Every trained actor has learned to do improvisation. Considering the difficulty level of doing it well while maintaining a high standard of comedy, it's a puzzling quirk of show business that just about no one has ever become famous for performing improv. Two men working to buck that trend at the moment are Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood, whose frequently sold-out touring shows present a unique evening's entertainment. One of those evenings—a January 2010 stint at Milwaukee's Pabst Theatre—has now been captured for posterity in the home-video release Colin & Brad: Two Man Group.
Mochrie and Sherwood both rose to prominence on the improv TV series Whose Line Is It Anyway?, as frequent players in its original incarnation on Britain's Channel 4 and then as star performers (Mochrie a regular, Sherwood a semi-regular) on the 1998-2006 ABC/ABC Family version of the same property. The duo's live show includes variations on many of the games showcased on Whose Line, which in turn largely derive from traditional improv games played by high school, college, semi-pro, and professional improv players. As Mochrie and Sherwood take pains to point out at the show's outset, the scenes that make up the show are entirely unscripted (hence, y'know, improvisation). Of course, the actors' nimble minds do, at times, reach back into a mental joke file filled through years of experience, but there's nothing rigged, and the audience members supplying support or suggestions aren't plants.
Colin & Brad: Two Man Group kicks off with "Moving Bodies," a game in which audience volunteers treat the performers as action figures: Mochrie and Sherwood cannot move unless the audience members move the actors' body parts for them (or tap their legs into stepping). Most of the fun of the audience-participation games comes from gently ribbing the audience members for their lack of grace, or playfully embarrassing them by giving them silly voices (as in the later "Jeopardy!" game) or putting them into suggestive situations. Mochrie and Sherwood bait their puppet-masters by introducing a spiral staircase into the scene, while never losing the sublimely silly thread of a situation involving Belgian neighbors and frozen chicken.
Next up is "Sound FX" in a variation that includes the actors playing out a scene while audience members on microphones do the "Foley work," supplying every sound effect the actors prompt. Again, much of the humor in this river-rafting scene comes from the actors' goofing on the off-key effects that sometimes result from unrehearsed audience members. "Sideways Scene" is a gimmicky bit that's been in the duo's repetoire for at least a few years (they performed it at the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal): the scene involves a simple set—door and wall—lying on the stage floor. The actors lie on the ground, shuffling and rolling to attempt to create the illusion that they are walking, as a bird's eye camera looks down on them. Obviously, this only works as a live bit in a venue that has video screens, but it's a nifty, head-spinning interlude on the DVD (big finish: pouring glasses of wine).
"One Word Expert" (a.k.a. "Mr. Know-It-All") has the stars sit on stools and collectively play "the Love Doctor." Taking questions from the audience, the Love Doctor gives rapid responses with the actors ping-ponging words back and forth to create fluid responses. It's sort of the improv equivalent of word association, in the sense that the actors aren't to consider what they're about to come out with, but simply listen and respond with lightning speed. "Interpreter," as played on this occasion, takes advantage of the Second City-trained Mochrie's forte of physical comedy: as Sherwood interviews an audience member about his job, Mochrie provides mock interpretation for the hearing impaired, through goofball mime. Mochrie's skill at mime is nearly matched by his encyclopedic, happily groan-inducing punnery, while Sherwood has a penchant for zingers and a well-honed sense of the absurd.
What Sherwood introduces as "The Torture Game" is actually a hybrid of three games: "Questions Only" (conducting a scene solely with questions), "If You Know What I Mean..." (incorporating as many double entendres as possible) and "Letter Substitution" (in this case, all "s"s become "k"s) played in succession as the performers enact a scene about contentious coal miners. The "Letter Substitution" section is quite astounding in the practiced, unhesitant speed the players demonstrate.
Last up is the regular finale of the touring show, introduced by Sherwood as "The World's Most Dangerous Improv Game." 250 mousetraps carpet the stage (with an additional seven dangling into the playing space from above), and Mochrie and Sherwood perform blindfolded. The improv game itself ("The Alphabet Game," in which each line must begin with a successive letter) takes a back seat to the actors yelping in pain as they step on traps—it's also part of the fun that the duo often consider an offense their best defense.
Having seen the live show in Cupertino, California, I can attest that the video does a fair job of recreating the live experience in front of an appreciative crowd. The more lesiurely paced live show has been tightened up in the editing room, allowing for more games in a much shorter amount of time, and the video understandably doesn't include the live show's impressive musical epilogue, in which Colin and Brad improvise lyrics (to the tune of "My Way") that incorporate the name of the town they're playing and callback references to jokes and situations from earlier in the evening. Though Colin & Brad: Two Man Group doesn't quite find the performers at their funniest, it is an entertaining showcase for two of the sharpest improv practitioners at work today.
Image delivers a clean and sharp image for its DVD of Colin & Brad: Two Man Group, with appealing color and precious little in the way of digital distraction (just an occasional touch of shimmering). The crisp Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is more than adequate for the material, and helps to create the "you are there" effect by putting audience reactions into the rear channels. It is unfortunate, however, that none of the material on the disc has subtitles or closed-captioning.
Colin and Brad sat for a couple of DVD bonuses, the first being "Dos and Don'ts of Improv" (6:53). The comic premise here is to present a few of the basics of improv, such as the importance of listening and the concept of "Yes, and..." (accept and build on what you're given), and then to undermine those basics in inept demonstrations, primarily by Sherwood playing dumb and thwarting Mochrie.
Lastly, there's a mock "Interview with Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood" (5:42), in which Sherwood spoofs James Lipton and asks Mochrie pretentious and awkward questions (the tables turn briefly at the end).
Fans of these performers won't want to miss this DVD, which will whet the appetite to nab tickets for their next live appearance.
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