Ryan Stiles is the guy who’s at his best when he’s being someone — or something — else.
The 6-foot-6 comic actor got his widest notice as Lewis, the beer-loving, underachieving best friend on “The Drew Carey Show” (1995-2004). But before and since that sitcom, he’s been acknowledged as a master of the improvisational comedy form, where actors must bend and shape themselves to fit a spur-of-the-moment scene or concept — usually one tossed out by the audience.
“I just enjoyed it more than standup,” says Stiles, 47, who dropped out of high school to pursue stage comedy. “No. 1, I didn’t have to write anything, and it was just more rewarding being onstage with other people. From an audience perspective, I think they want to laugh more with a group that they’re actually telling what to do, so they’re more invested in it.”
Stiles tests that theory Friday at the Performing Arts Center of Wenatchee, alongside three members of his Upfront Players improv troupe. The actors are based at the Upfront Theatre in Bellingham, which Stiles established in 2004. Ticket sales were so strong for the initial 7 p.m. show, a 9:30 p.m. performance was added last week.
Since the early 1990s, the Seattle native has made himself a ubiquitous That Guy on TV series ranging from “Drew Carey” to “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose” to “Dharma & Greg.” He’s also acted alongside Charlie Sheen in “Hot Shots!” (1991) and “Hot Shots! Part Deux” (1993). But his heart always lay with the unscripted, off-the-cuff explosions of the improv stage. It’s a form he studied with the famed Second City comedy troupe in Toronto and Los Angeles, from 1986 to 1990. He furthered that work as a key player on the British improv TV series “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” (1989-1998) and as performer-producer on its U.S. spinoff, featuring Carey as emcee (1998-2004). In both versions, Stiles assumed multiple, elastic personae opposite fellow improv comics like Colin Mochrie, Brad Sherwood and Greg Proops. The first season of the U.S. production is newly out on DVD.
Stiles and his wife have three children. They’ve lived in Bellingham since 1994 — the point when his TV career became most frenetic, and forced him to shuttle madly between the Northwest and Southern California for the next decade.
“We bought our first house in the Bellingham area about two weeks before I got ‘Drew,’ ” Stiles says by phone from temporary quarters in Los Angeles, where he’s shooting a recurring guest spot on CBS’s “Two and a Half Men.” “… I said, ‘Just keep the kids here, this show’s probably not gonna go more than a year, if it goes that long.’ Then the second year I said the same thing. And the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth.”
Go! Magazine: Who are the three players you’re bringing to this show?
Ryan Stiles: Isn’t this awful, I’m gonna be stumped on some of their names. Robin Corsberg, DK Reinemer, and Morgan … and for the life of me, I can never remember Morgan’s last name, and I know that’s horrible.
Go!: Just improvise something.
Stiles: Morgan, uh, uh, uh, Spelling! I don’t why that came to mind.
Go!: That’s a good one. That probably means he’s got a showbiz family.
Stiles: Exactly. And I’ll die soon, apparently. (Editor’s note: Morgan Grobe is the troupe’s third member.)
Go!: When you get folks in for the Upfront Theatre troupe, are you doing the recruiting and auditioning yourself?
Stiles: No. Originally, when I moved there (to Bellingham), there was a lot of people taking classes from different people who were teaching in improv, but they’d never been onstage. So some of these people have been taking classes for four years and had never been on a stage. So I kind of started dropping in on classes and I said to these people, “If I build you a theater, consider it your theater and do whatever you want there, but I don’t want to have anything to do with it. I just want to drop by and do shows. I don’t want to stock anything or be in the everyday business of it.” So that’s what they’ve done. I’ve got 50 volunteers who run the place, and I have nothing to do with it except for the fact that I come down and perform there. They put the shows together, they do the lineups, and it’s kind of a “Field of Dreams” type thing. It gives them a place to work and a place to call home, and it gives me a place to get some of my tension out. If I didn’t have a place to play, my wife would say, “Go to Seattle or go to Vancouver, do something, you’re driving me nuts.” I could care less whether I ever do TV or film again, but I need to be onstage.
Go!: Why the preference for stage over film or TV?
Stiles: Well, the way TV is, with sitcoms and reality shows and all that kind of stuff, I think there’s more honest, pure work that goes on onstage. I’ll come down and do sitcoms, but for the most part, they’re kinda jokey and they’re all the same, and nothing new’s really being done. As for film, I don’t like doing it. It takes too long to do it, you have to wait around too long. I like the immediacy of being onstage. It’s instant, you know?
Go!: Is improvisation something that you can learn, or is it something that you have to bring a certain percentage of yourself to in the first place?
Stiles: Well, I think anybody can learn it, because all the games are structured in a way that if you know the rules, you can do it. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re gonna be good at it. You have to have something inside of you to actually be good at it. It becomes very addictive — the people down at my theater wouldn’t miss a show now. But a lot of people don’t take the classes to be onstage. A lot of them just take it so they can talk in crowds easier.
Go!: What’s the format for this particular show?
Stiles: Everything’ll be from audience suggestions. It’s actually purer than “Whose Line,” because on “Whose Line” a lot of our suggestions came down from producers, and they were already on cards for Drew to read. We didn’t know what they were, but in this case, we use all our suggestions from the crowd, and we actually use the crowd in a lot of scenes as well. And the pace is quicker, because unlike “Whose Line,” you haven’t got Drew stopping everything to give points and all that. It’s one game after another, so it flies by pretty quick. It’s an hour and a half, and we don’t take a break.
Go!: Have you ever gotten an audience suggestion that purely stumped you?
Stiles: No … well, it might have stumped me, but the good thing about improv is there’s three, four, five other people onstage with you, so the times when you can’t think of something, hopefully they’re there to back you up. But if we don’t take a suggestion, it’s usually because, No. 1, it’s just dirty, and we probably have kids in the crowd; or we’ve done it last night or the week before. Otherwise, we’ll take what they give us.
Go!: How did an American comic actor working in Canada get involved with a British production like “Whose Line” in the first place?
Stiles: When I was in Second City at Toronto — I can’t remember what year it was, ‘88 or ‘89 — they opened a Second City here in Los Angeles, and they combined the Toronto and Chicago casts. So they brought three people from each cast, and I came down with that. Then when they were auditioning for “Whose Line,” they went to the Groundlings and Theater Sports and Second City and all these groups, auditioning. I just got it through an audition process. Greg Proops was there the first year, and I came out the second year, and then Colin came, and Brad. When it started out in Britain, it was three Brits and an American on the panel, then it got to be two and two, and then the last couple of years we did it in Britain, there were no Brits on the panel. It made sense to bring it to the U.S. after that.
Go!: Because everybody knows it’s easier to laugh at Americans.
Stiles: Well, you know, the Brits are talky. They’re really good with things like authors, but they stand in one place and talk quite a bit, so when the Americans came over, it became much more physical. I think the music became much better, too. We just kind of took over, I think. But as far as an audience goes, it doesn’t matter where you are — they all laugh at the same things.
Go!: For the ABC version of “Whose Line,” you were a producer with Drew Carey.
Stiles: Yeah, and we didn’t cut Hat Trick — the production company that did it in London — we didn’t cut them out, we brought them in on it. We didn’t have to, but we would’ve felt bad if we did. But Drew, we got him into improv around that time, and he was really bad — he’d only been doing it two months — and he basically said to me, “I want to pitch this show using my name, but I don’t know anything about improv. So if you come in and pitch it, we’ll be partners on it.” So I said fine. At that point, I could answer all their questions, because we’d already been doing it in Britain for 10 years. It went really quick — we pitched and I think we were shooting it two weeks later, and it was on the air a week after that. As opposed to a sitcom, where you work through stuff for a year or two years, this went up really quick.
Go!: You mention Drew’s facility with improv. I remember watching the bits where he would get involved on “Whose Line,” and it was remarkably bad — but not unfunny.
Stiles: But I always say to Drew, now that he’s been doing it five years or whatever, “I wish you had a tape of the first time you got onstage as opposed to how you are now, because you would see the difference.” He gets hard on himself sometimes, and to Drew’s credit, when we went to ABC, they wanted him to be in a scene, and he was like, “I don’t want to do that, I’m not very good at it.” But ABC kept saying, “No, we want you to be in something at the end, at least one scene.” So he didn’t want to do that — it was forced upon him.
Go!: Do you know when your “Two and a Half Men” episodes are going to air?
Stiles: No, you never know. They put ‘em on different times. The show that you shot two months ago might be on three months from now, and the one we shot last week might be on next week. They never really know.
Go!: Was that part of what disillusioned you about working in TV — the production interference, or maybe production cluelessness?
Stiles: No, I really enjoy doing these shows, and the only reason I really do “Two and a Half Men” is because I know Charlie and Jon Cryer from “Hot Shots.” Plus I know the executive producer, so anytime he asks me to come down, I usually do. But you turn down a lot more than you actually do. I’m kind of picky about what I do now, but that’s a great show.
Go!: It keeps your face out there.
Stiles: I’m not really worried about that. I could care less whether I fade into obscurity. I was never in it for the fame anyway. I always kind of considered it a job and a way to make a living, and I just do it because I enjoy doing it. I’d much rather be onstage than anything else. But it’s definitely a good way to pay the bills, and make sure your kids are taken care of.
Jefferson Robbins can be reached at 664-7123 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
What: Ryan Stiles and the Upfront Players, improv comedy
Where: Performing Arts Center of Wenatchee, 123 N. Wenatchee Ave.
When: 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Friday
Tickets and information:
On the Web
The Upfront Theatre