Joel Murray is the youngest member of “the Chicago Murrays,” a phrase that sounds like it could only describe royalty or the mafia.
It may be a little of both in this case: Murray’s older siblings include Brian Doyle Murray and Bill Murray, two men who are as revered for their mischief as they are for their art.
Joel Murray will perform with Ryan Stiles, Jeff Davis and Gregg Proops as part of “Whose Live Anyway,” a night of improv comedy at the Embassy Theatre on September 21.
The “Whose Live Anyway” tour is a spin-off of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” – a 30-year, international, TV and radio tradition in which Murray has never participated.
Murray, a seasoned improv comic and character actor, was recruited for the live tour by his friend, Stiles.
He replaced Chip Esten, who left the tour five years ago to star in the TV series “Nashville.”
Murray grew up with nascent celebrities who were cutting their teeth on the Windy City improv scene, so it isn’t surprising to learn that he eventually distinguished himself on that same scene.
What may surprise is the discovery that Murray owes his entire career to a night he spent in Fort Wayne in the early 1980s.
How it happened was that Murray was sitting in a Chicago bar with his friend David Pasquesi, who currently plays Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ ex-husband on “Veep.”
They started chatting up two women who revealed that they had a sketch comedy performance the following night and that they really didn’t know as much about sketch comedy as two women in their situation should know.
Even though both men, especially Pasquesi, would one day come to be known as some of this country’s best improv comics, they may have known even less at that time about the topic than the women did.
But they pretended that they were experts, as single men in bars tend to do.
“What Pasquesi and I did was lie outright,” Murray recalled. “We said, ‘Yeah, that’s what we do. We do sketch comedy.’ So these girls wrote us into their sketches and we wrote a couple of things.”
Thus it was that Murray and Pasquesi found themselves in Fort Wayne the next evening, performing eight minutes’ worth of sketch comedy on Night Shift, a long-running local talk show hosted by comedian Kevin Ferguson.
After they returned to Chicago, Murray and Pasquesi enrolled in a class taught by Chicago improv legend, Del Close.
Close told them to improvise something based on the over-the-counter menstrual drug, Midol, and the duo recalled a sketch they’d performed in Fort Wayne that involved rifling through a woman’s purse.
“It was really slow, hungover comedy and Del Close went nuts for us,” Murray said. “Afterwards, he said, ‘I really enjoyed what you guys did up there. Your brothers have been very good to me over the years. So I am going to give you a scholarship to study here.’
“Then he goes, ‘But I really enjoyed that Pasquesi, so I am going to give you both a half-scholarship.”
Murray was off and (half) running. He said he had his appearance on “Night Shift” on his resume for many years.
Murray has had an interesting and diverse career. He was a regular on the sitcoms “Love & War” and “Dharma and Greg,” then went on to more dramatic stints in shows like “Mad Men” and “Shameless.”
“’You’ve had a wonderful life after all,’” Murray said, spoofing Christmas angel Clarence Oddbody. “It’s easy to get pigeonholed in this town: ‘Oh, he’s just a sitcom guy.’ And then someone takes a chance on you and all of a sudden you’re a dramatic actor and people forgot you ever did comedy.”
Going into show business was not a foregone conclusion for the all of the nine children sired by Murray’s dad, lumber salesman Edward Joseph Murray II.
Only four went on to pursue comedy and acting. One became an Adrian Dominican nun.
Comedy ensued in the Murray household because Murray’s dad was a slow eater.
“We would eat in 45 seconds and he would take an hour,” Murray said. “We weren’t allowed to leave the table until he was finished so our goal was to make him laugh with milk in his mouth.”
Murray said he learned a lot about comic timing bantering with his siblings.
“It was handy that you had the funniest people in the world around,” he said. “It was an interesting place to grow up. You learn about a lot of things when you grow up in a three-bedroom house with 11 people.”
Being Bill Murray’s younger brother means that you get asked a lot about the most famous of the Chicago Murrays.
Bill Murray has almost been deified by his fan base. They seem to see him as a pixie or sprite who goes around making the world a better place by way of enchanted non sequiturs and bursts of magical randomness.
“It is fascinating,” Murray said. “The mystique is good since I am in business with him on a clothing line. We’re all for the mystique.”
Murray said he’ll always think of Bill as “the goofy long-haired guy with the Fu Manchu who walked the dog 20 miles one day.”
“He’ll always be goofy Billy in my mind, a little bit,” he said. “People treat him like he’s the oracle – everything he says is right. You know, in retrospect, half the time he’s wrong. But he is an amazing guy. He’s an amazing judge of character.”
Murray said some of the best times of his life were spent with his brother.
“He can bring a room from zero to 100,” he said. “He can also bring a room from 100 to zero, depending on his mood. He does have a way of bringing a weird energy that changes everything.”
Murray recalled a night he spent with his brother at a karaoke club in Venice, Italy that ended with Bill pinwheeling the wives of Japanese executives on the dance floor.
“Billy gets out there and sings ‘Sukiyaki’ for this crowd of Sanyo executives and he knows all the words in Japanese,” he said. “They’re singing along with him and laughing. At the end of it, this woman comes up to hug him and he picks her up – of course; he loves to pick people up – and turns her upside down and shows everybody her underwear.
“The next thing you know,” Murray said, “all these Japanese men look at their wives like, ‘Go on. Get in line.’ All of a sudden, there’s a line of 20 Japanese women asking to have their underwear shown to the crowd.”
As the Murrays left, the ecstatic owner of the embellishment kept handing them random items from around the club as parting gifts.
“We’re walking out with products and I said, ‘That was the weirdest thing I have ever seen.’”
When Murray watched his brother in “Lost in Translation” for the first time, he had a unique insight into a certain scene.
“I could tell by the look on (Bill’s) face what happened,” he said. “He’s by himself and he’s on this beautiful golf course and he hits this beautiful drive and he just starts walking. And I said to him, ‘You left at that point, didn’t you?’
“And he said, ‘Yeah. The drive was phenomenal,’” Murray said. “It just kept going and going. I just went and played the round of golf.’ He just gave this look to the Japanese film crew like, ‘Hey. You gotta play that one, right?’ And he left.”