Whose life is it anyway?

Improv comedian Ryan Stiles traded television stardom for small-town living

You know Ryan Stiles. He spent nine years playing Drew Carey’s tall goofy pal Lewis on The Drew Carey Show and 13 more performing on the improv comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, first on British television and later on the American version. When that show ended in 2004, Stiles happily let go of his Hollywood career and made his way to the tiny town of Custer, Wash., where he lives with his family.

Though he’s content watching his kids grow up and tending a local improv theater he’s founded in nearby Bellingham, Wash., Stiles allows a bit of touring into his not-so-hectic lifestyle. He recently spoke to SN&R by phone from a tour bus making its way to California (and eventually to Sacramento for A Night of Improv on June 3).

When asked if he might return to Hollywood after his kids are raised, Stiles answered, “I probably will. In 10 years, Oprah will do the Drew reunion show. I don’t know really. I’ve never planned anything in my career.”

That unplanned career started early. Stiles dropped out of high school and used fake IDs to perform stand-up comedy in bars as a teenager. He soon discovered improv, and he’s never looked back. “I don’t really miss stand-up,” Stiles admitted. “Stand-up was: You had to write your jokes, and people realized that, so there was more of a ‘make me laugh’ attitude. With improv, the audience is part of the act, so they want you to succeed.”

Stiles joined the acclaimed Second City improv troupe, first in Toronto and then as a member of the Los Angeles cast. Next came Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the popular British television show that made Stiles a star. He later co-produced and starred in a wildly successful stateside version.

Where Saturday Night Live created a buzz in the 1970s by returning television comedy to a dangerous live format, Whose Line took things a step further by abandoning scripts and truly creating an anything-can-happen environment. Of course, being pre-recorded, anything can be cut as well. Were viewers shown the best 30 minutes of a six-hour taping?

“You have to keep in what doesn’t work, or people don’t believe it,” Stiles said. “It was pretty consistent. We would tape about two-and-half hours, doing about 20 or 25 games, but we got two—maybe three—shows out of each episode. They’d only give us 10 [live] shows, but they knew they’d get 25 or 30 out of that.”

Ryan’s hilarious presence on Whose Line led to work in commercials and guest spots on American TV, culminating in his casting as the lovable goof Lewis on The Drew Carey Show in 1995.

Nine years later, when both The Drew Carey Show and Whose Line were canceled by ABC, Stiles was ready to leave Los Angeles and the tube behind. “I really could care less about TV and film right now because I don’t think anything good is being done,” he said. “You don’t have to work hard at your craft to be on TV anymore.”

Stiles is not a fan of the reality-television trend. “I was asked to do the first Dancing with the Stars,” he admitted. He passed up the opportunity to take his place among the “real.” When it comes to comedians on television, Stiles prefers stand-up comedy pioneer Shelley Berman’s frequent appearances as a judge on Boston Legal. “He’s great. He’s very funny. I do a radio show, and he comes on. I see him about once a month.”

Because you’re not likely to see Stiles splashing across a movie screen or making a cameo on your favorite sitcom, A Night of Improv is a rare opportunity to see this inventive funnyman’s quick wit at work. Stiles and fellow tour-mates Greg Proops (British Whose Line is it Anyway? and Bob the Builder), Chip Esten and Jeff B. Davis will perform a 90-minute show based entirely on audience suggestion. A Night of Improv will play only 10 shows this summer, all on the West Coast, as Stiles does not like to fly.

After so many years of balancing two television shows, Stiles keeps his workload as light as possible. “I’m just taking time off being with my kids,” he said. “I’m enjoying staying home and watching them grow up a bit.”

Does he miss the rush of performing comedy? “I have no problem as long as I get onstage,” he replied. “I actually opened up a theater in Bellingham: The Upfront. I built it from scratch. We have groups come in from everywhere.”

Running a small theater is certainly a big shift from the hustle of Hollywood. “There’s so much in L.A., and it’s kind of a different attitude. Back east, no one was thinking about TV, but in L.A., someone’s always getting picked up for TV. In Bellingham, nobody’s doing it to get on TV.”

There, people just regard him as “the actor guy.” “I usually get ‘You look like that guy on Whose Line’ or ‘You look like that guy on Drew,” Stiles said.

Stiles still likes to take in local improv troupes in the cities he visits. “I love improv on that level, and it’s growing. Fifteen years ago, there weren’t improv troupes in every town. I don’t know how much Whose Line has to do with that, but I’d like to think we helped that along.”

Brian Crall, director of Sacramento’s Free Hooch Comedy Troupe, agrees. “Every summer I teach improv at Sac State,” he explained, “and all we have to put in the description of the class is that we are going to play games like those games on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and the classes automatically fill up, with a waiting list. They all know who Ryan Stiles is.”

“From Sacramento, S.F., up through Portland is a real hotbed for improv,” Stiles said, adding that San Francisco audiences tend to be family crowds. That’s not surprising, since Stiles’ co-star Proops is the voice of Bob the Builder, an animated children’s television favorite.

“We love kids in the audience,” Stiles said. “We try to keep our show clean. … It’s not like stand-up, where you say the F-word every few seconds.” Stiles illustrated by saying the word five or six times.

“It’s the easiest way to get a laugh, to be dirty,” he admitted. “We know there are kids in our crowd. The last thing we want is to go blue. When I started, I used to do that; you go through all kinds of styles. It’s all a matter of how much confidence you have onstage. If you enjoy what you do onstage, you don’t have to go dirty. If you’re funny, you’re funny.”

The dedicated father then pointed out how difficult it is to find appropriate comedy CDs for his preteen son. He mentioned Jerry Seinfeld as a favorite exception before reminiscing about the classic comedy albums he once listened to as he drifted off to sleep each night: Bill Cosby and Bob Newhart. He was also a big fan of The Carol Burnett Show, particularly Tim Conway. “That was the great thing about doing Drew; we got to work with a lot of those guys,” Stiles enthused.

Though the show is over, work with his heroes continues. “I got a call about two months ago from my manager: ‘Ryan, I know you’re not looking for work, but I couldn’t say no to this. There’s no money in it, but Jonathan Winters wants you to come play miniature golf with him while his crew films it.’” The delight in his voice was audible as he described working with Winters, the king of improvisational comedy. “He’s always in character; he’s insane. I love the guy.”

Stiles is no longer a television star, but he’s traveling around the country with good friends, playing poker on the bus all day and making comedy at night, spending time with family and practicing improv at his own small theater. Occasionally, he plays a few rounds of miniature golf with one of the funniest men who ever lived. Not bad for an unplanned career.