BACK STAGE WEST
March 04, 1999
by Rob Kendt
Thanks to Saturday Night Live, SCTV, Mad TV, and others, TV audiences have witnessed the kind of talent that can be developed in the fiery crucible of live improvisation--mostly at Chicago's Second City or L.A.'s Groundling Theatre. But apart from cases in which actors went off script (intentionally or not), we haven't seen these folks improvise.
Which is why ABC's modest half-hour live show Whose Line Is It Anyway? is such a big deal. Presented a bit like a free-form game show, with host Drew Carey giving out meaningless points and topics or soliciting subjects from the audience, this American version of the popular BBC show plays as a refreshingly unprogrammatic comedy decathlon, with four performers flying solo or in various groupings, and all flying blind. While the taping regimen of network TV means there are general camera rehearsals, and--God forbid--reshoots, Whose Line is clearly the real thing. Could an improv boom, ˆ la the standup boom of the '80s, be far behind?
The obvious question, given the extremely low overhead and high comic yield of such a format, is why the networks didn't think of doing it sooner. Said Wayne Brady, a regular on Whose Line, in a recent interview: "I think improv scared the network executives. It was like: "You have four guys onstage doing what? And no writers? Are these guys stars? No? Get out of my office.'"
Brady credits host Carey with wielding his star power at Warner Bros. and ABC to get an American version of Whose Line on the air. "It's great to be part of the vehicle that makes people get it, finally," said Brady, who, among a cast of brilliant, seasoned improvisers which includes Colin Mochrie, Ryan Stiles, and Greg Proops, stands out as the most exuberantly and variously talented. His improvs on the show, delivered with an athlete's confidence and a born entertainer's playfulness, are consistently witty, fully physicalized, and artfully structured.
But most striking are his nearly seamless song improvs. In a rich, expressive baritone, and to music director Laura Hall's impromptu accompaniment, Brady comes up with songs at the drop of a suggestion--warbling love ballads in the style of a given pop artist to an audience member he's just met; tossing off boogie-woogie patter songs on unpromising, audience-suggested topics, or scrolling through imagined "greatest hits" compilations that sample everything from Motown to country.
In person, the 27-year-old Brady comes across as polite and serious to a fault--which, with his close-cropped hair, makes him seem every bit the career military man his family intended him to be, and which he fully intended to be, as well, until he had a fateful high school drama experience and never stopped performing. From stage work in his home state, Florida, to theme parks to films and series that shot in the Southeastern region, Brady found few obstacles to a full-time performing career--until he moved west, first to Las Vegas, then to L.A., where, as he put it, "L.A. had a big boot waiting to kick me in the butt."
Still, this is a guy who until last November considered his gig performing in live shows at Universal Studios (among other roles, he assayed the Wolfman in "The Beetlejuice Revue") his "day job."
"Yeah, if you perform every day and you don't get better at it, there's something wrong," he said, adding instructively: "I'm able to do everything I do on Whose Line because of everything I've done before. I've done characters at theme parks, I've worked on cruise ships, I've done regional theatre, I've done musical theatre, I've done one-hour drama."
Indeed, Brady had so many cylinders firing last year that he had to make a tough choice: a leading role in Rent on Broadway or a gig as a "music cop" on VH-1's Vinyl Justice. He opted for this coast, because the comic side of his talents looked like it was panning out. It has: In addition to Whose Line, Brady has a deal with Warner Bros. to develop a show around him, which he said he'd like to be a variety show, and his Florida-based improv troupe, Houseful of Honkeys, has joined him in L.A. to do its live improv game show You Bet Your Honkey! (a Back Stage West critic's pick--see page 14).
As funny as he can be in an improv situation, Brady said he still considers himself an "actor who does comedy," and that he's terrified by standup.
"I can't tell a joke," he confessed. "If you tell me a joke right now, and I try to repeat it to somebody, I will slaughter it. I need a character, an intent, a where-when-how. I'm a good mechanic, in terms of the mechanics of improv."
But apart from having to sing a catalog of "greatest hits" for the auto mechanic (a recent highlight), there is nothing mechanical about Brady's infectiously funny improvs.
"Well, you can teach the mechanics of improv, and everything else is the product of a very active imagination," he said. "You can't just be zany and wild; you have to be well-read, and have a big box of trivia--literature, movies, music, life. When I'm up there, I'm still that six-year-old playing with my toy chest."
We're playing right along.