Joel Murray, Bill Murray’s brother, talks to the News-Press about working without a script
The table was set for comedy as Bill Murray and his brothers Brian Doyle-Murray and Joel Murray watched their father slowly eat.
“The rest of us would eat in a minute and a half and try to make our dad laugh, preferably with food or milk in his mouth,” Joel told the News-Press during a 2020 interview about growing up in the Chicago area. “You learned a lot about timing and parameters and what you could get away with saying and things like that.
“Fortunately, I grew up around some of the funnier people,” Joel said by phone from his Los Angeles home. “My brother, Brian, was the first one to go to Second City (comedy troupe in Chicago). He wrote ‘Caddyshack’ (1980) and for ‘Saturday Night Live.’ ”
Brian and Bill also acted in “Caddyshack” and on “SNL.” The three brothers have had successful careers with TV shows and movies.
Like Brian and Bill, Joel got his start in The Second City, an improvisational group with sites in Chicago, Toronto and Los Angeles.
He has come full circle with the last seven years on the road with “Whose Live Anyway?” That’s the stage version of the popular “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” TV show. The program features familiar improvisational games in a format where the actors work without the safety net of a script.
“Whose Live Anyway?” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 21 at the Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara.
For the road show, Joel shares the stage with actors from The CW’s “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”: Ryan Stiles, Greg Proops and Jeff B. Davis.
“I’ve been friends with Ryan Stiles since about 1989 when he came out to Second City in Los Angeles,” Joel told the News-Press in 2020 when “Whose Live Anyway?” was originally scheduled for a performance at the Lobero. The program had to be rescheduled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Joel said Mr. Stiles asked him to be in the touring version of “Whose Live Anyway?”
“It’s a great gig. I’ve been to every state in the union now,” Joel said. “It’s pretty amazing.”
The improvisation in “Whose Live Anyway?” and other stage shows rests on the premise of saying “yes” to “offers” from other actors. If an actor during the improvised dialogue points your character onto a certain path, you take it.
Joel elaborated further. “They (improvisation experts) always say it’s ‘Yes and …’ You heighten and explore things as compared to denying possibilities where a scene can go.
“The key to it is when you have a good team of people who are all playing by the same rules,” Joel said. “Team work makes the dream work.”
Joel conceded he’s a little nervous when he’s on stage performing unscripted scenes, often inspired by audience suggestions.
“But I think when you stop being nervous, then you’re in trouble,” Joel said. “I think you always have to have a little bit of butterflies.”
He noted the butterflies go away at each show as the actors hear the audience laugh.
Joel said he gets an adrenaline rush as he and the other actors succeed and find themselves charged from the audience’s energy. “There are many nights when we go home after a standing ovation. You’re not going to sleep after that!”
The games are similar to those on the TV show. Joel, who was trained in long-form improvisation, said his favorite is one in which audience members write a sentence on a piece of paper the actor puts in his pocket. The actor must say the line.
“I enjoy that game because I get to slow down and really play it out and act,” Joel said.
He also likes “New Choice,” the game in which someone tells the actors to keep changing an answer or line of dialogue.
And he’s a fan of the game in which actors must change genres during the same scene.
“All of the sudden, it’s Quentin Tarantino. All of the sudden, it’s Dr. Seuss. All of the sudden, it’s Edgar Allan Poe,” Joel said. “All of the sudden, it’s Sonny and Cher.”
The games also include music. “Making up songs on the top of your head — I’m not so good at that. There are other people in the group who are much better at that, so that’s fortunate,” Joel said.
He said the wild cards are audience members who join the actors on stage for some games. He recalled one member in particular.
“The guy was probably 85 and had a beautiful young wife,” Joel said. “Everything that came out of his mouth was gold. You didn’t expect this guy to be the coolest cat in the world, but he was.”
Joel explained how he and his brothers got into comedy.
“It was a lack of direction. None of us knew what we wanted to do in our lives,” he said.
Joel said their show business careers began after Brian met the late actor and writer Harold Ramis, and that led the brothers into the Second City troupe in comedy. Mr. Ramis went on to star with Bill and Dan Akyroyd in the 1980s “Ghostbusters” movies.
Like Bill and Brian, Joel has succeeded on the big and small screens. His roles have included copywriter Freddy Rumsen on AMC’s “Mad Men,” the 2007-2015 advertising agency drama set during the 1960s in New York City.
“It was the polar opposite of what I do now,” Joel said about the precisely scripted drama. “ ‘Mad Men’ was Shakespeare. You had to say every word perfect. You were not allowed to change a comma.
“I worked with Jon Hamm, who has like a photographic memory, and Elizabeth Moss, who has a crazy good memory,” Joel said. “You had to be on your game by the time they called ‘Action!’ ”