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Ryan Stiles: An Interview with Ryan Stiles

Ryan Stiles

An Interview with Ryan Stiles
by Scott Hefflon

Your bio mentions that you dropped out of high school when you were 17. Did you ever go back or get your G.E.D.?
No, but I should, so I have something to fall back on... I never did go back, and I have two kids, so it's kind of hard to tell them to finish their school work when I never did... "Do you think you're going to drop out of school and be able to make a living?" It doesn't work...

They gave me too much freedom in high school. I was a pretty good student in junior high - an A or B student - but in high school, I had to be there for one class, and then I didn't really have to be there for another, and I had a car... And when you have a car, you can always find someone else who doesn't have a class... I remember I had one teacher who said, "What, do you just think you're going to make people laugh for a living?"

When I quit - I was in Vancouver at the time - I was playing a lot of strip clubs, I had a fake ID good enough to get in to play the places, and I was making a bit of money. It was rough, of course, but high school really wasn't for me...

Did you leave school because you had something else lined up, or did you drop out simply because you didn't like school?
A little of both... I had a good job - I worked on the docks; my father was in the fishing industry - so I was making money, and I did stand-up at night... I've never really planned anything in my life... Everything that's happened just kinda came up... At the time, '78, they didn't have stand-up clubs in every town. But it just kinda took off after that. It's probably different in Boston, seeing as Steven Wright, Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, Denis Leary, and a lot of others all came outta there. Once housewives started doing stand-up, I knew I didn't want to do it anymore.

In Canada, it was great... There were very few of us working there, so I got to work with Jim Carrey, Mike McDonald, Howie Mandell. There were seven or eight guys and we worked the whole country. That was really lucky for me, because if I lived here, I probably would've gotten on an amateur night once every three weeks, whereas there, I worked every night. You learn quicker.

How was the travelling?
Smaller planes, smaller airports, smaller cities... I think that's where I developed my fear of flying. I took a lot of ski planes and little dinky planes... I actually bought an RV a couple years ago so I wouldn't have to fly.

Drew's collecting the Whose Line... guys to go over to Saudi Arabia to do a USO thing for the troops, and I told him I wasn't going. He said I wasn't being very patriotic, but it's got nothing to do with that. If he wanted me to go to San Diego every weekend to play for the troops, I'd do it, but I don't want to fly to Saudi Arabia.

Do you remember how they used to get Mr. T on planes on the A-Team?
I don't remember it, but people have told me about it... That's what Drew wanted to do. He said we could go on the Warner Bros. jet, they'd hire a private nurse to knock me out, they'd wake me up to do the show, and then they'd knock me back out again for the plane ride home. As appealing as that sounds... (chuckles lightly) I still didn't want to do it.

The second plan was to have someone drive me to Alaska, then I'd take a boat over the Bering Sea, and then a train... through China... And he was quite serious about it. A three week trip for a half-hour set...

You're pretty indispensable to Whose Line is it Anyway?...
I am and I'm not... I think a lot of the guys on the show are indispensable. You can't do anything without Colin (Mochrie), or Chip (Esten), or Wayne (Brady)... All those guys are really funny... But everyone involved is really good, so you tend to forget really quick who's not there.

Everyone compensates and fills in the gaps so it looks like there never were any gaps...
They're all pros. I knew Colin in Vancouver, so I've known him for 24 years. Even the guys I haven't known that long, like Greg (Proops), I've known for 14 years... We did the show in England 10 years before we did it here.

I have to admit that I greatly prefer the English version and am nearly fanatical about watching the reruns on Comedy Central.
A lot of people feel that way, and I like the English version for a lot of different reasons. Colin and I were never really hot on the idea that we were on every show. We like to change it up and be on with different people. It keeps it fresh for us. They did that on the English show, but ABC wanted regular people.

Even on the British show, you and Colin were on almost every show together...
Toward the end we were, but in the first few years, we weren't. We only shot ten shows a year.

Really?
Yeah. The first year I did one, the second year I did three, and then it kinda took off from there... When I started on the show, it was three Brits and an American. Then it was two Brits and two Americans, and by the last two years in England, I don't think there were any Brits on the show, except for Clive (Anderson, the host). So it was really no use shooting it over there (chuckles).

Thank God for Comedy Central and their reruns...
They actually ran the show for many years and then stopped. When ABC started the American version and it did well, Comedy Central started running them again. We've only been doing it for three years in the States, and we already have over 200 shows. Because we get more than one show out of every show we do.

How's that work?
Each show that airs probably has six or seven games. When we shoot it, we probably do 27 or 28 games, which is great for the crowd. We have people lined up for hours early to see the show, and usually have to turn away 200 or so people each show. It's like theater: We don't stop, there are no costume changes, we just do one game after another. If a game doesn't work, we don't do the game again, we just go on to another game. Our average is about three shows out of every show we do.

So as pro as you guys are, you still have games that just plain flop, or at least limp along?
Sure, but that's fine, we have to have that stuff. We leave some of that stuff in, because if everything worked, no one would believe that it's improvised. So we actually have to intersperse stuff that doesn't work into the show, just so it's believable.

It sounds like a very, um, economical show to produce.
Sure, ABC loves it. They get three shows out of every show, there are no writers, there are no sets...

There're no stunts or special effects...
It's a real utility-type show. That's why we're up against Friends and Survivor on Thursdays. ABC doesn't want to spend a million dollars on a sitcom that might not do very well in that time slot, and here they have a show that's fairly cheap to do that has a following... The licensing is dirt cheap, and if they syndicate it... We have 200 shows after three years! While I don't like to compare it to this show - even though I did watch it with my kids - it's kind of like America's Funniest Home Videos. You can put the shows on at any hour of the day. Whose Line... can be on at the dinner hour, it can be on late night... It really doesn't matter where you stick it. We have a wide range of fans, from teenagers to seniors...

Kind of like "Weird Al" in that way... I've interviewed him more than anyone else.
I've bowled with him quite a bit.

Really?
He's a good friend of Drew's. They're both from Cleveland. And Drew plays the accordion. We've had him on the show before, and then we started bowling together. You haven't bowled until you've bowled in a foursome with Drew, Mickey Dolenz, and "Weird Al."

I've known some pretty funny, quick-witted people, but I can only imagine the zings and volleys you guys must have!
But we're not like that off-stage. Chip's married with three kids, Colin is married with kids, Greg's married, I'm married with two kids... I mean, it's probably funnier than hanging out with the guys who work at the dock or whatever, but we aren't "on" all the time. It's not like hanging out with Howie (Mandell) or Jim Carrey.

Or Robin Williams, back in the day. He'd riff on anything and everything, and a lot of time it wouldn't even make sense, but it was always wacky...
Robin now is the same as us... He's done the show a few times. He comes by himself, no entourage, he's got his Starbuck's coffee, and he's generally very quiet. But he's super funny in the show.

Are there comedians you bring on that are really funny elsewhere, but just can't make the leap to improv?
I know a lot of people who I was in Second City with that are fantastic improvisers, but they can't do Whose Line... They might be great improvisers at scene work - which is what we're taught to do at Second City - but what we do at Whose Line... is basically everything I was taught not to do at Second City. It's quick, you get everything out in the first sentence... And there are people who are good at Whose Line... who could never do scene work. It's just a different type of improv. When Catherine O'Hara, who I think is one of the funniest women alive, came on the show, she was really nervous because it's so much faster-paced.

She was the mom in Beetlejuice, right?
She was also the mom in the Home Alone movies, too. And she's in Christopher Guest's Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman (and with Steve Martin in A Simple Twist of Fate, and she leant her voice to Tim Burton's A Nightmare before Christmas).

I saw a taping of an all-star performance at a theater that had Joe Walsh (ex-Eagle, plus writer of classics like "Life's Been Good" [you know the one: "it's hard to leave when you can't find the door"] and "I Like Big Tits"): Who's idea was that?
Joe's from Cleveland, too. He hasn't done it for a couple years, but we play Vegas at least once a year- usually Superbowl weekend - and Joe comes with us and accompanies our piano player during the music bits. He doesn't want money or anything, he just wants to hang out. He couldn't make it last time because he was touring with the Eagles in Russia, and we were like "Huh, well make a decision, Joe... (chuckles)

We didn't ask him one time and he was really quite hurt that we didn't invite him. We didn't invite him because we felt we were using him, but he wants to come along. And he's another guy - seeing as we're talking about old reputations - when we finish the show, he goes back to his room, he's on his computer, he just, ya know, takes it easy... He's not a partier anymore, and nobody partied hardier than he did...

I usually interview bands, so it's usually pretty easy to pick apart songs and ask what inspired various parts, but with improv, it's real-time comedy, so I can't really ask you where anything came from...
The main difference between bands and comics is everyone wants to hear "Brown Sugar" one more time, but no one wants to hear the same joke twice. When bands do new stuff, people get pissed off, so it's the exact opposite. But lifestyle-wise, it's much the same.

Have you heard of the Bloodhound Gang?
I've heard people talk about them. I've been listening to a lot of Tenacious D lately. The album is just soooo funny. It's the first thing in my iPod. My musical tastes are kind of all over the map...

Have you ever worked with Jack Black?
No, but I hear he's really funny.

He seems like one of those guys who's really funny on their terms, but you wonder if it would translate when placed in the context of, say, Whose Line...
Yeah, that's kind of the feeling I get too..

What about Tom Greene? He's Canadian...
I don't know him, so I can't really comment on him. It's hard, because you see these guys in an MTV show and you kinda like them, but they start branching out... Like Johnny Knox from Jackass. I mean, he's great in Jackass, but is that really going to hold up in a film or anywhere else? Saturday Night Live has proven that time and time again. A sketch may be funny, but then they go and try to make a movie out of it. It's Pat... the Movie? A sketch does not a movie make.

Then again, Belushi made it work with The Blues Brothers, and there was Coneheads and a few others, but now you're talking about a cast that worked together for ten years and had a volume of work to pull from.

You split your time between Los Angeles and Washington, I hear.
I don't spent as much time in Washington as I'd like. Maybe a week out of every month.

How much of a "commute" is that?
If you're flying, it's a little over two hours. But it's in the same time zone, so it's not that bad... If you drive, which I do a lot of because I don't like to fly, you basically can't get out of California in a day. Oregon and Washington are nothing to get through... From here [L.A.] to Sacramento, there's nothing... It's all desert. Once you get to Northern California, it's really pretty, but from here to Sacramento is pretty ugly.

I'm from the East Coast, New England, actually, and that whole desert things mystifies me and kinda weirds me out.
But Vegas is nice and close, Palm Springs is nice and close... Most of the time, you roll up the windows and crank the air and just drive right through it. Some people go and hang out in the desert. That's not me. That's where the snakes are.

We moved the kids to Washington this year. I don't want my kids growing up in L.A.. I can't let them outside the house to play, and I live in a good neighborhood. You can't say "Be home before dark" to your kids when you live in L.A.. Up there [in WA], they build treehouses and stuff we did when we were kids. There are no play dates. In L.A., a mother will call another mother and schedule a time for her maid to drop off her kid. Where I live up there, kids show up at the door. They stay for dinner, they end up sleeping over... That's the way it should be.

To double-back a moment, if you average three "episodes" per show you perform, and you have over 200 episodes done in three years, doesn't that mean there are a lot of unaired episodes?
About two year's worth.

You're not worried about timely references no longer being timely?
Very seldom will you see a show that refers to anything in the news. We're used to that, because they might show the show we're taping two months or two years after filming it. And I like it because I never grow old.

I hadn't realized the UK versions were as old as they were because, aside from the hair and the fashions, there's no real inference of time... What's with the solid, bright colors, anyway?
The producers love bright colors. I'm not a real big fan of it, but they figure it grabs your attention.

And it leads to instant recognizability: "The guy in the bright pink shirt is funny. Heh-heh."
We get "the tall guy, the bald guy, and the black guy" a lot.

The music is much more involved in the US version...
We have two, sometimes three people in the band. The thing to keep in mind is that Whose Line... started in Britain on the radio for its first year. So it was very talky. And when it moved to TV, the British aren't really physical, they're more talky. Once the Americans started joining in and the show became much more physical, it brought out a whole new dimension of the show. And now it's hard to keep pace. Colin and I are too old for this shit. The other guys are all buff and lifting each other up and Colin and I are the guys with the bad backs... Although when we had cheerleaders on and we were using them as props, believe me, we were lifting them just fine.

Cheerleaders?
I don't think its aired yet. It's the game where we don't use props, but we use people as props. It was a Western scene, so when Colin put on his chaps, he had a girl on each leg, and he put on his gun belt, so he had two girls hanging from his hips, and he had a duster or kerchief around his neck, so he had a girl over his shoulders, so he had five girls hanging off him at one point. His back was just fine that day...

That's something we've started doing recently. On top of audience participation, we bring celebrities in for one or two games. We've had David Hasselhoff and Richard Simmons and Lassie do the show, and it livens it up for us as well.

Not to ask you to reveal magician's secrets, but how much do you know/plan ahead of time?
We know what games we're going to do for camera, but that's all we know. And after this many years, we know that for a game like props, two of us will go to one side and the other two will go to the other side. But as for the content of the games, we have no idea. We used to go through a number of games for camera, but now they pretty much know where we'll be. Sometimes if we have a guest who's never done the show before, we might run through some games...

It's kind of sickening, really, because for a game like props, they give us the same props they have for 10 years. "Oh good, it's the banana thing again..." (with zero enthusiasm) But you really don't want a whole bunch of new props all the time.

Colin and I have worked together for so long - not just with Whose Line... but in Second City before that - and we start to second guess ourselves... We'll be in the middle of a scene, and I'll be thinking "Have I done this before?" So we'll get off it, even though we haven't done it before, we did something like it ten years ago... So that's the hard part. It's not thinking up stuff, it's thinking up stuff we've never done before.

One of the amazing things about improv is that it's like pool or chess: Not only do you make your move, but you set up the next one, in this case, taken by your teammate. It's very un-star, un-hogging-the-spotlight.
Anyone who wanted to be a star or a hotdog on this show would get shut down so quickly... You're only as funny as the set-ups the others give you. That's one of the things that makes the show work; people may have their favorites or whatever, but it's four guys out there, and if one of us can't think of something to say, someone else will jump right in to fill the space.

Do you guys hang around after the show and compliment each other on hilarious bits or rib each other over missed set-ups?
It never really gets that personal. It's usually more of a whole, like "We got a little dirty tonight and we didn't need to." We don't sit around and critique each other... We all do such different things outside of Whose Line... Some do stand-up, some have shows... You don't really notice anyway, especially in scene work. If something doesn't work, you move on. People don't remember what isn't funny, they only remember what is.

Not to get all deep into your psyche or anything, but have you ever really thought about what it is that makes you funny, and what makes you want to be funny?
I've never analyzed it. People ask about it, and I guess I do need laughter, but who doesn't? What I enjoy most is being on stage and working with people. The laughs are nice, but it's just great working out with people. It's not a matter of "boy, I'd better keep at this or I'm going to lose it," it's just something I have to do. It's Thursday night, so we go to the Improv tonight, and we don't get paid, and it's the only night of the week they fill the place. We do it just because we want to do it. If we're not getting paid, well, that just means we can cancel whenever we want, there's no pressure...

It's not like stand-up where you have to show up early to go over your act... The death of stand-up was cable. Why go to a club and pay a door charge when you can see ten comics a night on cable? Now clubs are closing all over the place.

Improv is kind of like the next wave... I get a lot of calls from high schools and colleges in the area asking if I'll teach a class. They have improv in their theater classes now. I think that must have something to do with Whose Line..., because when Iwas in theater classes, they never had any improv... A lot of auditions here in Hollywood are now improvised. There are two reasons for that: One is they want you to write their pilot for them, and two, they want to see who can take it somewhere. On our show [The Drew Carey Show], we have a new script today that I'm going in to read, and over the next two days, we'll add to and personalize the script as we work through it. It's handy to have people who can improvise in your cast because you end up with so many more jokes than the original script.

You mentioned Second City and Whose Line... as opposites, can you give an example?
In Second City, we were taught to find the humor in the scene, so our scenes tended to be more realistic, dramatic scenes, and on Whose Line... you're a moose.

[Trying to recover, as Ryan waits patiently, deadpan] What are improv classes like? Do they instruct on "sure-fire" directions to take when handed a prop or something?
I don't teach that specifically. I use games to teach, but the games I use deal more with, say, centering on listening to the other people. I think that there are really only two things you need to do in improv: The first is to listen to the people up there with you. Which is hard for people who are up there trying to think of funny things to say, not finding the funny things in the scene. I'd rather be onstage with someone who doesn't help or say a thing than someone who's trying to be funny. The other thing is to add stuff as you pass it along. If someone says to you, "Hey, those are nice shoes," you don't just say "Oh, thanks." You go, "Oh thanks, I have 13 pairs of them." "13 pairs?" That's how you keep scenes going. If you just say yes and no and thanks, you're not adding anything to help the scene along, and you're putting all the pressure on the other person, because they're the ones making all the offers.

In my classes, I have games where all people do is add on to what the last person said. I put them in a circle, and each accepts an offer, adds onto it, turns to the next person, and makes an offer, who adds onto it, and it goes around the circle.

Kind of like Questions Only?
That's a good example: In Second City we were taught to never ask questions in scenes. It's very hard to advance the action when people are asking questions. You don't want to come into a scene and ask, "Hey, what are you doing?" You want to come in like "Oh, I don't know if that's good for the cat, Jerry."

Questions Only strikes me as a demanding game, one where you can burn or get burned very easily. Some of the volleys seem almost like an egg toss; who's going to falter or miss the timing and get egg on them.
It's actually a pretty easy game. The hard part is making a sacrifice to get out so someone else can come in. But it's like all games, you want to build and get a scene going. If you're on a beach, you don't want to be like "Isn't it hot today?" "Do you want some ice cream?" "Is that you car?" because it's not going anywhere. And that's where people who haven't done improv before make mistakes. The first three or fours years I did improv, I didn't do that. I was out for the laughs. I was out for me. If you watch someone like Colin, you may think he's taking all kinds of laughs, but he's taking what you're giving him, and he's offering tons back for you to work with.

Improv is more en vogue recently, thanks in part to Whose Line..., but the "giving" and "listening" things you're talking about seem so, well, unHollywood.
What's happening now in L.A. - and perhaps elsewhere too - is that, with all the stand-up clubs closing, four or five stand-ups are getting together and forming an improv troupe. Now... they're doing this to get stage time, not because they have some love of improv. So what you have is five comics who are all used to working themselves, all used to getting the laughs, and when you see it onstage, it's horrible. There'll be a guy going out on a limb, trying to get stuff started, and one of the guys'll be behind him, doing something goofy, stealing focus, and going for a cheap laugh. It may not look that way from the audience, it may look hilarious, but the guy who's up there working his ass off is getting stranded.

Improv actually sounds like a good mental discipline...
A lot of business executives take improv to learn how to speak in front of people. And to know how to work a room. I think good improv comes out of theater, not out of stand-up. Look at all the greats that have come out of Chicago, out of Second City. Dating back to Alan Alda and Alan Arkin, Ed Asner, all those guys were Second City. And, of course, you have Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, John Belushi, Mike Meyers, and pretty much most of Saturday Night Live.

And SCTV in Canada?
It was the Canadian troupe, up in Toronto, but they were all Second City: Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, Harold Ramis, John Candy...

Eugene Levy has made a comeback as the dad in the American Pie franchise, but I didn't realize he'd co-written Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show... Best in Show - a mockumentary about dog shows, for chrissakes - turned out to be sooo much funnier, character-driven funny, than I'd thought!
It's an improvised movie. The script is like a pamphlet. It's basically the structure of what they want to have happen in that scene and where it has to go, but all the lines are improvised. That's why you have Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, Christopher Guest - all these improvisers. And that's the way This is Spinal Tap was as well. I have the script to Spinal Tap. It's only about 40 pages long.

Whose Line Is It Anyway? on ABC
Whose Line Is It Anyway? on Warner Brothers Site Guide
Whose Line Is It Anyway? on Comedy Central

 


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