It’s hard to believe Ryan Stiles when he says he’s an introverted person. Not that the lanky comedian seems like the untrustworthy sort—he’s actually quite earnest for someone who’s made his living making fun. Just that, well, his history doesn’t exactly pan that out.
Born in Seattle and raised in Vancouver, Stiles first stepped on to the funny stages in his teens, touring comedy clubs and strip joints across Western Canada. Eventually he found a spot with the famed Second City comedy troupe, first in Toronto before eventually landing in Los Angeles.
His stellar work on the LA stages led to arguably his biggest break: a trip over the pond for a featured spot on the improv comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway? Stiles spent 15 years on both the British and American versions, earning an Emmy nomination in 2002, in between landing another prime gig as Drew’s decidedly unstable friend Lewis on The Drew Carey Show.
In short, Stiles has been performing for people since before his adult life started—not exactly the trademark of the reserved. Still, though, as he tells it, once he steps off the stage, he’s much more comfortable around a few close friends.
“I get kind of nervous when I’m in crowds—I get a little claustrophobic, and I’d much rather hang out with a few people at a small party than anything bigger,” Stiles explains from his home in LA, a burg that doesn’t exactly jibe with his more withdrawn tendencies (his regular home is outside Seattle). “When I was nominated for an Emmy four years ago, I didn’t even go—I stayed home and watched a rerun of The Fugitive. That’s just not my thing.”
Not that anyone looking forward to his upcoming turn at the Winspear with fellow Whose Liners Greg Proops, Jeff Davis and Chip Esten need worry about Stiles’s reserved side coming through. As he explains, as much as crowds aren’t his thing, for him the stage is something else entirely.
“I’m not really all that big on television or film, but if I don’t get up on the stage once in a while, I get a bit nutty,” Stiles says with an easy laugh. “The stage is definitely different from real life. Up there you can be anybody you want, or do anything you want. That’s what’s great about it—I don’t have to be me.”
More than anything, though, Stiles has just come to love the art of improv. Although he admits that he’s not really surprised by anything thrown his way anymore—he has been at it for the better part of 20 years, after all—the nature of the business keeps him on his toes and gives him a rush so that no other kind of acting, or comedy, really fits.
“Acting is great for paying the bills and making a living, but it doesn’t really compare to the feeling,” he admits. “It’s really hard to go wrong on a sitcom, because you can do it as many times as you want, and you’ve got 14 writers over your shoulder, too. It’s riskier in improv, which makes it way more fun.”
Although, truth be told, for a guy like Stiles, it also helps to have a few of your friends on stage with you—really, it’s the best of all worlds.
“This is the only time I get to see these guys, maybe eight or ten times a year, so it’s nice to get together with them,” he says. “We generally have fun on stage, and the audience sees that you’re having fun, and I think that’s as big as anything.”