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Friday, Jan. 29, 2010

Brad Sherwood on Keeping “Whose Line” Dangerous

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To this day, there are viewers who don’t believe that the improvisational comedy show “Whose Line is It Anyway?” was actually improvised.

“In a certain sense, that’s really frustrating, because I think if people really realized we were making all those bits up, they would be amazed at what an accomplishment it was, but I think they thought it was a little too funny not to be scripted,” says cast member Brad Sherwood. “We always had mixed feelings about that. In one sense, they’re calling us liars, but in another, they’re complimenting us by saying we’re really good at what we do.”

Sherwood says he keeps that skepticism in mind for his two-man version of “Whose Line” with fellow cast member Colin Mochrie. The pair has now been touring behind the show for six years—longer than the American version of the program ran on ABC. In that time they’ve become sharper performers, more adept at playing off each other, better at running with funny moments and quicker to salvage unfunny ones.

On paper, that should make for a better show, but it isn’t necessarily what audiences want to see. They don’t want Sherwood and Mochrie to nail every bit and make it look easy. They want to see the comedians bomb every one in a while, or at least get some assurance that the comedy they’re seeing is indeed improvised.

“There has to be that sense of danger there for the comedy to work,” says Sherwood. “That’s part of the responsibility of any improviser. So we create safety devises that throw us into the danger. I know that sounds paradoxical, but we really need to make sure the games we’re playing on stage have an element of presenting trouble, because that’s the fun. If you’re a magician and you make a small cotton ball disappear in a 10 gallon drum, that’s not exciting, but if you make an elephant disappear, that’s much more memorable.”

So Sherwood and Mochrie continually invent new improv games to keep their show fresh, and constantly push the audience for more weirder, more challenging suggestions (nobody wants to see another improv skit set in at the dentist, or at a post office).

The pair’s games rely heavily on audience interaction, but the comedians are careful to protect their audience volunteers. They don’t expect the audience to do any comedic heavy lifting, but just to play along while Sherwood and Mochrie make most of the jokes.

“We shield our volunteers, figuratively wrapping them up in Saran Wrap before we hit them with a pie,” Sherwood says. “We want it to be goofy and fun and maybe have them be a little embarrassed, but we’re not trying to humiliate them.”

Audience members with extreme stage fright can rest assured the performers will leave them alone.

“We have no interest in dragging someone entirely recalcitrant up on stage,” Sherwood says. “We’ve got plenty of willing volunteers to work with. Generally the first people we bring up on stage and hesitant and maybe even a little mortified, but once the audience sees how we treat them, they’re a lot less afraid.”

Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood return to the Pabst Theater for a pair of shows on Saturday, Jan. 30 at 2 and 8 p.m. The performances will be filmed for an upcoming comedy special.

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