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Ryan Stiles

story Perry Lefko

Ryan Stiles, Greg Proops, Chip Esten and Jeff B. Davis know how to make people laugh and for 13 years they’ve toured North America doing 90-minute shows with original, on-the-spot humour. It is called Whose Live Anyway, and it’s probably more popular now than ever.

“We’re going to call ourselves the “Antique Road Show,” because we’ve been on the road for so long,” Stiles said in a phone interview in advance of their show at The Living Arts Centre, September 28.

“When I was in high school there were no improv classes,” adds the 53-year-old native of Seattle, Washington. “Certainly there are a lot more people doing improv now. There’s always been an improv around like Second City and stuff like that, but I don’t remember it at high schools and colleges.

“Today, all the young kids know you, which is odd. When we started out with this show they weren’t even alive, so it must hold up.”

All four worked together on the former TV improv series Whose Line Is It Anyway, which began in England and then evolved into an American version. It essentially had four comics sitting in a line of chairs on stage with a host in front who provided a topic that tested the participants’ improvisational skills in a type of game show format.

Collectively, Whose Line Is It Anyway lasted 18 years, keeping people in stitches with material that was derived from suggestions put forward by producers. From that came Whose Live, a road show that began in Las Vegas with a cast of nine that was whittled down to four, because it worked better with a smaller group.

“It makes it a lot easier,” says Stiles, who is listed as the executive producer. “Improv is all about trust anyway, so when you get to know these guys this long it makes it easier, but we try to switch up the games and switch up what everybody does, so it keeps it fresh for us, too, otherwise it’s no fun.”

Stiles, who has a recurring role as Herb Melnick on the TV show Two And A Half Men and played the character Lewis Kiniski on The Drew Carey Show, said there are two keys to good improv. “It’s listening and adding information. That’s all it is,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s the hardest thing for people to do. They want to be really funny and they’re already thinking of what they’re going to do and they’re not listening. You can’t be thinking too far ahead of what’s going to happen. If you go out with your mind set on one thing and someone else comes up with another thing, you haven’t got the ability to change up or go with them and you’re in trouble. Your mind’s kind of got to be a blank, otherwise it’s not going to work.”

Stiles says unlike stand-up comedy, in which the audience sits back waiting for the comic to make them laugh, improv is different because the crowd is involved and wants to make the show work. They’re included in some of the material on stage, not just sitting back in their seats shouting out ideas.

“They’re invested in it because they are suggesting what you’re doing, so it’s a much warmer feeling coming out there doing improve than stand-up, for sure,” he says.

“Every standup (comedian) wants to be better than the comic before or after him and that doesn’t work in improve. “Unlike a standup, we’re never there to embarrass people. We’re there to make them the stars of the show.”

As an example, he says the group might select a woman from the audience and ask her questions about her life, and from that Chip and Jeff will turn it into a song. “I don’t take young, hot girls from the audience. I’ll take a middle-age housewife because we want to make them the star of the show,” Stiles says. “They know what they’re coming for. They know it’s improvised. Usually you can tell when you pick someone whether they want to come up or not. There are very few people that don’t want to come up on stage.”

All four members of the cast are involved in separate projects, which is one reason they don’t do more shows in a year, even though the demand is there. “Even if we didn’t (have other commitments), I don’t think we’d work a lot, because it keeps it fresh when we don’t see each other a lot,” Stiles says. “If we were working 200 days a year, we wouldn’t be getting along.”

Stiles says many of the people who come to Whose Live Anyway are fans of Whose Line Is It Anyway. “You’ve got to remember if someone was 10 years old when they watched Whose Line, they probably have a 10-year-old now,” he says. “They’ve grown up with it. People can bring their kids. We’re not going to get blue and you’re not going to hear the F word like you do from a comic every 20 seconds. We’ve never had any complaints and we’ve been doing it for a number of years. It’s just a fast-paced, fun show that you go out feeling good.”

Because of that association, there is a bond the group has with its fans, many of which want to talk to them when they meet the cast members in person and away from the stage.

“They’re not really about you being funny, which is kind of unfair,” he says. “If you meet a nurse, you don’t expect her to give you an enema. There are certain times you’re off and certain times you’re on. 

“Improvisers are humorous people anyway. We’re obviously not going to break into full improv when we meet people. But I think if you’re in improv, you have a sense of humour anyway.”

Which begs the question, how do you develop a sense of humour that is good enough to ply professionally?

“I think I’m observant,” Stiles says. “People who notice things and see the odd side of things are probably good performers. They kind of look at things a little bit different. I enjoy being on stage. On stage is the only place I really feel comfortable. I don’t really feel comfortable in everyday life if I’m in a crowd. It kind of makes me a little nervous, but as soon as I get on stage I feel normal. Everybody kind of has a different reason. A lot of standups will say it’s because they had a horrible upbringing or a bad life, but you look at Robin Williams, he had a pretty good life.

“I do it because I probably don’t know how to do anything else,” he says, and then laughs.

Stiles stands out in a crowd because he is 6-foot-6. “Even when you’re growing up in school and you’re tall and gangly, you kind of have to be funny, so it probably helped out a lot,” he says. “I have four older brothers and they were all funny, so I think it’s that more that than anything else. I guess I could qualify as a class clown. I was kind of one of those kids that the teacher would kick out of her class for low attendance but she was sorry to see me go because I wasn’t a trouble maker. I just wanted to do something else.”

He and the other members of Whose Live Anyway want to make people laugh and they do it well. GL

Left to Right: Chip Esten, Jeff B. Davis, Greg Proops and Ryan Stiles
deliver their improv mastery to LAC on September 28

Ryan Stiles
With improv, Ryan Stiles says you can tell when you pick someone
whether they want to come up or not. "There are very few
people that don’t want to come up on stage."