Colin Mochrie is the Iron Man of Improv. The Whose Line Is It Anyway? veteran has never missed a single episode of the American versions of the show, an incredible Cal Ripken-esque 18 seasons of made-it-up-on-the-spot laughs. (And that’s not counting his years goofing around on the British version.) Now he’s prepping an off-Broadway run with Hyprov, a hypnosis/improv comedy mash-up with hypnotist Assad Mecci.  Colin sat down with ComedyNerd to mesmerize us with his insights about comedy, Canada, and the unlikelihood of his surviving an action movie.

COMEDYNERD: You've got an off-Broadway run coming this summer with your Hyprov show. How did you end up combining improv and hypnosis?  

COLIN: These are two art forms that many people are skeptical about so we put all your disbeliefs in one room. 

Actually, the hypnotist, Assad Mecci, was taking improv classes and he realized what the instructors were telling the students -- to get out of your head and just do unconscious comedy – is what he does when he hypnotizes people.  The part of the brain that deals with self-criticism, that part of your brain says you shouldn't do this, you’ll look foolish -- that part goes away.  So those people actually become pure improvisers. They just react to everything that Assad and I give them.

It's been a fascinating journey. I thought it would be one of those things where the heavy lifting for me would be in traffic control but it's actually amazing. I'm working with improvisers. I'm working with people who have made choices that I can't even say experienced improvisers would make because they're living in almost a different reality.

COMEDYNERD: It seems like hypnosis would be a good tool for professional improvisers, a way to get out of your head.

COLIN: When we first did the show at the Edinburgh Fringe, we were getting a lot of performers (as volunteers). But I'm wondering: were they good improvisers to begin with? Or has this hypnosis actually made them better, got them out of their heads, not playing to the audience? They actually just worked with the improvisers and make a scene. I really should have got some grant money and looked into it.

You can take non-improvisers out of the audience and all of a sudden they're doing hilarious, hilarious things because they don't have that self-consciousness or that fear.

After every show, I try to talk to the hypnotized to see what their experience is. They’re aware of everything. To the audience, it looks like they're slumped over and totally out of it but they're aware of absolutely everything that happens in the show.  When I'm improvising with someone, they’ll bring up something that happened three scenes before in a scene that they weren't in. And reincorporate it!  Every night, we find an improv superstar.

One night, we had this young lady who was amazing. I talked to her afterward and she said, “you know, I have crippling social anxiety. I have no idea why I volunteered but that was the best hour of my life. I felt relaxed, I felt confident.” And she was planning to take improv classes and find an improv troupe. That wasn't something that she had done up at that point.

So I found it fascinating that this also had some therapeutic value for people.

COMEDYNERD: You've been doing this a long time. Is there anything left that still scares you about doing improv?

COLIN: This show certainly was terrifying at the beginning. What intrigued me when Assad approached me was it was something I obviously never had done before. It was something that was outside of my comfort zone: Improvising with five people who I don't know and who are hypnotized.  

I find that's when I have the most fun.  It also helped me as an improviser, getting back to listening to people and supporting and slowing down. When we’re working with the Whose Line guys, everything has to be so fast. It was nice when we get just as big a laugh from a reaction to all the weirdness that’s going on. It’s been really really good for me. 

Then I thought “hey, how can I make this even more terrifying?” I sing a duet with one of them. If you’re a fan of my work, you know the musical element of improv isn’t really in my wheelhouse.

(Although Colin has performed several Hoedowns on Whose Line, he's semi-famous for speak-singing his way through the scenes.)

And that's become my favorite part of the show. Going up there, just being terrified and we just sing a song with someone I’ve just met. It's been exciting and fun. I hope I keep finding different ways to terrify myself. 

COMEDYNERD: We read an interview where you talked about auditioning for Whose Line. Where traditional improvisers think about supporting the scene and listening, television needs you to hit the jokes faster. 

COLIN: Whose Line has a certain backlash from some improv teachers and improvisers, which I totally understand because it is jokey. But that’s the demand of the medium. Everything has to be like three to four minutes. I'm still really proud of what we did with the show because it's hard! I know a lot of incredible improvisers who couldn’t do that show just because in many ways, it’s the anti-improv. We’re still working together, setting each other up but it's such a high pace and as I said, very jokey.

COMEDYNERD: We’d say Whose Line has done more for improv than it's taken away.

COLIN: It's certainly made people aware of what improv is, for better or worse. And since the show started, improv troupes opened up everywhere, there are improv classes in elementary schools and colleges.

COMEDYNERD: One thing that makes live improv work so well is the thrill of watching performers without a net, without a script. It shouldn’t work as well on television because you don't have that immediacy of “Oh my gosh, can they pull this off?”  But it does.

COLIN: That was really because of our producers, Mark (Leveson) and Dan (Patterson). Somehow, these English guys found a way to make it work on television. Part of it was all the camera guys are live event cameramen, so they're used to working the Oscars and awards shows. Everything is loose and they can follow us pretty well. It really is this living organism between the crew and the performers. And I think we just lucked out being in the right place at the right time. This was something different from sitcoms. It was just funny-looking people being goofy.

COMEDYNERD: It’s true that you are the only performer on every single episode of the American version?

COLIN: Only because Wayne (Brady) was more successful and did Broadway and Ryan (Stiles) got food poisoning for a couple of shows.  

COMEDYNERD: Hyprov goes off-Broadway in August and then you’re back right on the road with (Whose Line costar) Brad Sherwood.  We’re amazed at your stamina.

COLIN: Stamina has been my watchword throughout my career. I was always planning to hang in until everyone else quit or died. 

At the beginning of my career, I improvised but nobody really knew what an improviser was. So we're pulling people out of the McDonald's next door to see our show because they had no idea.  “What’s the show about?”

“We don’t know yet. You have to yell things at us and then we’ll make it up.”

As an actor, I wasn’t really good-looking enough to do the romantic, stud leads and I wasn't really character-y enough at that point to do the character stuff. Stamina and the fact that I really had no other skills just kept me going. 

COMEDYNERD: You started in improv with TheatreSports in Vancouver, then moved on to Second City in Toronto. 

COLIN: Second City was great for me for many reasons. Ryan Styles had moved to Toronto to do the mainstage. I moved a couple of months later and he called and said, “Hey, there's an opening in the touring company, I recommended you, you should come audition.” So I did and I got it. And I ended up marrying the woman who auditioned me so it really worked out nicely for me. It was probably one of my better auditions.

COMEDYNERD: What is it about Canadians and improv? Is there something in the water?

COLIN: I think it was being inundated with the best of both American and British humor. I think the British humor is more presentational in a way, like improv can be. So I think we took to it quite easily. And it will be silly because of being exposed to SCTV, Monty Python, and the great American comedians. So we've been served a hybrid of both those things.

And being the little brother to the big brother down south, being an outsider, we had to find ways to get noticed. Improv is a good way to do that.

COMEDYNERD: Speaking of comedy in Canada, we caught you in the new Kids in the Hall series. You were a detective …

COLIN: I was a cockney detective and cockney is not one of my accents. Mark McKinney said, “I really don't care how bad it is. We didn't even ask whether you could do accents, just do whatever.”  OK! 

I’ve known those guys for years. I remember going to see them before they had their TV show. Just watching them in this little club and going “Who are these guys?” Such a different and original take on comedy so it was nice that they decided to hire me every once in a while.  I’ve worked with every Kid in the Hall.

COMEDYNERD: After Hyprov, what’s coming up?  Sounds like if there’s something that scares you, it’s what you might do next. 

COLIN: I've had this thing and it's in the early early early stages. I've always wanted to do an action movie because when you watch your regular action heroes, you know they're gonna make it to the end. 

And you don't have that feeling with me. 

I would love to be an action hero. And a friend contacted me and said “I heard you say that. An action series -- would you be interested?” So I think we're gonna start working on that. But we’d better do it fast -- time’s running out. The knees are going!

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Top image: Colin Mochrie

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