mop of hair, he looks exactly like a London mod, circa 1964.
He could be photoshopped into early press images of the British rock band The Who and he wouldn’t look at all out of place.
But Davis is a far more nuanced guy than his snarky persona suggests.
Surprising start on Broadway
Davis will come to the Embassy Theatre on October 8 with some of his improvisational cohorts as part of the Whose Live Anyway? tour.
Watching him on Whose Line reruns, you might not be able to guess that he had a whole career before puberty hit as a child actor in musical theater.
He performed on Broadway with Yul Brynner in The King and I and went on a national tour with that show and that actor.
Brynner was dying of cancer at the time, so Davis said he probably didn’t get to know him all that well.
“He was always very courteous to me and my mother and my father,” he saidin an interview with Whatzup. “Because they’re kind of old school, too, and I think he respected them. He finished with something like close to 6,000 performances without missing one. I did just under 800. That was my life.”
Throughout Brynner’s final Broadway appearances, stars came to pay tribute to him.
“Jackie Gleason was there,” Davis said. “Michael Jackson was there. Everyone wanted to come and see Yul Brunner for what would certainly be one of the last times you could see him.”
Davis got involved in improv by way of a Los Angeles group called ComedySportz. Davis said he was terrified of improv at first and wasn’t sure he was all that interested in doing it. He quickly became addicted to it.
Davis heard of an audition for an American version of the British show Whose Line Is It Anyway? and went to try out with a friend of his named Wayne Brady.
Brady was chosen. Davis was not.
Davis tried out three more times over a span of three years with no success.
A fifth opportunity to audition came up, but Davis said he didn’t think he had it in him to return.
“The auditions are really grueling,” he said. “Fifty people show up and it lasts four hours. And then (British producer Dan Patterson) makes cuts — ‘You can leave,’ ‘You can leave,’ ‘You can leave’ — and the people he is cutting are some of the funniest people I know.”
His manager talked Davis into trying out one more time.
Davis decided he was going to treat the fifth audition like a date with a girl. He went to a thrift shop and bought a vintage suit.
“It was 95 degrees,” he said. “I was roasting in the suit. It was like thick wool. But I walked in the room and the producers looked at me and I could tell I had the job this time. Because I looked different.”
The call from his manager telling Davis he got the job couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment.
Davis had just returned from a stint performing on a cruise ship and he was flat broke and being evicted.
“I had to put all of my stuff in trash bags and move into a new apartment and lie to my new landlord that I would have $1,000 for him in ten days,” he said. “I moved into the new apartment with my trash bags of all the stuff I could carry. I left a lot of stuff behind for the sheriff to enjoy. There were no lights on in the new place because I hadn’t turned on the utilities.
“I got a call from my manager and she said, ‘Are you sitting down?’ I was like, ‘I don’t have any furniture.’ She goes, ‘You’ve got Whose Line.’”
Davis asked her when he would get his first paycheck and the date she gave him was one day before the landlord was expecting his $1,000.
“I don’t want to sound dramatic, but I was so tired from the stress of what was going on that I completely collapsed and just fell on the floor,” he said. “And I just laid there feeling completely numb. It was like, ‘Oh, I am actually going to make it through the week.’”
Since that day, Davis has worn suits wherever he performs. And, unlike some of fellow Whose Line performers, he never expresses anything but unalloyed gratitude for the show and all its televised and live offshoots.
“It’s the goose that laid the golden egg,” he said. “This is the greatest job I could ever think of. I don’t want this to ever end.”
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November 24 • Honeywell Center