So, let's get this straight: Colin Mochrie, the Canadian cutup whose entire comedy career depends on thinking on his feet, improvising funny bits and generally just kind of making it up as he goes and then immediately forgetting all about what he's done, actually sat down and stayed focused long enough to write a book?
Well, yes, and...
"I actually spend my time trying not to have more work than I need, but my agent doesn't like me to have any free time. And he said to me, 'Why don't you write a book?' and at first I was, shall we say, resistant to the idea," Mochrie says in a telephone interview from his Toronto home.
"But I've been trying lately, at the urging of my wife, Deb (McGrath), to instil into our lives this improv thing called, 'Yes, and...,' where you accept people's ideas and then build on them. For the past couple of years we've been trying to make that part our life, so we'll say yes to things that we might be a bit scared of or not totally comfortable with, just to see where it takes us.
"And I thought, writing a book scares me; it seems like a lot of work, and it's something I've never done, so why not try it and see what happens?"
What happened was Not QUITE the Classics, a collection of a dozen Mochrie-penned stories set for release Oct. 22, in which the newly minted author employs another reliable improv-comedy trick, the first-line/last-line game, with audience members providing the first and last lines of a scene and the performers making up the rest.
For his introduction to authordom, Mochrie borrowed the first and last lines from well-known literary works and then used his own mirthful imagination to fill in everything in between.
The results are predictably unpredictable: a reworking of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities in which the best of times/worst of times contemplation involves cartoon klutz Wile E. Coyote finally getting his revenge; a differently whimsical spin on Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat that brings zombies into the equation; and a rather inventive re-imagining of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s Slaughterhouse-Five that somehow involves a man whose rectal exam takes a wrong turn, leaving him with an unconscious doctor lodged in his backside.
"When I realized I actually had to write the damned thing, I decided to try to fit in some improv," says Mochrie. "By using the first-line/last-line game, I figured the book would already be two per cent written, which is a nice little start.
"Actually, the hardest part of the whole process was trying to find books that had a first and last line that were vague enough that I could do whatever I wanted in a story, and yet interesting enough to inspire me. There are a lot of great classic novels out there with great first lines, but then they've got a last line that goes on for a paragraph and is very convoluted. Those ones made things very difficult; basically, I ended up going through a whole lot of well-known, beloved classics and just looking at the first and last pages to see if they suited my needs."
Mochrie, who earlier this month was voted Canada's comedy person of the year at the 14th annual Canadian Comedy Awards, spent about six months working on the stories that fill Not QUITE the Classics. One of the most challenging aspects of the chore, he says, was trying to create humour without an audience's laughter providing immediate feedback about what was working and what wasn't.
"Yeah, there's nothing worse than having to trust yourself," he says with a laugh. "When I started, I realized that you can't write a book to please other people; I just had to write in a way that I thought was funny, and then hope there would be enough of an audience that would go along with me."
And then, of course, there was that worst-nightmare situation for an improv comic -- being faced with a challenge that doesn't simply vanish into the ether as soon as you've improvised a solution.
"The beauty of improv is that once it's done, it's gone forever," he says. "You can't go back and say, 'Oh, I should have done this in that scene.' It's gone. But with a book, it just lays there, and you see all the things you've missed every time you re-read it."
Mochrie describes the writing process as "horrific" for a comedy improviser to endure, but is quick to add that he hasn't completely written off the idea of someday writing something else.
"When I say I hated the process, that's true," he offers, "but there were many times when it was a lot of fun. And when it was over, I was really proud that I'd written a book and I'm happy with the way most of the stories turned out.
"I'd compare it to childbirth -- I think you have to wait a while and forget the pain, and then you might want to try another one."
Colin Mochrie will be in Winnipeg on Oct. 29 to take part in an evening of comedy and conversation in celebration of Not QUITE the Classics. The event takes place at 7 p.m. in Salle Pauline Boutal at the Centre culturel franco-manitobain. Tickets are $30 each or $40 for a pair, and each ticket price includes a single copy of the book. Tickets are available at McNally Robinson Booksellers or by calling 204-475-0483.
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