It’s pretty tough to catch legendary funnyman Fred Willard off-guard. He’s been perfecting the art of improvised comedy for a half-century now, from his early days with the famed Second City troupe to his memorable roles in Christopher Guest films like “Best in Show.” Now he’s bringing improv back to TV with ABC’s “Trust Us With Your Life,” a new comedy game show where Willard interviews celebrities about key moments in their lives, which are then acted out in improvised skits by top comedians. Now 72, Willard was as funny and sharp as ever when he told us this week about his new show, and about the role improv comedy has played in his long career.
Willard actually doesn’t get to improvise much on “Trust Us”; he really just quizzes the celebs (this week’s subjects are tennis champ Serena Williams and reality stars Jack and Kelly Osbourne) before turning their life stories over to the quick-witted comedians, including “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” alums Wayne Brady and Colin Mochrie. In fact, Willard says the hardest thing about the gig is knowing when to stop gabbing. “Some of the subjects would have such interesting stories, and I’d get wrapped up in them,” he says. “We had Jerry Springer on, and he launched into this wonderful story about his life, and the next thing I hear [in my ear] is the producer saying, ‘Fred, move it along, let’s get into the first game.’”
The “games,” as he calls them, are off-the-cuff sketches dreamt up by the comedians on the spot, including melodramatic recreations of the celeb’s formative life experiences, improvised musical numbers (but of course; Wayne Brady is involved, after all), and a fun capper where the celebrity gets to join the scene, but one of the comedians does all the talking for them. It’s hilarious no matter who the subject is, but Willard’s dream guests (living or dead) include two great comedians: “Rodney Dangerfield. People could have fun doing impressions of him, and he had kind of a tough life, so that would be a very rich one. Steve Martin might be wonderful… he would probably insist on getting into some of the scenes.”
Improv comedy hasn’t always been a bed of roses for Willard, though. “Well, I’ve fallen in and out of love with it,” he confesses with a laugh. An Army veteran and aspiring actor who found early success as part of a comedy duo, Willard moved to Chicago in 1965 and hooked up with improv-comedy institution The Second City, which was just getting started back then. “When they asked me to come in and audition, I said, ‘Gee, I’m not going to be good at this.’ Then I found out I was pretty good, so I did fall in love with it for about a year. But then when you get away from it, it gets colder and colder and looks tougher.”
Though he makes it look easy now, Willard says he stumbled in his first attempts at performing improv in front of a live audience. “The very first time I went out, the people in the wings said, ‘Go on, get out there,’ and I said, ‘I’ve got nothing!’ But then I just suddenly thought of something and it took off. Then the next night, I was watching an improv and I said, ‘Oh, I’ve got a wonderful joke.’ And I went out with a wonderful joke, and it got a good laugh… and then I was stuck. That’s one of the lessons they told you back then: Don’t go out with one line or one character, because then you’re going to be stuck with it. But it’s like going into a cold swimming pool. You’ve got to go in slowly and warm up and get going.”
The influence of improv comedy now spreads way beyond shows like “Trust Us”; many of today’s hit sitcoms use improvisation to wring the maximum amount of laughs out of their characters. And Willard should know; he’s guest starred on half those shows himself. “When I did ‘Modern Family’ [playing Phil’s dad Frank], they’d shoot a scene four or five times,” he recalls, “and then the director would say, ‘Okay, throw away the script and just do whatever you want to.’ And a couple of times, I said, ‘Gee, I thought we were already doing that.’ [Laughs] But sometimes, no matter how many writers you have, they just won’t come up with something that an actor can think of in character on the spot.”
Watch Fred Willard chat with Jimmy Fallon in this "Late Night" clip: