Brad Sherwood and Colin Mochrie became marquee acts in comedy through the risky business of improv, specifically the unscripted comedy showcase Whose Line Is It Anyway?
The twist of the show was that you never knew what would happen: The comics had to instantly act out scenarios and specifics given to them by host Drew Carey and the audience. It looked like an exhausting bit of funny business, but Sherwood, who brings his and Mochrie's improv act to Richmond this weekend, never found himself longing for the comfort of a microphone and a stand-up gig.
"It seemed like a lot more work and a lot more pressure," Sherwood says of stand-up comedy. "I thrive on the pressure of going up there and making it up and not knowing what I have to do, more than writing a bunch of jokes in advance and saying, 'I think these are funny, and you're going to have to laugh at them.' You throw those out there and you're sort of stuck with them. That, to me, is really scary."
In fact, the improvisational comedy that Sherwood and Mochrie do is by their own definition a comedic tightrope act without a net, but the lack of a plan sort of is the net.
The stand-up comedian might be stuck with his jokes when they bomb, but "we're really good at taking what isn't working and making it work because that's kind of the nature of improv, is you're stepping into the unknown, and you shouldn't have this concept of, 'Oh, this would be the perfect scenario,' because you're constantly moving in an unknown direction."
Whose Line thrived on ABC from 1998 to 2004. During the run, Sherwood says, there was a tradition of taking the show to Las Vegas during Super Bowl week for live performances, and that's where he and Mochrie, a veteran of the original British version of Whose Line, hatched the idea of taking their show on the road.
Inspired by some comedy-club work he had done with another improv artist, Sherwood approached Mochrie about putting an act together.
"I said, 'We could take this out on the road and do a two-man show,' and he was all up for it because he could make some money and be onstage the whole time," Sherwood says. "So we did a two-week tour, and it was wildly successful, and the booking people that we were with really wanted to keep doing it."
Sherwood and Mochrie approach each show as a rock band would, every night setting up a different set list of "games" they want to play. They might include "kung fu theater," sound effects or the popular "mousetrap game," in which the comics have to navigate a stage of mousetraps on the floor and hung from the rafters.
"If you step straight down on top of them, then they go off as you're lifting your foot back up, which is not painful at all," Sherwood says. "It's when you catch one from the side and it sort of snaps down on the knuckle of your toe, then it's pretty brutal. Straight down on the toenail hurts, too."
The obvious appeal of improv is not knowing what's next, but Sherwood says there's another appeal.
"Improv is, for the most part, a really positive comedy form," he says. "Stand-ups tend to walk onstage and tell you why people are stupid, what's stupid with the world and what's wrong with everything.
"We tend to do more goofy situational stuff, so it's like seeing funny scenarios and characters reveal themselves and get into trouble as opposed to an acerbic commenter on the foibles of the world. ... It almost appeals to the younger part of every person, to their fun, playful side."