Although improvisational comedy "game show" Whose Line Is It Anyway? was unceremoniously canceled by ABC in 2006 after enjoying a nearly two-decade run on both radio and TV in both the UK and the states, Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood—two of the show's most senior veterans—have essentially converted it into a touring act. Since 2002, the appropriately titled An Evening With Colin Mochrie And Brad Sherwood has showcased the duo's time-tested improv chops in a two-hour set that solicits suggestions from the audience and calls on attendees to participate onstage. Before they came to Chicago, The A.V. Club spoke to Mochrie and Sherwood about Whose Line's skeptical audience, the difference between American and British audiences, and rapping with Karl Rove.
A.V Club: Improv has been tried on TV repeatedly, usually unsuccessfully. Why did Whose Line break that trend?
Brad Sherwood: They came up with a format that worked. All the scenes were fairly short, so they kept the audience's attention span. There was enough there to give the improvisers something to work with. Not to slap ourselves on the back, but the producers did nationwide and worldwide searches. It started in England. When they boiled it down to the people they relied on most, it ended up being six of us that were consistent enough to hit it out of the park on a regular basis. Because there are good improvisers, but we needed to be good improvisers that could deliver right on the spot in a two-minute scene; get a bunch of laughs out. I think a lot of improvisers do long-form [improv] and stuff where the jokes are built into the characters and it develops over time; but on the Whose Line format you didn't have time to do that. So I think it's really about the talent level. Not just us, but the other guys as well.
AVC: Whose Line is relatively reviled by the comedy community for not being "real improv." Do you encounter that perspective often?
BS: Everyone thinks we had advance knowledge of what was going on, and that we were primed by the producers and given the suggestions in advance. But that's not the case; we were actually making it up. I think a lot of stand-ups and writers look down at improv as some sort of heightened charades buffoonery, but it's a legitimate form of comedy.
Colin Mochrie: I think a lot of improvisers hated it because it was successful. And improvisers, we're a jealous lot. I don't think anyone involved with the show thought this was the way to do improv, because it was on television, the time constraints, and because of the medium. It's probably a little more shticky than improv purists would hope for, but it was all totally made up; if it's made up, then it's improv.
AVC: What does that jealousy stem from?
BS: I think it comes from anything getting more attention in a format than someone else who might be in that format is getting. I'm sure a lot of Broadway ballet dancers were jealous of the people on So You Think You Can Dance the first few seasons, and looked down on it.
AVC: A lot of critics say Whose Line was scripted.
BS: Yeah. That's what everybody thinks.
CM: Unless it really sucks. Than they have no trouble believing it was made up.
BS: If it's really bad, they go, "Oh, of course it's made up." If it's really funny, they go, "Oh, they planned that stuff out. They have a bunch of rehearsed bits, and they craft them into whatever suggestions."
CM: That really gives us credit for being really good actors, which I don't think any of us are.
AVC: They only give you credit when it suits them.
CM: It would be too much work trying to plan everything so you were ready for every suggestion that came your way. Part of the fun of Brad and my show is we always try to find different ways of getting suggestions. So, we actually start off our show by asking how many people believe Whose Line was rigged. There's always about 25 percent of the people who do.
AVC: You mentioned Whose Line was grooming performers from all over. How is performing for American audiences different than a British audience?
CM: Not a lot. The American audiences are more vocal and enthusiastic. British audiences tend to sit back a little more. When I improvised in Britain, maybe the suggestions would be different. A lot of our suggestions come from like pop culture and things like that, where in Britain, I would get things like, "King Charles II." Aside from that, if an audience laughs, there is no nationality.
AVC: Are British audiences as skeptical about the show being improvised?
BS: I think British audiences were actually more aware that it was improvised. I think because the show originated there, I think they were aware of it; they believed it. I think American audiences tend to be more cynical and skeptical, because I think we're duped more often. See footnote for government.
AVC: Speaking of, you rapped with Karl Rove at the Radio And Television Correspondent's Association Dinner last year.
CM: Oh yes! I remember reading about that. Well, they asked us to do it. That was basically it.
BS: We knew we were going to rap, but because we'd gotten Brian Williams up for the first game, we'd have to get someone to trump that as far as someone a little more exciting and more famous. If I just grabbed two people out of the audience that no one's ever seen, it would be kind of a letdown. We couldn't use anybody that was up on the dais. We couldn't use the president. We couldn't use Nancy Pelosi. We couldn't use anyone up there. But we were sitting at tables during the dinner, and I knew Karl Rove was two tables over from us. I had seen him come in. I walked over and asked him; I fully expected him to shake his head and say no. At which point, I was going to grab Wolf Blitzer who was also sitting at that table. But Karl Rove stood up, turned around, raised his arms to the audience, and followed me to the stage. A lot of people thought he was pre-screened, that he knew he was coming up, that he knew we were going to use him. But, no, I just took a chance because I thought it would be funny.
CM: I don't think anyone was more shocked than us that he came up.
BS: I would have bet that all the money we were getting paid that he would have said no. But he jumped up like he was shot out of a party cannon.
AVC: So, people didn't think that was improvised, either.
BS: The people who don't think that it's improvised, we're never going to get them on our side anyways. It's like having a religious conversation with someone. If someone believes in God, you can never convince them otherwise, no matter how much scientific proof you have. And vice-versa. So, fuck those people.