Lightning-Fast Stiles Still Has Skill in Improv

Ryan Stiles and Friends Unplugged

At the Vogue Theatre on Saturday, December 4

Ryan Stiles, once one of the best standup comics in Vancouver, retired from doing prepared material a long time ago. The TV star and Vancouver TheatreSports League alumnus has concentrated on improv since the mid '80s and is best known for his improvisational skills on Whose Line Is It Anyway?. Stiles once told a reporter that he got out of standup when everybody else started doing it. After Saturday's late show at the Vogue, where he teamed up with some of his old VTSL cohorts, I wouldn't be surprised if he gave up improv, too.

It's beginning to sound repetitive, but recently, the crowds for comedy-theatre shows in this town have all but ruined the fun. Unlike standup, where performers deliver a monologue and heckling is unwelcome, improv invites audience participation. What the comics don't appreciate, though, is rowdies who think they are the show. On Saturday, most reasonable suggestions from the laypeople were drowned out by folks who wanted every scene to involve masturbation, sphincters, and sex. Things got so bad that a frustrated Stiles ended up pointing at certain individuals for assistance. Not that it helped; the blowhards still screamed out their ideas of really funny premises or pleas of "Marry me, Ryan!"

Still, all was not lost. When you're watching a talent as bright as Stiles, not to mention some of the best of the still-local improvisers, there are going to be laughs.

Several of the games were old standbys that never fail to amuse, even if the actors aren't saying anything particularly inventive. The Freeze Game--where someone yells out "Freeze!" in the middle of a skit and assumes the position of one member in the scene--is always contrived and rarely provides any brilliant comedy. Ditto the game where two civilians move the actors about like puppets. The ineptness of the puppeteers always generates more hilarity than the story line.

Most promising was a game I hadn't seen in improv before this night: a takeoff on Jeopardy!, featuring Stiles as Alex Trebek. Either he or one of the four "contestants" would supply the categories and the questions to answers called out by audience members. Under the category of Body Positions, the answer was supine. The question, as provided on the spot by Ellie Harvie: "What is the answer to 'What kind of tree is that?' " Under Geometrical Shapes, the answer was hypotenuse. Roger Fredericks's question: "What do you use to hang a hypoten?"

Another highlight was an "interview" with Stiles as an expert on hip-hop aerobics. Behind him, Jay Ono provided "sign language" for the hearing-impaired. When Stiles and his interviewer touched on a phrase that proved difficult for Ono, they wasted no time in repeating it over and over. It was a great combination of verbal and physical comedy.

Cast member Scott Owen, who always impresses, is the closest thing to Stiles in Vancouver. Both comics are tall, with a naturally funny look and lightning-quick responses to the most challenging situations.

Stiles gave us a taste of his standup skills when he talked to the audience for 10 minutes at the top of the night. He probably won't retire from improv, even if he keeps attracting horrendous crowds like the one at Saturday's late show. But if he does, here's hoping he goes back to his roots. He's still got it.