Three minutes before they go onstage, the quartet of performers playing Overture Center this weekend are more likely to be vegging out than warming up.
“We don’t really prepare too much,” said improv comic and actor Ryan Stiles. “Chip (Esten) will be lying on the couch reading a book, Jeff (Davis) will be on the phone. We’re talking about everything except the show.”
Stiles, Esten, Davis and Greg Proops are the comic force behind “Whose Live Anyway?,” a live version of the popular Drew Carey TV show, “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”
Their wholly improvised performance, in which audience members provide inspiration for scenes and funny bits, plays Overture Hall on Saturday, May 19, at 8 p.m.
Stiles, a seasoned improviser who has also had roles on “The Drew Carey Show” and “Two and a Half Men,” first joined the cast of “Whose Line Is It Anyway” in Great Britain in 1989. After the show came to the U.S., Stiles was also a core member of Carey’s cast (198 episodes total).
77 Square spoke with Stiles from his home in Bellingham, Wash., where he lives with his wife and three kids.
You started in stand-up comedy. How long did it take you to get good at improv?
They’re totally different things show-wise. When I used to go out for stand-up, from an audience there’s a “make me laugh” attitude. They realize you’ve been working on the material for a while.
With improv, (the audience) is suggesting everything you do. It’s much warmer. They want it to work. You have to be pretty bad to not do a good show improvising, although I’ve seen a lot of bad improv.
I think part of bad improv is bad timing, and maybe not knowing when a joke is dead.
I had the best training at Second City (in Toronto and Los Angeles). We were taught to find the humor in everyday life and play out scenes, rather than be jokey onstage.
“Whose Line” was a very jokey show, because it was television. We didn’t have a lot of time to do a scene. When we do a show like we’re doing (in Madison), we control the show — we don’t do a lot of games. We do scenic stuff … we want to keep it active.
I work with guys I really trust. Jeff’s the new guy and he’s only been with us 11 years. Guys like Colin (Mochrie), I’ve worked with for 35 years.
Are there things audiences always suggest?
We get gynecologist every show. And we turn it down every show.
If someone wants to get good at improv, how do they practice?
You just have to get onstage. There’s no practice for this. It would be the same for a comic, for a stand-up.
It’s a matter of trusting the people you’re onstage with. You can’t have an improv group where someone wants to be the star, because people will just shut him down and not make any offers to him and not help him out. It doesn’t work that way.
That’s what our show is. After you watch it, you can’t pick your favorite.
With a staged play you have a script, but with improv there’s no buffer between you and the other actors. How important is it that you like each other?
I don’t think I’ve ever improvised with someone that I disliked.
Number one, I just wouldn’t do it. And those people don’t last in the improv world for too long, because people just don’t want to work with them. You can’t do improv by yourself.
You have to be a giving, trusting person to do it. Improv is only two things — listening to what other people are saying to you and adding something on top of that. That’s all it is, but it’s the hardest thing to do.
... It’s like a kid. Kids are the best people to train to do improv. They never say no about anything. If you tell them they’re a penguin playing tennis, they’ll be a penguin and play tennis.
Are most improv folks naturally outgoing people? Are you an extrovert?
The only place I really feel comfortable is onstage. I don’t like crowds. I’m not very good with just everyday life, but when I get onstage that’s kind of my church.