April 11, 2009
By K. Williams Brown
But did you know his ringtone is a barking dog? And he feels a certain bond with strippers? And that he won't talk about his witchcraft past if, indeed, he has one? How did he feel when asked to be on "Dancing With the Stars"?
Stiles, who makes his home in Bellingham, Wash., called the Statesman Journal from Los Angeles on Wednesday in advance of "Whose Live Anyway?" That show — which is sort of, but also not, like "Whose Line?" — plays Friday at the Historic Elsinore Theater.
In the meantime, here's what Stiles had to say about improv and life in the Northwest.
Question: Thanks so much for chatting with me, Ryan. I hear this is not your first trip to the beautiful Cherry City; you've been before?
Answer: I have, many times. I live in Washington state, so it's not that far for me. It's a beautiful little town. I love Oregon; I love everything about Oregon — it's a right-to-die state.
Q: So your parents are Canadian, and you lived there as a child. Do you think Canadians are funnier than Americans?
A: I think no, actually, they're probably more conservative than Americans ... I don't think Canadians are funnier. I can barely understand what they're saying most of them time.
Q: How was doing "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" in both England and America?
A: Of course I liked it when it was in America better because I didn't have to fly to England three times a year. The last two years we did it in Britain, there were no Brits on the show. The British are very talky and not as physical, so when the Americans came over (the comedy) got a lot more physical.
Q: When you're doing improv, is it better to work with people you're familiar with or the unexpected element of a new person?
A: I enjoy working with new people, but I think if you're going into a theater where you're charging people a lot of money to see your show, you should be with people you're familiar with.
Q: Do you have a favorite improv troupe?
A: My favorite is the one I'm involved in, otherwise I wouldn't tour with them. We used to tour with eight, nine people, and we found what happened was half the show we were watching from the side when someone else worked. Most scenes either lend themselves to two people or four people.
Q: Is easier to get and stay in the improv creative zone, if you're not moving on and off stage?
A: Yes, and I think the audience gets a better sense of the cast when there's four people … we try to keep the flow going, and when there's eight or nine people, you just can't do that. Chip (Esten) and Jeff B. Davis) sing really well; Greg (Proops) is totally different than I am. Everyone's different, and when we come together as a group, it feels like a group. It's a really hot show. You'll like it a lot more than you liked "Whose Line?" We don't have a host there that's stopping the action and awarding the points. On "Whose Line?," there was such a small stage that a lot of the games we did were standing in a row. Whereas when we're doing a show like this, we have such a huge stage.
Q: You famously hated the "hoedown" segment on "Whose Line?" right?
A: I don't really hate it, we just did it so much. If you're improvising, you don't want to do the same thing, and we ended every "Whose Line?" pretty well with a hoedown.
Q: So no more hoedowns these days?
A: You know, I get the family together on Sundays; we go for a drive, and we'll sing hoedowns in the car. It's our outing.
Q: Why make your home in the Northwest?
A: I grew up in Seattle and Vancouver, (British Columbia, Canada), so it's always been my home, and I didn't want to raise my kids down here in L.A. I didn't want them going to private school.
Q: Why not raise them in L.A.?
A: We live up in the mountains, we're on a lake, we have wave runners, and they go to public schools. They have neighbors and play dates. It's a weird place to raise kids in L.A. I've lived here seven years, and I don't know any of my neighbors. I have neighbors, but I don't know any of them... whereas up there, we know everyone on our lake, and the values are a little different.
Stiles segues to the fact that Victoria, B.C., is one of the most witchcraft-y cities in the world.
Q: Do you know why?
A: It's just a very pagan city.
Q: Are you yourself involved in witchcraft?
A: I am not allowed to say. Perhaps I was, perhaps I wasn't, and if I was, it's long over now.
Q: Do you find improv tiring?
A: I did standup for a lot of years — I quit high school to do standup — but I hated standup. I had to write my own material, and people have a "make me laugh" attitude. You don't get that in improv; people suggest things, so they want it to succeed.When it's done, it's done. It's so much fun. It's like a big high — you'd actually pay to do it.
Q: Let's say there's a young person who really wants to do improv. What would you say to that young person?
A: I'd say don't get into it until I die, and then feel free because you're just taking my work, really.
He adds that he actually encourages young people through the theater he owns in Bellingham.
They're young up there (at the theater), and they want to do improv, and I think it's great. They have an advantage that I didn't have. It seems like every high school now has some sort of improv class in it, and that wasn't the case when I was growing up. With the way games are played, you have rules, and anyone can do improv. It doesn't mean they're going to do it well ... There's jobs and then there's careers, this is something I really enjoy doing, and I'm really lucky that I can do it. Most people don't like their jobs. It's probably me, priests and strippers, really, and I'm not sure about strippers.
Q: Do you ever feel sad?
A: Some people always expect you to be funny, and they say, "Tell me a joke!" and I don't really do jokes. And if you're a nurse, I don't say, "Give me an enema." And if you're in the public eye, you're all over the Internet, and some people have (fake) MySpace profiles for me ... and they know all about your kids and their ages and where you live, so that's kind of scary. That's why I have big dogs. And then "Whose Line?" fans are fanatics, some follow you around the country.
Q: So you have groupies?
A: I hate to call them that. Whosers, they call themselves. They just assume that they're part of the family and really good friends, when they're really not.
His phone goes off, and his ringtone is a dog barking.
Q: That's your cell phone? Does it annoy you?
A: No, it bothers other people, but it doesn't bother me.
Q: What kind of dogs do you like?
A: I have a shepherd, I have a golden retriever, and I have a Scottish terrier. I like all dogs. (Pauses) I'm not really a fans of pitbulls, I guess.
Q: What would you like the people of Salem to know about Ryan Stiles?
A: What's interesting, besides the fact that I'm a crossdresser? Not really something I want people to know. I think people think I'm more exciting than I am. I have three kids, dogs; I live on a lake. When I do TV and stuff like that, it's work. I think you get in trouble when you start taking it too seriously. It's all about show business — you're hot as long as people know you ... to me, it's more important to have the respect of my peers. I want people to want to work with me, rather than being on "Dancing with the Stars." I was actually asked the first year, and I can't tell you how long I laughed. I think it's like any business — I want people to want to work with me. Making money is great, but it's not everything ... I'm extremely lucky, and the great thing about improv is when you meet people (who are also in improv), there's no preparation; you can step on stage with them and work with them immediately.
Q: Like banjo jam guitarists, who can just sit down and play with each other?
A: What? (Question is clarified.) It's the same way when musicians jam — there's a lot of parallels, there's a lot of parallels. Except we don't shoot up.