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Families and students filed into the three-tier shelves of the Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center on Thursday as the cast of “Whose Live Anyway,” a touring improvisational comedy and song show starring comedians from “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” prepared to take the stage. The tender sounds of gospel and R&B legends caressed the auditorium as the audience braced itself for an evening of laughter-induced abdominal exercise.
They say improv is merciless, and indeed it was. Comedy veterans Jeff Davis, Greg Proops, Joel Murray and Ryan Stiles, and musical director Bob Derkach performed a 90-minute set. It flew by and was more enjoyable than any Jillian Michaels workout video.
As much improv does, the night relied on audience-generated content. We were fascinated by the Santa Maria love story of Tom and Nancy, a couple pulled onstage who had been together for 26 years and ostensibly admitted to having something to do with a certain green plant.
We were marveled by an audience volunteer’s initial reluctance but ultimate willingness to disclose highly personal details about her marriage’s gradual destruction. Outwardly, we dreaded the idea of being called on stage. Secretly, we sat up higher in our seats, yearning to be one of the chosen.
The four comedians talked just about as fast as people clapped, joking about subjects from socialism to global conspiracies, from life-sized tennis to Pismo Beach — in fact, they joked about Pismo Beach a lot. They fed off of rhetorical hyperbole and dad jokes. At some point, Murray subjected himself to what he claimed was 10 minutes of squats (in reality, it was only about two).
The men were authoritative but considerate of each other, playful and strikingly intelligent. They knew everything about Schnauzers, could freely reference different types of Pinot and knew exactly the right moment to plug in some talk of The Princess Bride.
After the show, I sat down with Proops to talk about performing, confidence and how to not pee yourself on stage. Proops is a stand-up comedian from San Francisco who performed on “Whose Line Is it Anyway?” several times.
Here are seven things I learned from my conversation with Proops:
1. Even veteran improv comedians stumble.
“Things happen unexpectedly,” Proops said. “One time we called up this boy onstage and he made this loud piercing noise we didn’t know was coming. You just have to give over to whatever happens.”
2. In terms of confidence, “fake it ’til you make it” isn’t enough.
“You have to want to be on stage,” Proops said. “It’s a commitment. I perform hundreds of nights a year — if you want to do it seriously, you have to be on stage all the time.”
3. Proops is the smartest man in the world.
He has a podcast called “The Smartest Man in the World,” available for listening on iTunes. He has a book, too, also called, The Smartest Book in the World.
4. Success is a bad teacher.
“There’s no replacement for failure — failing is the best thing you can learn from,” Proops said.
5. Improv isn’t about talking.
While I was certainly impressed by the comedians’ vivaciousness and seemingly encyclopedic style of chatter through their set, talking is not the main focus of improv. Talking isn’t the focus at all. Improv isn’t about showing off — it’s about listening, Proops said.
“Listening is key,” he said. “Ryan (Stiles) is the best I know. He always stays in scene. I’m always thinking about something I can say next.”
6. Mistakes are golden opportunities.
His mantra? Leonard Cohen’s optimistic take on success, from his hit song, “Anthem.”
“There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
7. Proops’ biggest fear is peeing onstage.
Thankfully, it hasn’t happened. et.