I was having coffee with a friend when Colin Mochrie called me. I excused myself, said something about having to do an interview, and stepped out to answer the phone.
When I came back, she asked, “Who were you talking to?”
“Colin Mochrie,” I said. “He’s from ‘Whose Line Is –”
“YOU WERE?” she said, cutting me off before I could get out the full name of the ABC television show that made Mochrie famous, “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”
Mochrie and another “Whose Line” star, Brad Sherwood, are bringing their two-man improvisational comedy show, “Scared Scriptless,” tonight to the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts. The performance, which begins at 8 p.m., is two hours of improvised comedy routines. It’s based on crowd suggestions, the occasional audience member participating onstage, and at one point, by Mochrie or Sherwood using a series of texts from a willing fan’s phone to concoct a conversation. One side of that conversation is completely improvised; the other side is the texts, read verbatim. (Or nearly verbatim, in case the comedians need to edit for content – theirs is a clean show.)
“I still can’t believe people will give us their phones,” Mochrie told me. “We say ‘Make sure you’re comfortable with this,’ but there’s just stuff that I wouldn’t have been comfortable releasing that these guys seem to have no problem with.”
Back to my friend, and her stunned reaction to the Mochrie call (and to my Sherwood interview, too; I talked to him the next day). There’s something about these guys and the other “Whose Line” stars that captures people – and even convinces them to hand over their phones.
As I spoke with Mochrie and Sherwood, I made it my unspoken challenge to try to figure out what that is.
Full disclosure: I’ve interviewed them before, and I’ve studied improv at the Second City in Toronto. (You can read about that journey, and more of my interview with Mochrie and Sherwood, in this story published last weekend.) Those experiences fed into my curiosity, and here’s what I came up with:
They’re seemingly regular guys with specific and unusual ability to think and act fast. That makes them simultaneously relatable and aspirational.
Improvisers, Sherwood told me, have the ability to “access their thoughts immediately.” Onstage, they do it in a way that’s over-the-top funny and builds on each other’s ideas.
“When you’re using your actual superpower, you’re in a heightened state,” Sherwood said, “whereas when you’re in your regular life, you’re in more a default setting, generally.”
Which is to say in their daily lives, Sherwood and Mochrie aren’t necessarily cut-ups.
“I never say anything negative,” Sherwood told me, dryly, and then added, “That’s a joke. A big joke. I’m always Mr. Negative Nellie and worrywart on the road.”
Sherwood told me his wife, Seana Mahoney, a former actress and now life and wellness coach, has helped him maintain an upbeat view on the details of life. “She’s super, super positive and goal- and result-oriented,” Sherwood said.
Then there’s Mochrie. To the surprise of many fans, he is actually quite quiet and shy in his real life. His wife, actress Debra McGrath, has a name for her husband’s TV persona.
“My wife calls the me on ‘Whose Line’ ‘The Other,’ because it’s so not me,” Mochrie said. “That guy will do anything. He has no embarrassment, no shame. In real life, I don’t have that at all. I could not react outside of the box, really, in my real life.
“I need therapy, man. I need therapy.”
OK, so they’re fallible – and that’s the point. In a lot of ways, Mochrie and Sherwood seem just like us. Mochrie is balding and gentle-eyed and looks like he could be your next-door neighbor. Sherwood is tall and has a commanding presence; if you gave him a whistle and a whiteboard, he could pass for your local high-school basketball coach.
But here’s the difference: They have that funny instinct, and are seemingly fearless of using it without a script. From the stage, they convey a confidence we all wish he had. Whether they have it in real life isn’t the point, because that’s not the part of them we get.
We get the TV personalities. We get the guys who will dive in without a plan, who act on trust, and who know that the other will help if there’s as struggle.
“If I’m working with Brad, I don’t have to be the funny one in the scene – although ultimately I usually am,” Mochrie said. “Don’t tell him that.”
Note: This is the first installment in a series of “Outtakes” features I'll be posting to give readers a different take or an inside look at stories I write.
— Tim O’Shei