by Astrid Van Den Broek
As Colin Mochrie can attest, the art of improv has two rules critical to a successful bit: listening and accepting someone’s idea and building on it. The way he sees it, these two laws also fully apply to the art of parenting. “As a parent, the listening part is very important,” says the Toronto-based improvisational actor. “As is learning to accept things and being open to something you may not think is something you’re ready for or willing to do.
But then you find that it takes you into an area that’s open and free and good for everybody.” Those are just a few of the learnings Mochrie and wife, fellow actress and comedian Debra McGrath, have taken away from raising their son, 24-year-old, Luke. And while Mochrie’s job as a parent is far from over, here he shares his thoughts on raising a teen and young adult, and what he’s looking forward to in the next stage of parenting and his career.
Juggling improv with parenting
As the 56-year-old star of Whose Line Is It Anyway? notes, life as an actor and improv comedian has gifted Mochrie with a more flexible time schedule which he, in turn, applied to his family life and his role as a dedicated father. “With my job, I have as much free time as I do work time — Whose Line, for example, only took three weekends out of the year to tape, so for those I’d take Deb and Luke along and we would have the rest of the week to do whatever,” says Mochrie, who has also starred in shows such as The Ron James Show, Call Me Fitz and This Hour Has 22 Minutes.
“Whenever I can, I bring them with me. We have a nice family dynamic; we really get along well and try to spend as much time together as we can. We still have family game nights, although Luke is 24 so I don’t know how much longer that’s going to last.”
The thing is, as with an entertainment career, benefits such as being close with your family don’t come without doing the work beforehand. “We made sure to tell him every day that we loved him and supported whatever he did,” says Mochrie. “And we tried to figure out different ways to keep communication open because just sitting kids down and asking questions, quite often, especially in the teenage years — they can just shut down and shut you out. We always answered a question no matter how uncomfortable it made us or difficult it was.” That included the time when Luke, then eight years old, sat down at the dinner table and asked his parents: “What’s fellatio?”
No Laughing Matter
Keeping the lines open was imperative for the teen years, a time when Mochrie saw Luke go through the often-braced-for-rebellion stage, as well as struggle with a learning disorder that wasn’t diagnosed until later in his school years. Mochrie looks back on these as relatively easy to manage.
Not so easy? “Heartbreak. In the teenage years, the hardest thing was when he’d fall in love,” he says. “Getting his heart broken was difficult because it’s one of those situations where you can’t really do anything except share your experiences. You can’t just say walk it off. It was tough seeing him affected by something we couldn’t help him with.”
One of the surprising upsides for Mochrie when parenting a teen was relishing watching his son grow into an adult. “I always wanted to be a father, but I thought once they were past five they’d be less cute,” he says. “But I found every age has different challenges and was exciting, and I loved when he started to be able to put arguments together and fight for things.”
What also offered up that combination of excitement and heartbreak for Mochrie and McGrath was Luke’s acceptance at 17-years-old into a four-year program at New York’s Film Academy, taking him away from his Toronto-based family home. While clearly happy for his son and this new stage in his life, it made for some significant adjustments at home — particularly when Luke was home. “We’d try to go down to New York as often as we could and we Skyped all the time, but we weren’t in his day-to-day life.
So the hardest transition for us was letting go,” he says. “When he would come home, we would be worried about if he’d go out, where is he and when is he getting home? Yet in New York, we never knew what he was doing or where he was. You never let go of that. But you have to because otherwise they never grow up.”
Today, Mochrie, who these days is busy still with Whose Line tapings, promoting his recent book, Not Quite the Classics (it’s an improv-inspired collection of wellknown stories which Mochrie improvisationally writes the middles of) and touring with fellow comedian Brad Sherwood, looks back at his parenting career and sees that for he and McGrath, it came down to two rules they had set.
“The main rule was that there was consistency. We’d both want the same thing or we’d both discipline or reward in the same way so we were never against each other in how we dealt with whatever Luke was going through,” he says. “And again, communication — lots and lots of talking.”
Yes, and…learn from your mistakes
He also encourages parents of teens and young adults to cut themselves a bit of slack. “We made mistakes as parents in different areas. And that’s OK as long as you recognize it,” he says. “There are things I look back at now and wonder — oh why did I do that? But we’re only human and doing the best we can.”
Part of doing his best also meant relying on another improv-comic tested rule of acting: using “Yes, and” to set up and be open to an idea. It’s a rule he and McGrath have used quite a bit in their life as well. “We’ve tried applying improv rules to our life including the ‘Yes, and’ rule where you say yes to things,” he says. “It might be to things you’re not comfortable with — like, in my case, writing a book — and it’s scary, so yes, and let’s see where it takes me.” Not only has the rule opened career doors, but introduced them to new life experiences as well — such as a trip to the Congo via the charitable organization World Vision to film some promotional commercials. “We said yes to it and it was one of the best experiences of our lives. Going into the jungle and seeing these small villages and doing commercials for sponsorship for children — it was just amazing. “We went right after Christmas, so to go from North American excess to these villages where they had nothing…. They were a joyous people and it was just amazing. It was probably two of the best weeks we’d ever spent together.”
How about yes-anding as a parent? “You have to say yes sometimes, I think. For anyone, you keep saying no and after awhile they just shut you out,” he says. “That said, as a parent, ‘no’ is an important word in your arsenal!”
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