TORONTO — I sat on a black plastic chair in a small, gray-carpeted rehearsal room. Two of my classmates sat to my right. Four were in front of me, and one was outside the door.
“OK, suggestions?” our teacher prompted the group facing us, who were serving as an audience for the performance that was about to happen. Someone looked at me and said, “Be Madonna!”
I nodded and said “OK,” sat up straight and tried to project total confidence. I was in the middle of an improvisational comedy class at The Second City Training Centre, and this is what we do. We play “games” – or short, improv-based activities – designed to get us to be open-minded, think fast, and build on each other’s ideas.
This was an interview game. Our classmate in the hallway, a writer and comedian-in-training named Nate Friedman, would soon re-enter the room and ask us questions. We would have to answer them in the style of whatever role we were assigned, without actually saying who we were. Afterward, Nate would have to guess our identities.
Before Nate walked into the room, a flurry of song titles and chopped-up lyrics fired off in my brain. In seconds, I would have to figure out a way to channel my inner Madonna, verbally and physically, and do it by answering questions I couldn’t anticipate.
How would I do that? I wasn’t sure. I’d have to figure it out in the moment. I’d have to make it up. I’d have to go with whatever was about to happen, and silently repeat to myself the improv mantra: “Yes, and …”
There are three styles of comedy: stand-up (where you perform written solo material), sketch (think “Saturday Night Live”) and improv, which became widely popular in the late 1990s thanks to the television show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Each half-hour episode includes a handful of what improvisers call “short-form games,” or challenges. They are fueled by audience suggestions and resemble a far-more-refined version of the spontaneous Madonna performance I had to concoct at comedy school in Toronto.
Some of the “Whose Line” stars have built healthy touring careers, and that includes Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood, who will perform their two-man show, “Scared Scriptless,” on Friday, April 5 at the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts. The two-hour performance includes a variety of those “Whose Line”-style short-form games, and yes, it is made up on the spot.
“Especially during dark times, (with) things that are happening around the news, it’s just nice to sort of be goofy for two hours and forget all of that,” Mochrie told me by phone last week from Toronto, where he lives.
Goofy, they are. In one game, Sherwood and Mochrie borrow a cellphone from an audience member and have that person open up an actual texted conversation. The two improvisers then hold a spontaneous conversation. One of them can say whatever he wants. The other can answer only by reading a line from the texted conversation – whatever it says.
In sync, they are, too. In a game called “Song to a Lady,” they pull someone from the audience to the stage, talk about her life, and then serenade her with personalized, spontaneously created lyrics. In the first verse, Sherwood (who is a skilled singer) and Mochrie (who, by his own admission, is not) sing each line back and forth. In the second verse, they sing one word at a time. In the third verse, they try to sing exactly the same words – and remember, this song isn’t planned – at the same time. (Comedy school tip: This is called mirroring, and you do it by making intent eye contact and listening intensely to your partner.)
The improv brain
The key to improv success, both men told me, is learning not to edit yourself onstage. (Except for the obvious ways. On “Whose Line,” and in their “Scared Scriptless” show, Mochrie and Sherwood tend to stick to PG-13-or-less material.)
“Literally at any given moment onstage, there are an infinite number of ideas that you can throw out there,” Sherwood told me in a recent phone conversation. “You can use any one of them and take the entire story off in that direction.”
Sherwood offered a hypothetical based on a game he created called “New Choice.” In that game, one improviser is throwing out ideas, and the other can command those ideas to change by simply saying, “New choice.” It could go like this:
Improviser 1: “Looks like you had fun shopping.”
Improviser 2: “I just bought a car.”
Improviser 1: “New choice.”
Improviser 2: “I just bought an elephant.”
Improviser 1: “New choice.”
Improviser 2: “I just bought a car for my elephant.”
Performers like Mochrie and Sherwood are often asked how their improv brains work. Sherwood describes ideas like a “four-way intersection” where your brain’s “synapses could fire in any direction.”
“All you have to do is commit to going down a direction and committing to it 100 percent and justifying it,” Sherwood said. “You might be in a funny scene arguing over why you don’t want to buy your elephant a car. Or you might go racing down to the car-elephant dealership. There are a lot of funny scenes that could be happening there.”
Realizing failure is inevitable, acceptable and brief is vital, too.
“You’re just saying the first thing that comes to mind, and you don’t care,” Mochrie said. “It doesn’t matter if you fail, because in the next second you can start to succeed again. It’s a great art form.”
'There are no mistakes'
That rise from failure to success comes from relying on your fellow performers. Unlike stand-up comedy, improv is never done alone. It involves a small group of people, and the only standard prop is a set of chairs or stools. Absent a script, costumes or set, all you can do is rely on your own instincts — and those of the people around you.
“That’s the beauty of improv: We’re becoming a team together,” said Kelsey Wagner, managing director of ComedySportz Buffalo, which performs improv shows every Friday and Saturday at The Arena in Amherst. “We’re making everyone look good. We’re not leaving anyone behind.”
ComedySportz’ roster includes people who are teachers, bankers, entrepreneurs and a pastor, among others. They’ll be performing with ComedySportz players from other cities all weekend from April 5 to 7 as part of the organization’s Improvathon.
Wagner started training in improv 18 years ago as a high school student in San Jose. “There was something freeing about not worrying (over) making mistakes,” Wagner said. “It was a great lesson to learn as a teenager, to let that pressure go.”
Wagner’s path as a performer took her to Chicago – widely considered the home of improvisational comedy – and then to Buffalo, where she oversees operations and education for ComedySportz, which offers improv classes for teenagers and adults.
“A lesson you learn in improv is there are no mistakes,” Wagner said. “You’re able to take the information that’s out there and add on to it.”
That’s called “Yes, and” — and it’s the most basic rule of improv comedy.
Living a ‘Yes, and’ life
The concept of “Yes, and” is strikingly simple. You accept what’s given to you, and you build on it. In improv, that means if someone points out a window on a hot, sunny day and says it’s snowing, then it’s a blizzard. As you play out the scene, you’re going to wrap your arms around your body and shiver, and suggest grabbing some hot chocolates from the Tim Hortons down the street.
When I first walked into the Second City Training Centre in Toronto, I noticed foil balloons spelling out “Yes, and” on the wall. Mochrie told me that he and his wife, actress and comedian Debra McGrath, have made a concerted effort to put more “Yes, and” into their life over the last few years. That resulted in them saying yes to an opportunity to take a trip to the Congo with a humanitarian aid organization, World Vision International.
“It’s just abject poverty, but it was one of the best trips we’ve ever had,” Mochrie said. “We got to meet some great people. We felt we were making a change. Seeing these people in these conditions, yet they had such life, such a spark in them.
“Previous to that, I think I would have thought twice about going to the Congo. It would have been something that stopped me from having this amazing experience.”
Emphasizing “Yes, and” in the Mochrie-McGrath household also helped them when their child came out as transgender as transitioned to a woman in her mid-20s.
“I think with raising our daughter that certainly helped,” said Mochrie, who has sat side by side with his daughter, Kinley, and spoken on camera about the transition. “Then when she came out to transition to a woman, I think that really – besides the love we had for our child – we immediately accepted it and then started working on all the things that could be obstacles or challenges to get to where we are now.”
Get into the groove
Mochrie is world class at delivering jokes with a dry wit, but he sounded fairly serious when he told me on the phone, “I’m going to try and change the world through improv.”
He can do that. Improv at its best is like a comedic superpower, and people like Mochrie and Sherwood wear the capes. For the rest of us, dipping into improv may be a way to change our own worlds just a little bit. As Wagner from ComedySportz points out, it teaches you to let mistakes go. It helps you become less self-conscious, and gives you a great excuse to act utterly ridiculous.
I decided to take improv classes to learn more about storytelling and group work, push myself as a speaker, and to make myself feel uncomfortable in a healthy way. I did it in Toronto mostly because of the schedule (Second City offers classes seven days a week) and partly because I thought it would be cool to train in the same place that produced John Candy, Gilda Radner, Mike Myers and Dan Aykroyd.
My core group of fellow students includes an accountant, an electrician, an opera singer, and a recent university grad who is pursuing an acting career. What I noticed right away is that I’m not that good. I understand the rules and concepts of improv, and (probably because I’m a writer) can almost always come up with words, but it’s rare I make people laugh. Improv purists will tell you that’s not the point; they’ll tell you the idea is to create scenes, react and interact with emotion, and the laughs will come.
But the laughs come less for me.
I asked Sherwood about this – without telling him I was inquiring because of me – and he said, “You could be sort of technically good at improv and all that, but you might not be necessarily a funny person. So you could play all the games and the facile wordplay of it, but not inherently have a funny take on the world. Does that make sense?”
It does, Brad, I thought. I’m living it.
“It’s sort of like you know all the words to every Beatles song,” Sherwood continued, “but you’re kind of a little tone deaf, so you don’t sound that good when you’re singing them.”
When we played that interview game that required me to answer basic questions by channeling the pop star’s vibe and characteristics, my brain went into overdrive:
Should I sing? (No, that’ll give it away — or make people cringe.)
Should I do wordplay? Say something like, “When my I was young, my dad was super strict with me, and I used to beg him, ‘Come on, papa, don’t preach!”? (Maybe, but it could be too obvious.)
In the end, I opted for something physical. When the interviewer Nate asked me about what I like to do with my life, I stood up and started dancing. Then my brain flickered to a mid-1980s MTV “Video Music Awards” performance in which Madonna was crawling on the stage. I was a little kid back then and, thankfully, not watching the VMAs, so I didn’t have a deep well of memory to access on this. But remember, this is improv, and there are no mistakes. So I dropped to the carpet, stretched out my arms, and started rolling around.
And people laughed. Was it actually funny? Who knows? It’s done. But this is improv, and I was on their team.
. . .
Colin Mochrie & Brad Sherwood: Scared Scriptless
8 p.m., Friday, April 5, University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, 103 Center for the Arts, Amherst
Tickets: $34 and up at ticketfly.com
Begins at 6 p.m., Friday, April 5 and continues for nearly 50 hours straight to 7:30 p.m., Sunday, April 7 at The Arena, 4476 Main St., Amherst
Tickets: $1 and up at cszbuffalo.com