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This article was prepared by David McDonough for the May 11, 2005
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Colin Mochrie Is Blissed Out
Colin Mochrie is lucky that Debra McGrath has good taste. In 1986,
when Mochrie, then an aspiring comic actor, tried out for Toronto’s
edition of the famed Second City comedy show, McGrath was the
director. "She told me it ended up between me and the cute guy, and
she went for me," Mochrie says. She must have seen something she liked
– they were married three years later. And Mochrie took his Second
City talents and turned them into prime-time success, on the late ABC
improvisation show, "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"
Mochrie joins fellow "Whose Line?" alumnus Brad Sherwood on Saturday,
May 14, for an evening of improvisational mirth at the Patriots
Theater at the Trenton War Memorial. Mochrie says it promises to be a
free-wheeling evening, totally unscripted, with plenty of audience
participation and enough laughs to leave you pleasantly exhausted.
Mochrie is that luckiest of creatures – someone who is working in a
trade he loves. Comedy is an interesting profession for a
self-described 47-year-old shy man who grew up in Canada, the son of
Scottish immigrant parents.
"We left Scotland when I was six," Mochrie says, "I had a thick
Scottish accent that was so badly beaten out of me that now I cannot
do one to save my life. It’s so embarrassing, with parents who sound
like they just stepped off the boat. I think that was part of my
shyness, and also we moved around a lot when I was a kid (his father
was an airline maintenance engineer), so I never got settled in one
place. Luckily, something like improv came along and gave me a career
and something to do."
His first foray on the stage was the result of a friend’s dare to try
out for a school play, "The Death and Life of Sneaky Fitch." "I played
Mervyn Vale, an undertaker. I split my pants onstage, got my first
laugh, and it was like the defining moment of my life. I remember it
like it was yesterday, at that point going, ‘Okay, this is what I
want. I want to do this now for the rest of my life.’ Up to that
point, I wanted to be a marine biologist."
Splitting his pants seems entirely in character for Mochrie. Anyone
who has seen him work on "Whose Line?" knows that he is absolutely
fearless when he is looking for a laugh. He has been known to contort
his face and body into unrecognizable shapes, kiss anyone within
range, imitate a dinosaur, burst into groaners of puns, fake a
fainting spell, and deliver the most adult of innuendos, all with the
air of an innocent puppy who doesn’t understand what all the fuss is
In retrospect, the road to improv stardom seems as if it was
inevitable for Mochrie, but it didn’t always feel that way. After
graduating as the valedictorian of his high school, he studied theater
at Langara College’s Studio 58 in Vancouver. He then became a part of
the Vancouver TheatreSports League.
"A British gentleman named Keith Johnstone started this thing, which
sort of combined improv and sports," Mochrie says. "There was a
referee who issued challenges, two teams of improvisers, and judges
who would award points. It became the big cult thing in Vancouver in
the 1980s, when I started – it became like a midnight show. Within a
year, we began to sell out performances, and then we began to do
productions – we did an improvised ‘Hamlet.’ It was just an amazing
It was also a time when he met an important figure in his life –
fellow improviser Ryan Stiles, who later shot to fame on "The Drew
Carey Show" and "Whose Line?" "He was okay," deadpans Mochrie, "I had
to help him along." Both men ended up in the Toronto Second City
company, where they quickly became legends – in the best sense of the
The list of Second City alumni who became household names is endless –
it begins with Alan Alda and ends with Nia Vialrdos ("My Big Fat Greek
Wedding"), and in-between are, to name a few, John Belushi, Bill
Murray, Mike Nichols, Martin Short, Gilda Radner, Peter Boyle, and
Mike Myers. There simply isn’t room for more, but it was – and still
is – the greatest training ground for improv comedy since Plautus told
his actors, "Just wing it, and I’ll think of something." Stiles joined
Second City in 1987; Mochrie joined the following year. In his book,
"The Second City: Backstage at the World’s Greatest Comedy Theater,"
Sheldon Patinkin, one of the group’s first directors, says, "Over the
years, two of the best improvisers were Ryan and Colin." The book
says: "One night, Ryan Stiles made Deb McGrath (Mochrie’s wife) laugh
so hard during a scene that she peed her pants on stage.
We don’t what it is with the Mochrie family and pants, but "the
laundry bills are enormous," admits Mochrie.
He stayed with Second City for three years, where he ended up
performing with and directing the touring company. In 1990 he
auditioned for the original British version of "Whose Line?", where
Stiles was performing. He didn’t make it, but he tried again the
following year, and was hired to do a few shows.
"I was never a regular until the seventh year (1995)," he says. "Each
year I was signed for one or two shows and then they would add some
more." Not bad, when you consider that the show that was notorious for
showcasing performers who would appear on screen once or twice and
then disappear, never to be seen again. "Yeah, it was like improvising
with the Mafia," says Mochrie.
In 1998 Stiles and Drew Carey, flushed with the success of his
eponymous show, decided to bring "Whose Line" to America. Mochrie
would seem to have been a natural choice for the new cast, but it was
not that easy.
"ABC wanted young, good-looking improvisers; they wanted an MTV VeeJay
to emcee it. Fortunately, our producers said, ‘It really works with
the funny-looking guys.’ It’s always scary when networks get involved
with a show. One of the things I liked was that we had a fair amount
of control. It either went well or sucked because of us. There wasn’t
a lot they could do – there was no script to look over and make
changes, so we held our own destiny. Of course, they put us on
opposite "Friends," so ultimately, I guess they had more power, more
The show made stars of Stiles, Colin, and the third regular, Wayne
Brady. Appearing semi-regularly on the show was Brad Sherwood, who had
also done some of the British episodes. Sherwood had understudied
Stiles some years earlier in a touring version of Second City, and
Stiles had encouraged him to try out for "Whose Line?"
The ABC version of the show lasted until 2004 but was never a big hit.
Its followers, however, are among the most devoted since Star Trek
first brought William Shatner’s hairpiece and varying waistline to the
airwaves. Shatner and Mochrie do have something in common, by the way;
both are hirsutely challenged, and both have been the subject of some
serious ribbing on the subject. "Of me they’re making a Mochrie," he
once sang on the air, and, another occasion, after a series of bald
jokes by fellow "Whose Line?" cast members, he stated cheerfully,
"I’ll be your lightning rod of hate." He adds: "We got trounced by
‘Friends’ and ‘Survivor,’ but everywhere we go we get recognized.
Everywhere – in restaurants, airports. So I like to think that the
rating system was wrong."
"We’ve had people follow us from show to show, from taping to taping.
God bless ’em – it puts a little more pressure on us to keep every
show different; that’s a good challenge. Our fans are really nice,
very respectful. The rabid fans don’t come up and demand that we be
funny on the street. I don’t do jokes, so when someone comes up and
demands that I be funny, well, ‘What’s your job, why don’t you do it
The loyalty of the fans led Sherwood to believe that a live evening of
improv might work. He approached Mochrie with the idea a couple of
years ago, and they have been at it ever since, playing theaters all
over the country.
"I love the live shows," says Mochrie. "It’s the best of all possible
worlds. I don’t have to do anything. I just show up, play a little
cards, do a show, go out and have something to eat, have a few drinks,
talk about how great we were. If the show didn’t go so well, I have a
few more drinks."
Mochrie says he particularly enjoys performing with Sherwood. "One of
the great things about doing this show with Brad is that it gives the
audience a chance to see what a great improviser he is. I think they
are sort of blown away by that. For me, that is part of the joy doing
Mochrie and Sherwood have about 20 different games they can choose
from in an evening, and most of them involve the audience. In "Crime
Scene," Mochrie is sent out of the theater while Sherwood and the
audience decide what kind of weird crime has been committed and by
whom. Back onstage, Mochrie has to guess, via a series of clues, just
what has happened. Another popular game involves two audience members
doing sound effects for the boys. Then there is "Mousetrap/Alphabet" –
difficult to describe, but let’s just say that it involves physical
pain for Mochrie and Sherwood, and hilarity for the theatergoers.
The duo plays both theaters and colleges and attracts a varying
demographic. "I’m always amazed when I look out and see kids to
grandparents; it’s great. It’s become a bit of a science to pick out
audience members, people to improvise with. We’ve had sweet-looking
grandmother types shout out the most disgusting things."
Mochrie knows he is a lucky man. In his native Canada, he is regarded
as something of a comedy god, and seems to show up on every TV series
produced in the Great White North. Is the CBC really the all-Colin
Mochrie all-the-time channel? "Oh, that’s just put out so that people
will hold me in higher esteem than I should be," he demurs.
He would like to do more acting, though. He has appeared in several
independent films, but says, "’Whose Line?’ gave me a lot of exposure,
which is great, but professionally it never did that much for me.
There’s still a prejudice against improvisers for some reason. I have
no idea why – we’re very lovely people."
Currently, he and his wife are writing and starring in a new CBC
comedy, "Getting Along Famously," a modern update on a low-rent
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor-type couple. Mochrie can be seen
on national TV ads as the Nabisco Snack Fairy. (You were expecting
maybe Smith Barney commercials?) And he does some drop-in teaching in
the performing arts program at Humber College in Toronto, where they
have honored him by giving an annual Colin Mochrie Scholarship. There
is a Chevy Chase award as well, but, as Mochrie admits, "the Mochrie
is more prestigious."
What else is he up to, as if that isn’t enough? "I don’t know. Between
my agent and website is how I find out what I’m doing. I even find out
when I’m going to be home, which the wife likes to know."
Whatever the future holds, you can bet improv will be a big part of
it. Mochrie puts it this way: "When I’m onstage, this is a little
world I’m confident in. It’s usually me and someone I trust totally,
doing something that’s going to work out. In real life, I’m just
flailing like everybody else. But onstage, I’m co-emperor of the
Even foul-mouthed grannies can’t change that.
Patriots Theater, War Memorial, Memorial Drive, Trenton, Saturday, May
14, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $27.50 to $60. Call 1-800-955-5566 or visit
www.tickets.com. For more information, call 609-984-8400 or visit
www.thewarmemorial.com. For more information on Colin Mochrie, visit
www.colinandbrad.com or www.colinmochrie.com.
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