Jack of All Trades

andrew kruse-ross | whose live anyway? | oct. 2015

Actor, Comedian Joel Murray Back to Improv with 'Whose Live'

“I'm hoping your man finds some receivers that'll work for him this year," says actor, comedian Joel Murray referring to quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers losing Jordy Nelson for the entire 2015 season to a knee injury. “And I'm hoping the Bears aren't the worst team in the central."

Murray's pulled off to the side of the road and is overlooking the 14th hole of the Rancho Park Golf Course — the former home of the LA Open — to discuss Whose Live Anyways, the touring version of the popular improv comedy show that began in 1998 on ABC, and which he is the newest member, but we've strayed off course. It happens from time to time, but is especially easy to do when speaking with someone like Murray. There's just so much to discuss: his role on the hit series “Mad Men," his new film, his family (he's the youngest of nine siblings including brothers Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray and John Murray). Apart from such topics, Murray is just a fun interview; he's one of the good guys, the sort you'd want at your barbecue or to have over on gameday — even if that meant having a Bears fan in your living room.

If you've caught “Mad Men" and seen Murray portray Freddy Rumsen — the senior copywriter forced to take a leave of absence during the show's third season for drunkenly urinating in his pants before an important business meeting — then you know how capable he is as a dramatic actor, but he deflects praise for the role, instead directing it toward the show's writers. “It was a great role," says Murray. “Everything on that show was so well written. They treated it like Shakespeare; you had to be word-perfect … every comma, every punctuation mark meant something on that show."

Conversely, when Murray takes the stage with fellow comedians Ryan Stiles, Greg Proops and Jeff Davis for Whose Live, nothing will be scripted. “It's always different, and we never know what we're doing," says a deadpan Murray. “There's no way to prep for it other than a lifetime of training and trying to make the other guy look good.

“We get to town. We get to our hotel and we dress for the show. We go and try the microphones and make sure they work, and then, maybe, we have a couple drinks backstage and then we do a strong 90 minutes, maybe a little more and then we're off to dinner. But when we're backstage, we have no idea what we're gonna do.

“That's the thing with improvisers; they're inherently lazy. They don't memorize lines."

If training is what makes all the lightning-quick jokes and quips come off so well without being rehearsed, Murray has plenty of it under his belt. He's received formal training at the iO Theatre, formerly known as the ImprovOlympic Theatre, as well as The Second City in Chicago — even honing his skills under the direction of Del Close, the same Del Close that taught Belushi, Radner, Aykroyd, as well as brothers Bill and Brian.

“It was some great training; it taught you how to find the funny," says Murray. “We used to call ourselves the Missionaries of Mirth in those days. That was another [instance] where the stage manager could say, 'we're doing this scene. We're cutting this scene and that scene,' and all of a sudden I'm like, 'Wow, I've gotta learn that for tonight?'"

Similarly, before a Whose Live show, Ryan Stiles writes up the running order of that evening's show unbeknownst to the rest of the cast, keeping the troupe on their comedic toes.

It was training again that would prepare Murray for the role of Freddy Rumsen, a part that presented a special challenge for the actor. Recalls Murray, “When I was on 'Mad Men,' I had already seen that show three times before I auditioned for it. The first time I did that scene with Peggy — The Basket of Kisses scene — for the first season, I was literally entranced.

“Here's a show I love and I'm on it all of a sudden. And I'm staring at this girl going, 'Wow, she's really good. Wow, she's really pretty in person. Wow, crap, I got a line coming up here in a minute; I hope I remember it.'"

Murray says he's viewed the scene since and says, “It worked, but the inner turmoil I was in, nobody will ever know." Well, until now that is.

A multifaceted talent, Murray's services are in demand and he keeps a lot of irons in the fire at any one time. Aside from appearing in “Mad Men," Murray has appeared as Pete Cavanaugh in all 119 episodes of “Dharma & Greg,"and has eight director credits to his name which include shows “Dharma & Greg," “The Big Bang Theory" and “Mike & Molly." He's even lent his voice to Don in “Monsters University." For Murray, he wouldn't have it any other way.

“I like doing it all and I've always been of the theory that I do voice-over work; I act; I direct; I write. I always feel like if you put enough lines in the water, you're gonna catch a fish on something. When one thing's not biting maybe something else will."

He recalls a conversation in which he asked actor, director James Widdoes (“Animal House," “Two and a Half Men") — who used to split much of his time both in front of and behind the camera until he began directing almost exclusively in 2006 — if there was a point in Widdoes' career that he decided to tell people that he would no longer be acting, but rather focusing all his efforts on directing. “And he said," recounts Murray, “'Nah, the acting stuff just kind of dried up. I didn't have to make a definite decision for one or the other.' So until somebody tells me I can only do one, I'm going to play them all, you know?"

Interestingly, Murray, who was equally gifted in sports as he was on stage, being both captain of his high school football team and the lead role in school plays, didn't find much encouragement to pursue a career as an entertainer, at least, not from brother Bill.

“I remember when I got cast in 'One Crazy Summer,' I tried getting ahold of my mom. I couldn't get ahold of her; I couldn't get ahold of anybody to tell them I got the part. And I called Billy 'cause I knew his number and Billy told me, 'you know Joel, we always thought more of you. We really thought you'd be more than just an actor.'

“He tried to dissuade me from becoming an actor, saying it will suck the life outta ya; it's the most difficult business in the world, you don't want to do this, you're a brighter guy than that.

“I couldn't help but thinking: Here's this guy sitting in a $10-million house telling me 'you don't want any of this.'

“I kind of didn't take his advice. I'm not so sorry."

We're not either. And regarding those Bears? “I'm just gonna stick with the Cubs right now," says Murray. “I hope they're still alive when this article appears."

Catch Joel Murray and the cast of Whose Live at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, October 9 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets visit weidnercenter.com or ticketstaronline.com.

And be sure to look for Murray in his new film, the horror/comedy “Bloodsucking Bastards." It's “The Office" meets “Shaun of the Dead." Murray will also be re-appearing as police psychiatrist Dr. Jefferies in a future episode of “Mike & Molly" on CBS, and, also on CBS, Murray is scheduled to direct two episodes of “2 Broke Girls."

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