April 14, 2007
By Wallace Blaine
Ryan Stiles grew up watching "The Carol Burnett Show" and, yes, he had a favorite cast member.
"Tim Conway was my guy," said Stiles, who visits Santa Cruz on Saturday as part of the "A Night of Improv" event. Nowadays, Stiles is as prominent on television as Conway ever was, having starred in "The Drew Carey Show," "Two and a Half Men," and, most famously, as the "tall guy" in ABC's enormously popular improv sketch series "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"
"Now, I've become the Tim Conway of my era," he said. "I'll have 10-, 11-year-old kids come up to me and tell me I'm funny. So I'm that funny old guy, like Tim Conway"
Much of Conway's appeal had to do with his gift for thinking on his feet, but Stiles has taken that talent a step further, carving out a nice career for himself in performing without a script.
For the uninitiated, the idea behind "Whose Line" is to put talented comics together, such as Stiles, Wayne Brady and Colin Mochrie, and see what happens when they have to improvise. Saturday's event at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium is like a live version of "Whose Line," featuring Stiles and fellow "Whose Line" alums Greg Proops and Chip Esten, as well as Jeff B. Davis.
"We're allowed more freedom in the live shows because many of our suggestions used to come down from the producers," said Stiles by phone from his home in Washington state. "But in this show, we actually take all our suggestions from the crowd, and we involve the audience more in the show than we do on 'Whose Line.'"
The live show also allows the performers to take advantage of the larger spaces of a theater stage. That means, said Stiles, that there will be less jokey routines, like the "Props" game on the show, and more scene-oriented improvs.
Improv comedy groups have sprouted up throughout the U.S. in recent years, particularly in Santa Cruz where groups like Um Gee Um and ScripTease have been entertaining local audiences for years. "Whose Line," which was a hit series in the U.K. for a decade before coming to American audiences, is considered as a primary influence of the improv craze.
"When I was in high school taking theater classes, they didn't offer improv classes. That's really only started in the last 10 to 12 years and I think a lot of that has to do with 'Whose Line.'
"There's improv everywhere now," said Stiles. "I opened up a club here in Bellingham because there were so many improvisers up here. I built it to give these people something to work in.
From actors asked to improvise in auditions to politicians who avoid being labeled as "scripted," the improv ethic has seeped into public life in myriad ways.
"More sitcoms are going that way too," said Stiles. "Used to be shows were very tightly scripted. Now, you look at shows like 'Curb Your Enthusiasm,' 'Arrested Development,' 'The Office,' they have the feel of improvisation"
Stiles said that he avoids flying. As a result, the "Night of Improv" crew travels from town to town in what he calls a "rock 'n' roll bus" "We play poker all the way to the next gig"
On stage, Stiles tries to keep his mind free from worries or plans of action. "I'd rather start in the middle of scene. I don't want to start with 'Please send in Mr. Rogers.' I'd rather start with 'That's the third cat this week, John.' In that case, we don't know where we are or who we are, and the audience wants to discover that with you as you go along. We have to have blank minds when we go on stage"