Colin Mochrie Reflects on Over 30 Years of Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Colin Mochrie with Ryan Stiles on Whose Line. Photo: Byron J Cohen/The CW

Colin Mochrie was doing improv before it was cool — or maybe, more accurately, before a lot of people even knew what it was. A Toronto Second City alumnus, comedian, and actor, he corralled people off the street into improv theaters and worked on a number of smaller productions before appearing in over 50 episodes of the U.K.’s Whose Line Is It Anyway? from 1991 to 1999. In 1998, he brought improv to an even wider audience as a star in ABC’s American spinoff. On the show, Mochrie, Ryan Stiles, Wayne Brady, and a rotating guest performer participated in a variety of improvised scenes for five years alongside host Drew Carey. (From 2005 to 2007, no new episodes were filmed, but previously unaired content was played on ABC Family.)

The show was picked back up by the CW in 2013 with Aisha Tyler at the helm, and Mochrie returned to reprise his role as Captain Hair alongside Brady and Styles. In November, he announced on Twitter that the show will close with its 20th season, which premieres in March. While the CW would not confirm the show’s cancellation, Mochrie said that “everyone at the show — producers and actors — are calling this the last taping. The short answer is that if it comes back, it probably won’t be with this cast.”

With roughly 400 episodes under his belt, Mochrie reflected, during his last days of filming, on Whose Line’s impact on improv, how the show and comedy changed over time, and his own life: “I’m doing much better than people with hair.”

You’ve mentioned before that improv “wasn’t a part of mainstream entertainment” when you first became interested in it.
When I first started improv, nobody knew what it was. At the theater we were at, when we first started, we were running into the McDonald’s next door, begging people, “Come see our show.” They said, “What’s it about?” And we said, “No, we don’t know. You have to yell at us and then we’ll make up something.”

There are still times I think, How did they pitch the show to a network and have it get picked up? There’s four guys you have never seen before, and we don’t have a show until the end of the taping, and it’s 22 episodes of that. I’m proud that it got improv into the public mind-set. I know there were a lot of people who looked down on Whose Line, which I understand. We never said this is the end-all be-all of improv. I always like to think it’s a gateway to all the different forms there are. But it’s gotten the word out there. And it was a show that families could watch together.

What have you noticed about improv’s growth in the past 30 years?
Just the fact that it’s in the public consciousness — and that, I think, is all due to Whose Line, once it became popular. Kids really seemed to be drawn to it, so there were improv clubs starting in college and high school. And then like any other kind of art form, people just kind of played around with it to see what sort of formats could be done — everything from an improvised one-act play to improvised Dungeons & Dragons. I think the surface is still kind of just being scratched.

I’ve been very fortunate for the success of Whose Line that I’ve been able to tour all around the world and work with improvisers from all around the world. I always say the guys on Whose Line are pretty good, but there are fantastic improvisers all around the world who just haven’t had a series showcase them, and they’re constantly finding ways to play with the format and do different things.

How do they “play with the format”?
There’s one guy in Ireland, Neil Curran, whose show is to get someone up from the audience, and they become his improv partner for the whole time. I’ve been doing a show with a hypnotist where he hypnotizes people and then I improvise with them. It’s fascinating, because people always say, “Well, how can you improvise? It’s so hard, it’s so difficult,” and it really isn’t. It’s just that we do things onstage that we don’t do in real life, which is listening, accepting people’s ideas, and working with them. And when you’re working with hypnotized people, the part of the brain that deals with self-criticism — that part of the brain that says, “You can’t do this or you’re going to look silly, make a fool of yourself” — that’s gone. So people become true improvisers. They just react to everything that either I or the hypnotist says. It’s been fascinating seeing how, once people get out of their own way, what they can do.

I do think everyone can improvise, but as a lapsed theater kid, there’s definitely a talent involved.
Like any muscle, it has to be worked and exercised. Because, I mean, basically, we’re all improvisers. That’s what our lives are. We have sort of a rough framework; we know how it’s going to end. Everything in between now and then is just totally improvised.

Why did you decide to return for the Whose Line reboot in 2013?
A big part of it was the people, because I don’t live in the same city as them, so it was a chance to kind of play around with them. Also, it’s for mercenary reasons. Also, it would give publicity to the tour I was doing with Brad Sherwood, and it doesn’t take up a lot of time. We’re doing four tapings and that’s it — from that, they could get 20 shows. I think that’s part of the reason we’ve gone on so long: We work so well together because we don’t spend enough time with each other to get on each other’s nerves.

How does it feel to wrap up filming?
It’s kind of bittersweet. It’s been a really good run. My very first Whose Line show, my daughter was two months old, and she just turned 32, so it’s been a big part of my life. Through the show, I met all these great people who have become my best friends, and I managed to make a career out of something that wasn’t a career before that show came along. When all the other successful sitcoms ended, there was a two-hour retrospective of their best moments and interviews with everyone in the cast. We don’t get that.

But at least you won’t have to do any more Hoedowns.
I don’t want to jinx it, but we haven’t done a Hoedown yet this season.

Why does the cast hate them so much?
Well, they’re horrible! First of all, is it even a song style? It’s like, “Oh, let’s hear the hoedown stylings of …” Who? No one. And there’s no good place to be in line. The first person: You get this suggestion right away, you have no time to think. And then the rest of the time, you’re just hoping no one will take your verse. There’s some topics we think, All I’ve got is one thing. If somebody does that verse … And when they do it right before you? I can’t even describe the feeling. It’s just loss and despair. And the fact that the Hoedown was invented? It’s horrible.

Last year you tweeted that the upcoming Whose Line season would be the final season, but the CW said that’s “not accurate” and that “no decision has been made at this time about next season.” So what did you mean by your tweet?
Everyone at the show — producers and actors — are calling this the last taping. The short answer is that if it comes back, it probably won’t be with this cast. There is a complicated relationship with the show. The cast loves each other, and the actual shooting is always fun. We are all grateful that the show gave us a showcase and allowed us to be able to tour. The downside is that we never received fair compensation for the success of the show. We provide the content but don’t get paid as “writers.” We never received residuals for a show that’s been shown around the world since its inception. Seeing announcements about the sale to the show overseas or to HBO Max can get irritating.

I hope I don’t sound bitter, because I learned long ago that this business is not fair, and being bitter about it gets you nowhere. I also find it odd that any publicizing of the show comes through our social media. Every day a tweet shows up: “You guys should bring that show back!” Every season for the last nine years we’ve had to remind folks that we are on. So the short answer is, as of now, this is the last season with this cast. The longer, more vague answer is that it’s like the Mafia: It keeps pulling us back, so who knows?

What more positive memories from the show will stick with you?
The beauty and the curse of improv is you forget everything once it’s gone. The sketch with Richard Simmons I think I’ll always remember; people always keep sending it to me, too, so I’ll never forget it. Having Robin Williams do the show was amazing. Sid Caesar — being able to do a scene with someone who I admired as a child. Then there were a couple of scenes I think of where I made Ryan laugh, and that always makes me proud. Everyone’s so jaded. They’ve seen everything. Whenever I could make them break up and lose it — sad, I know — it felt like I’d accomplished something.

Was the tenor of the reboot at all different, comparing the ’90s with Drew Carey to now with Aisha Tyler?
Yeah, and even through the time with Aisha we’ve changed; they’ve gotten a little more lax with censorship. When Brad and I are touring, we say right off the top of the show, “We’re not going to say anything political,” because we found — and this started in the Bush years — if you did something even vaguely political, immediately half your audience was disengaged from you. Our strength is not political satire, it’s just goofy fun. So we made that decision: Let’s not even make a passing remark. Let’s just focus on having fun and making it a night where people can forget about that stuff.

At the same time, you are very, very clear about your stances on social media. Are those parts of your life that you want to keep separate?
There are times they sneak out on the show. During the Drew years, we were doing Clinton blowjob jokes, and then it just sort of turned, for some reason, where if you made a joke about the presidents, you were a traitor. Making fun of presidents has been a time-honored tradition — I mean, since there was comedy and presidents, we’ve been making fun of the president. So it was a bit of, Okay, the world seems to be in sort of a knee-jerk mode right now.

And it’s hard on Twitter. I try not to engage for various reasons. When my daughter came out as trans, that was a whole other thing. There’s some people who, when I read their comments, I think, Okay, you know what? I think I can reach them. I think it’s just speaking out of ignorance. Perhaps I can turn them around. My success rate is probably one percent.

For your tour with Brad, how do you keep your energy up for each show? Improv takes so much, and touring can be draining.
I’m at an age where things hurt more than they used to. But there’s also a thing called Doctor Theater, where you’re onstage, and all of a sudden you’re a 20-year-old again. So for those two hours, it doesn’t even feel like I’m expending any kind of energy. I’m just having a lot of fun. Before and after the show: different things.

Anything else in the works?
I’ve been attached to like 15 different projects that’ll probably never see the light of day. And if you followed my career, you can see there’s no game plan. There’s no sense to it or logic. It’s just something will come up, and I go, “Oh, I’ll do that.” This show with the hypnotist, he contacted me and I thought, Oh, that sounds interesting. And it’s also a little scary. It’s outside my comfort zone.

I always look for things that make me uncomfortable, and I find that’s when I do my best work. That’s when I step up to the plate and at least hit a single — not always a homer. I’m open to anything. I often get offers where they always start with “We have no money.” And those are the things I find the most interesting.

Colin Mochrie Reflects on Over 30 Years of Whose Line