Murray Meditates on Mastering Improv

By Steven Libowitz   |   February 17, 2022
Greg Proops, Jeff B. Davis, Ryan Stiles, and Joel Murray bring their improv show Whose Live Anyway? to the Lobero on Monday, February 21

Joel Murray has been in the “bullpen” for the long-running improv TV series Whose Line Is It Anyway? for almost a decade, but the actor and youngest brother of Bill Murray and Brian Doyle-Murray has never actually appeared on an episode. 

But Murray has had many memorable moments elsewhere on television, including on Mad Men where he portrayed Freddy Rumsen, the invariably imbibing senior copywriter who was forced out of the 1960s advertising firm after drunkenly urinating in his pants and then passing out right before an important meeting. 

“That was a great job,” recalled Murray, a veteran of over 250 sitcom episodes including Love and War, Dharma and Greg, Mike and Molly,and Two and a Half Men. “The level of detail was insane, and everybody was so good that you showed up at the top of your game too. It was a show where people went to work and hung out for like six hours afterward because we all just enjoyed being there so much.”

On the other hand, Murray has also migrated back to improv, perhaps the polar opposite of the set of Mad Men where creator-writer Matthew Weiner never wanted an actor to even consider uttering anything other than what was on the page. After growing up in the Murray household where being the one to make their father do a spit-take at the dinner table won the day’s family bragging rights, Joel followed Bill and Brian in training at Chicago’s Second City, studying under the legendary Del Close at the improv breeding grounds for so many future stars. 

Murray was a founding member of the Improv Olympics and is a veteran of improv theaters in Los Angeles and elsewhere. And while TV’s Whose Line has yet to come calling, Murray has averaged 100 dates a year with the stage touring version after he replaced Chip Esten in the improv-comedy troupe Whose Live Anyway? where he performs alongside 30-year friend Ryan Stiles, Greg Proops, and Jeff B. Davis. They’ll perform at the Lobero on February 21.

So what draws him to improv? 

“Well, I like not having to memorize any lines,” Murray said. “It’s a different muscle to be able to just come up with something in a moment, even if I still get butterflies every time we’re about to go on stage.”

Murray has mastered the ability to maneuver whatever situation and scenario arises on stage based on suggestions from the audience to flesh out a game and whatever direction his colleagues take. It’s a skill that has been honed over the decades of practice. 

“The secret is listening to what the other guys are saying, rather than trying to figure out your next witty line,” he said. “And you have to learn to throw out the first thing that comes into your head because that’s going to be a cheap joke, and throw out the next one too, because it’s what the guy at the water cooler might say. You got to go with the third. But because we’re so fast-paced you’ve got to train your mind to think of the third thing first, get through that Rolodex of ideas quicker. 

“The fact that I can go out with four guys and a piano player and do a show in front of 1,500 people every night is what separates me from the people who aren’t getting my job.”


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