ARCHIVE: Live at the Basie, sans Net

Mochrie-Sherwood toon

By TOM CHESEK

Originally published on RedBankGreen, April 29, 2008

There’s Standing, Sitting, Bending.Scenes from a Hat, always a favorite. There’s Helping Hands — although you’ll need at least three participants for that one — and, of course, the climactic Hoedown.

A bunch of back-of-the-book maneuvers from the Kama Sutra? Actually, they’re some of the more popular and enduring “games” from the improv-comedy TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, a franchise that spawned long-running editions in both the UK and the States — at one point visible daily on networks ranging from ABC to BBC America and Comedy Central.

While you’re never too far from a rerun on ABC Family at any given time, these days the Whose Line legacy is being carried on largely through the efforts of two men, each of whom has played a major part in the history of the show — and each of whom apparently has nothing better to do than, among other things, walk around barefoot and blindfolded on a stage full of mousetraps while performing the always compelling Alphabet Game.

Described as a “full time, part time gig” starring a couple of “gypsies and vagabonds,” An Evening with Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood returns to Count Basie Theatre Friday night for a fifth visit to the Monmouth Street auditorium. In fact, only Milwaukee has hosted the touring show as many times as Red Bank — and while the stars are at a loss to explain the phenomenon, there’s no denying that the low-budget, high-yield laff-fest has become an annual attraction for Hip City habitues; often selling out the house all the way back to the balcony nosebleed seats.

Checking in with redbankgreen by phone, Mochrie and Sherwood took a few moments to detail the things that make their interactive improvs click with audiences, acknowledging the challenges of working “without a net,” or, in this case, a network.

As Sherwood tells it, “this show is more adaptable than most. We’ve performed it in basketball gymnasiums, at outdoor venues — but I like the old theaters myself, having grown up in the theater.”

Although the sketch comedy specialists clocked numerous hours together on the Whose Line set — Mochrie and Ryan Stiles did every American episode and all the later seasons of the British version, while Sherwood was a frequent-flyer guest on both sides of the pond – their association centers around their status as alumni of theSecond City companies. Sherwood (a member of Second City’s Los Angeles outpost) met Vancouver native Mochrie (a veteran of the fabled Toronto troupe that spawned SCTV) on a local LA program that featured Mochrie’s wifeDeb McGrath, and it wasn’t long before the two were paired up for episodes of the BBC series, many of which were taped in LA and first aired stateside.

Though the BBC ended production in 1998, domestic interest had gained enough momentum to re-assemble much of the old cast, with Drew Careyas host this time, and produce a remarkably similar Americanized version of the show. While never a Neilsen blockbuster, it was sufficiently cost-effective to hold its own in some suicide-slot schedulings against the likes of Friends and Survivor.

“We were just a victim of the programming wars,” Sherwood says, adding that “when we went to ABC Family, we became the top-rated show on that channel.”

“We became the new Gilligan’s Island,” Mochrie says in reference to their downright radioactive rerun half-life; a cycle that began long before the last never-before-seen episode aired sometime in 2005.

All of this exposure served to pre-sell audiences on the Mochrie-Sherwood stage presentation, which, while it wasn’t an official “Whose Line Live,” still managed to incorporate some of the interactive routines that the crowds craved.

“We have a huge responsibility to our fanbase,” says Sherwood, who admits to keeping detailed records of the routines performed at each show. “We have a couple of ‘anchor’ games that we like to use, but we try to come up with at least one new game each time we return to a town. We’ve gotta shake it up.”

Mochrie, for his part, hints at the development of a new routine based onJeopardy!, and expresses a desire to revisit a local restaurant that sounds from his description like Buona Sera.

“My favorite thing about doing this show is that you don’t have guys in suits telling you what to do,” Mochrie adds. “Families watch our shows; we had a 95-year-old lady in the audience recently. And the infants sort of get Brad’s humor.”

With the audience playing such a crucial part in the process — calling out suggestions, performing onstage roles, forcing the stars into humiliating positions — Mochrie and Sherwood are more cognizant of the performer/people relationship than just about anyone else.

“Every once in a while people forget we’re human beings. They try to pose our 50-year-old bodies in ways that they don’t necessarily bend,” says Mochrie. “It’s a bit of a trust; we use so many people from the audience during the show, and we don’t want to make them feel uneasy. It’s our job to make us look bad.”

As Sherwood observes, “married couples work well. They feel safer, less inhibited when they know one of the other people on the stage.

“We have more of a communal, collaborative relationship with the audience than an adversarial one,” he sums up. “You’re laughing from a different part of your brain.”

Tickets for the Mochrie-Sherwood show, which kicks off at 8p, are priced from $25 to $65 each, and may be reserved through the venue’s website.

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