On an overly toasty Thursday evening, I couldn’t have pictured a better way to escape the record heat and have a generous helping of hearty laughs at the same time. From July 20-23, ComedySportz held its 2011 World Championship in the Athenaeum theater Downtown, where teams from across the country (and even the globe) battled in a series of madcap games to test their improvisational mettle. It was an side-splittingly enjoyable time.
For the uninitiated, the concept of ComedySportz is pretty simple: Two teams of four (one red, one blue) compete in a series of comedic improvisational games, garnering meaningless points in order to win a broken trophy. There are dozens of diverse games, and even a regular patron will rarely see a game repeated. Audience participation always comes into play, whether for gleaning suggestions for skit topics to integrating an unsuspecting viewer into knee-slapping song-and-dance numbers.
ComedySportz has tournaments every Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 721 Massachusetts Avenue, but the World Championship is a special brand of the show that started over 20 years ago. Indianapolis won the right to host the event after a process that involved bidding and ultimately ensuring that the city had the hotels and accommodations necessary to handle any extra visitor loads. Ed Trout, one of the founders of the Indianapolis branch of ComedySportz, sees the World Championship as a giant family reunion for all cities involved in this hilarious program. New improv games and fresh playing styles are displayed by the visiting cities and countries, which not only throw a new curveball to the home team, but gives the audience a chance to see some unique approaches to the matches.
The first competition I viewed was between Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas. It consisted of an entertaining array of skits and stories, such as “Wikipedia,” where the players make up articles for the popular site, and “Hyperlink,” where they must act out electronic advertisements to fit absurd fictional products.
The highlight of the match for me, though, was an uproariously well-done skit created during the game “Hey Marty.” In this set-up, the team of four must create a skit on the spot based on an audience suggestion (in this case, British noblemen). However, when the whistle is blown, all must immediately leap out of character and tell a pun joke beginning with “Hey, Marty!” in classic vaudeville style before resuming the previous scene.
The stylistic lapses were just as groan-inducing as they were intended, but the real gold of the skit was found in the accurate portrayals of stuffy royals. “The hounds are baying!” moaned one player as she entered the manor. “And WHAT…” came the drawl of the indignant lord, “...would you have us do about it?” Though the teams played tug of war with the irrelevant score, Austin pulled ahead to clinch the win.
The next two combatants, Portland and Philadelphia, charged onto the stage for the second match, serenaded by the go-get-em “Rocky” theme "Gonna Fly Now." And if I was laughing in the first match, I was rolling on the floor in this second, with a series of games both memorable and fanatical. The standout round of the match took place with the individual team games. Philadelphia began with a rousing round of Four Corners. In this set-up, the team rapidly rotates around the stage, crafting quick two-man scenes, each with a differing time period and location. In one, a pair of French revolutionaries plotted revenge against their foes. "When they come through the door, we pull the string, and then the plate falls," explained one man, his friend intently listening. "And when do we win?" chimed the other, practically gargling a French chortle.
The second round, played by Portland, offered an equally hilarious performance in the game Rock Opera. Selected from audience suggestion, the players had to improvise an actual song about two lovers in a doughnut shop set to jaunty piano music. It was fantastically farcical, and the fact that at least two of the players had some singing talent helped keep the melody from becoming painful. With some brush-ups, I could easily have pictured this song appearing in a parody musical. In the end, the spirited song-and-dance number took top honors.
The final game of the match, worth enough points to render the other rounds' earnings completely worthless, was "Back In My Day." Here, a random object is suggested by the audience, and all players must take turns rushing forward and explaining, in the persona of an elderly person, what life was like "back in their day" without this object. The results were suitably creative and pun-tastic. One player continuously recycled the same gag over and over by pretending to forget her line when it was her turn; it inspired giggles at first, but in the end started to wear a little thin. This was perhaps the only blemish on an otherwise successfully amusing match, the winner of which ended up being Portland, coming from behind in the last round.
Having attended standard ComedySportz offerings, I approached the World Championship with slight indifference. It was elevated a bit by its special location -- the beautiful and more open venue of the Athenaeum. The outcome, however, was no different than a normal night at the regular site -- I was just as ludicrously entertained. This, to me, was telling: The best the world has to offer isn't too far off from our own city's talented group of improvisation enthusiasts.
Still, I intend to make space for this event in my summer calendar next year. From the moment the match's referee ran on stage and demanded with a straight face that the audience give him their best zombie groans rather than simple applause, I knew I had something special in store for me. It was a barrel and a half of laughs and family friendly, too. One can't possibly expect more out of an evening in the city.
Copyright 2011 Y-Press