Austin Improvisers as Members of “Whose Line is it Anyway?”

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Whose Line Is It Anyway? is the average American’s only exposure to improvisation. (Which means that Wayne Brady is, by far, the most popular improviser on the planet.) For a lot of improvisers, the success of Whose Line…?—which recently returned to TV for the 73rd time—is a troublesome annoyance. These haters consider Whose Line…? an over-edited, watered-down version of improv that distorts the breadth and depth of the art form.  

These critics have arguments that look like this:

  • It’s all shortform games! And for a large subset of improvisers, shortform is the obnoxious wart on the nose of improv, something they don’t even consider in the same realm as their beloved Scarlet Gables: Improvised Nathaniel Hawthorne or whatever narrative longform they’re addicted to.
  • It’s edited! This critique I can sympathize with, but not totally. The argument is that the producers film an hour of games and then show only the 20 best minutes, ignoring the stuff that might not have “worked” as well. So yes, while editing prevents the audience from seeing the more cerebral (or less funny) bits, how many of us wouldn’t love it if our live improv shows were only the best 33% of our work?
  • It’s family friendly! Much of Whose Line…? core cast are known to be naughty, blue, ribald, etc. But for the TV show they’re forced to clean it up. (After all, it was on ABC Family TV for years.) But I don’t consider this much of a complaint, because (a) non-naughty humor is often hilarious and (b) seeing Colin Mochrie shout “dick-waggle!” will give you nightmares.

My comeback to these criticisms: POPPYCOCK!

I admit to having a very soft spot in my heart for this show. I was a latchkey kid who spent a lot of time home alone in the morning and afternoon while my mom was at work. Comedy Central would show re-runs of the original British version everyday, and as early as 5th grade I was watching a half-hour in the morning and a half-hour after I walked home from school. I got to watch an hour of improv everyday—including Stephen Fry, Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie, Tony Slattery, and Josie Lawrence. And while the British version was superior to the American version (the Brits go blue), even the Drew Carey reboot of the show is a delightful half-hour of television.

My personal preferences notwithstanding, we should all be downright thrilled that improv gets wide exposure, even if it’s only one type of improv. Whatever stirs interest and populates our theaters is helpful; our job is then to give them a show they love.

And there’s nothing wrong with shortform; there’s something wrong with the improviser’s attitude who hates shortform. If you enter a game wielding all of your improv skills and techniques, you can create hilarious, compelling scenes within the rules of the game.

OK. So.

All of this soapboxing and analysis is merely preamble to what I really want to do:

COMPARE AUSTIN IMPROVISERS TO MEMBERS OF THE WHOSE LINE IS IT ANYWAY CAST!!!

So without any further ado, here we are…

 

1. Greg Proops = Peter Rogers

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Simmer down! It’s not just because both men wear Buddy Holly glasses and have poofy hair—though, obviously, it doesn’t hurt. It’s mostly because Proops and Rogers approach improv intellectually. They’re both the smartest guys in the scene and will drop references to Kierkegaard or the War of Roses or the corpus callosum without hesitation. And the reference will make sense! 

Despite their academic appearance, both men are capable of doing lithe, physical improv. They both dress snappily. They’re both very generous improvisers, willing to give the “funny” bit to their scene partner and not hog it for themselves.

And they both have Buddy Holly glasses. (Did I mention the Buddy Holly glasses?)

But the truth is, I’d rather watch Rogers than Proops. As smart as Proops is, he’s often not especially funny. His smarts can appear condescending or smug. Rogers’ smarts are often weaved seamlessly into the scene and don’t appear as showing off.

Also, they both have eyewear reminiscent of the singer Buddy Holly.

 

2. Colin Mochrie = Michael Jastroch

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Gosh, how can you not adore Colin Mochrie? He’s almost made for this show, because his improvisation is always light and playful. He’s like an overgrown (and balding) 14-year-old who never forgets that he’s just making this shit up as he goes. He has that special gift that few performers do: to make his “mistakes” as delightful and funny as his successes. Johnny Carson had that. And so does Michael Jastroch.

Jastroch is deceptively smart onstage. He may not drop a bunch of obscure references, but he will usually say the exact right thing that the scene needs. He can find the game instantly and heighten it in no time. And like Mochrie, Michael Jastroch maintains a lightness beneath his persona, a “momentum of play” that the audience laps up by the spoonful.

He’s never dull to watch, and when he nails the moment (as he usually does) it’s magnificent. This may be my favorite pairing on this entire list.

 

3. Ryan Stiles = Craig Kotfas

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Ryan Stiles doesn’t get nearly enough accolades. And neither does Craig Kotfas. Both of them are improv stalwarts capable of doing a bit of everything. They can drop a perfectly timed line, commit 100% to a crazy character, work the audience, sing a song, dance a dance—and they can do it all at the height of their skills.

But beyond all of that, both of these guys are just … fucking … funny.

Ryan Stiles is a giant man with a goofy face, which he employs to great comedic effect. Craig Kotfas is a regular-sized man with a normal face which he somehow contorts into comedy platinum. I think both of these guys are just so consistent, so well-equipped with improv skills, that they’re easy to overlook. But we shouldn’t. Stiles is one of the best short-formers ever, and Craig Kotfas is one of the smartest, hardest performing improvisers I’ve ever seen.

Let’s give both of these “workhorses” a big shout out, shall we?

 

4. Tony Slattery = Kaci Beeler

Tony+Slattery+vlcsnap397254  =  kaci-edinburgh-flyering

Slattery was on the BBC show back in the early 90s and was simply un-unwatchable. You couldn’t take your eyes off him when he was onstage because he was so in the moment. He was not only having fun, he was making sure you knew he was having fun. He wore it on his sleeve. He brought you into his silliness.

I think of Kaci Beeler the same way. She’s instant heat onstage; when she enters a scene the audience is drawn to her. She almost doesn’t have to do anything to get their attention.

But like Tony Slattery, she does plenty. I liked Slattery because of his ability to vacillate between simple “grounded” improv and absurd, over-the-top characters. I’ve seen Kaci do the same thing. She can be a sympathetic, down-to-earth character, only to enter the next scene as some wacky, hunchbacked butler. (Etc.)

And, perhaps the best compliment of all: neither of these improvisers, despite their capability to easily do so, ever chew the scenery. They support their partners; they don’t use them as mere props. (Note to self: Learn this lesson wisely.)

It might just help to watch Slattery in action. I think you’ll see the parallels (he’s the one on the left):

 

5. Wayne Brady = Michael Joplin

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I’m not disturbed by the fact that Wayne Brady is the best know improviser in the history of improv comedy. Because Wayne Brady is a superstar, a tightly packaged well of talent that can fucking explode onstage over and over again. His improvised singing is the best I’ve ever seen, ever ever ever.

Which is why Michael Joplin. Joplin is known for his speed, physicality, and timing onstage—just like Brady. I’ve never seen an improviser who operates at such a fast pace without sacrificing something; Joplin sacrifices nothing. Both men can zip from one character to another in nanoseconds without losing focus or commitment. They toss their bodies around the stage with abandon and always manage to keep us smiling.

It’s an impressive skill that I’m deeply jealous of.

And while Brady is probably a better crooner, Michael Joplin is a musician in his own right. If Joplin ever decides to pack up and move to Hollywood, Hollywood will double its talent level overnight. (Only one person lives in Hollywood, right?)

 

6. Stephen Fry = John Ratliff

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When I figured this one out I was so goddamn delighted with myself. Of course John Ratliff is Stephen Fry.

Now, Stephen Fry, when filling out his curriculum vitae, would probably put “improv comedian” far down the list of his occupations. He’s a renaissance man, a true British gentleman. He’s an author, an actor, a comedy writer, a director, a public intellectual, a lecturer, a talk show host, a poet, an activist, etc.

John Ratliff, from my limited perspective, is an improviser and an improv teacher/coach. I’m not sure if he’s ever written a screenplay or starred in sketch comedy with Hugh Laurie. But Ratliff is a fucking thinker. And to me, Stephen Fry is the same. These are two funny men—and really, “witty” might be the better word—who revel in the life of the mind. They consider, they opine, they share.

To watch John Ratliff teach an improv class is, I’d imagine, what it’s like to watch Stephen Fry teach a course on playwrighting, for example: generous without being pushovers, smart without being didactic, and above all, hilarious.

Here’s a clip of Stephen Fry talking. You tell me you don’t see the similarities.

*Note: This list is neither scientific, particularly accurate, or meant to imply that I’m anything other than a gigantic fan of Wayne Brady.

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