Improv for the Ages

By Steven Libowitz   |   March 12, 2020

The current cast members of the long-running TV improv show Whose Line Is It Anyway? are bringing the touring version, dubbed “Whose Live Anyway?”, back to town for a single show at the Lobero Theatre. Cast members Ryan Stiles, Greg Proops, Jeff B. Davis, and Joel Murray will put together a 90-minute set of comedy and song all made up on the stop and based on audience suggestions, albeit over a series of familiar “games” drawn from the TV show that got going in Great Britain, made the transatlantic leap to Hollywood, and survived a several-year hiatus to return stronger than ever on cable and streaming.

We caught up with Proops, whose tenure dates back decades, to find out why Whose Line’s improv seems to improve with age, more like a fine wine than a fireballing baseball pitcher.

Q.Whose Line just keeps going and going like the Energizer Bunny. Why does it work so well?

A. People just really love it. It’s not standup, so there’s no agenda. We’re all pretty energetic and still love doing it. We can be very funny when we’re on stage. It’s a little more vaudeville, which makes it easier for people to digest. They want to see you get up there and walk the tightrope. And that’s what we do. A couple of years ago in Seattle we were in great form. The best thing we can do is to be unpredictable and surprise each other. That’s when it’s the most fun.

As an improviser with only five years experience, I’ve noticed how everyone seems to have patterns and adopt favorite characters. How do you avoid that, and keep it as you said unpredictable? Or is that something you embrace?

Obviously we know each other pretty well by this point. But we can mix up the order, and change out who does which games, forcing people to do things they’re not comfortable with. When Chip [Estes] left the group, I had to take over singing with Ryan. That was a bit scary, but now I’m not afraid of it anymore.

On the opposite spectrum, what do you do when you get stumped? How do you work yourself out of a sticky situation?

I try to not ever lose my rag. Sometimes I get a little weird, but I’m a firm believer of what Leonard Cohen said, “Forget your perfect universe. Cracks are where the light comes in.” I think mistakes are to be incorporated, and repeated until they become comedy. That’s what I do on my podcast, anyway. I’ll just stay on a mistake until it’s funny. It’s about yielding to the situation.

That’s the secret to life, too, isn’t it?

Oh, yeah, right. At my worst, I’m stubborn, shouting and insulting, and at my best I’m able to be charming and go with the flow.

What games are you able to replicate live, and what things don’t translate at all – besides hoedown, which I know you all hate? And what gets performed live that we don’t see on TV?

“New Choice” is great, where the one of us who is directing a scene can make them stop and say something different any time he wants by saying, “New choice!” Then we have some that kill both on the show and on stage, like “Greatest Hits,” where we get an occupation from the audience and then we make up songs on the subject, or “Moving People” and “Sound Effects” where there’s lots of audience interaction, because they’re either moving us or doing all the sound effects, which is always fun. We love having them be on stage with us.

You’ve known your fellow players for ages, Ryan for more than 20 years. How has your relationship changed over the years?

Ryan is a superb improviser. I’ve said it before, but it’s true: I feel like I am in a group with the Babe Ruth of improv, and I’m like Ringo. I play around a bit and then he knocks it over the fence. What he does really well is stay in a scene all the time. It doesn’t matter what the topic is – he just goes out there and be funny. The rest of us let the suggestion really influence us one way or the other, but he’s always on.

How have things been altered in general as you age?

Well, when you’re young, you have the confidence of not knowing what you’re doing, so you’re not scared. Then you know too much and it gets a little too safe. Now I know I can do it so there’s the danger of being overconfident. But really it feels like every show is a blessing, a mitzvah, and we’re lucky to be able to do it. Last night Ryan said, “You know we’re going to look back on this and remember the good times, but now, not so much,” which really made me laugh. I’m much calmer now, both on stage and as a person. I want to be poetic on stage, and I’m more confident in letting that flow and just letting the verbiage flow.

There seems to be a lot of irony in improv in that the feeling of flow when everything just seems to unfold perfectly in the moment is so wonderful, but you can’t try to make it happen, right?

Yeah, you can’t force it. It’s a matter of equi-poise – you have to trust everybody. Sometimes I’ll get something in my head and really want to say it, but then the scene might go in another direction, and you have to let it go and follow what’s happening. I try to wedge my jokes in, but it only works when it’s organic. You have to trust where it’s going and not try to stop or turn it in any direction.

How does improv show up in the rest of your life, the idea of going with the flow and letting things emerge?

It does, but I wish it was more. I wish I had the confidence in real life that I have on stage, where we’re invulnerable and you can’t touch us. In real life, you’re improvising all the time, every minute. But the trick is to be kinder, and nicer and not improvise too much anger and horror.


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