Comedy king applies his talents to the written word
Toronto’s giant of improv comedy Colin Mochrie offers a unique take on classic novels
Improv comedy is easy to do poorly and hard to do well. The thrill of watching the mind game of creation loses its hold if the comic doesn’t have a near-infinite bag of tricks at his disposal.
Toronto is home to one of the best improvisers in the world, the esteemed Colin Mochrie, star of Whose Line Is It Anyway?
The supremely talented funny man is enjoying another bold moment in the spotlight right now, with the return of Whose Line Is It Anyway? The show, probably the only successful improv series in television history, enjoyed a long run in the ’90s in the United Kingdom before the American version appeared in 1998 and ran under the leadership of Drew Carey until 2006.
Mochrie was a standout player in both versions. It made him famous, but it’s an odd kind of fame. An improviser can bury himself so deeply within the characters and scenarios he creates that his own character can seem vaporous and chimerical. What makes Mochrie so good? For one thing, he brings a gift of understatement to a genre of comedy known for manic, flailing, overcooked performances. There’s an elegance and ease to him, an almost aristocratic mien that contrasts with so many other players in the scene.
You can still see him perform live with co-star Brad Sherwood at any number of large venues across the country. You can also see him at local events with his wife, the sublimely talented sketch actress Debra McGrath. I always catch them, out of the corner of my eye, still holding hands after all these years.
This fall, he’s delving into another art form. Due out this fall is Mochrie’s first book, Not Quite the Classics.
Most comedians, when they write books, write thinly veiled autobiographies, but Mochrie’s ambitions are more literary.
There’s an improv game called “First Line, Last Line,” where an audience member shouts out a first line of a sketch, a second audience member the last line. Then the performers construct a scene that fills in the gap. What Mochrie has done is applied the idea to famous novels and poems.
The dozen chapters are not parodies of the originals, but whimsical flights of fancy that go wherever his mind takes him. The texts he uses include Sherlock Holmes, George Orwell’s 1984, Slaughterhouse Five, The Great Gatsby and others.
I liked his take on the poems he chose, including “Casey at the Bat,” with the baseball story transposed to hockey, and a great punchline at the end of the story. But my favourite piece is “A Tale of Two Critters,” which somehow takes the Charles Dickens novel and twists it into a monologue by the Coyote of the Roadrunner cartoon. It’s bizarre and very funny.
My favourite bit is from his skewed take on Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, about the unluckiest man in the world: “Billy Jonah was the unluckiest man in history. Unluckier than Tsutomo Yamaguchi, who was having breakfast in Hiroshima at 8:45 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, when the A-bomb detonated and destroyed his apartment building. Tsutomo survived, but three days later he traveled to Nagasaki to convalesce.”
I think even Vonnegut himself would have approved.
Colin Mochrie taps into his surreal sense of humour in his new book
MARK BRESLIN Post City Magazines’ humour columnist, Mark Breslin, is the founder of Yuk Yuk’s comedy clubs and the author of several books, including Control Freaked.