For a local troupe of “improvists,” comedy may be an ugly businessbut it’s a whole lot prettier than their day jobs.
For a rusty improvisational comic, the only thing more terrifying than a stone-cold-sober audience is a stone-cold-sober audience sweating its collective ass off while crammed into a greasy-spoon-with-Applebee’s-fantasies that happens to be tacked onto a Ballston, Va., Comfort Inn.
Of course, the fidgety folks in the Coke-swilling crowd aren’t the only ones in need of some Dry Idea. Jim Frank, alone on the diving-platform-sized stage in a corner of the GG Cafe, is getting a little moist around the brow as well.
Indeed, Franklooking like a suburban Grizzly Adamsprobably wishes he were still strapped into the cozy confines of his homemade Wheel of Deatha prop from his ongoing gig at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. But with a fidgety mob of ticket holders waiting to get their money’s worth of laughs, there’s little time to ponder the blissful safety of his other “secret” lifethe one he shares with his wife, the one filled with medieval derring-do, Wild West-style adventure, and, on those special occasions, the Bullet Catch.
But now it’s time for Frank, 42, tonight’s roustabout, ringleader, and referee, to focus. Because here, on this Saturday evening in early February, in this makeshift comedy club, there is no Wheel of Death to cling tojust 60-plus blind-daters, girls’-night-outers, and weary travelers.
Making matters even more dire, the lone waiter (there might be another waiter, but I think he’s hiding) working the mob at the dinky Double-G spends more time gawking up at Frank than asking the patrons what they’d like to order. The lousy service doesn’t make people want to chortle; the lousy service makes people want to throw things.
Nevertheless, for Frank and the other pumped-up members of ComedySportz, a local troupe of “improvists”they love that wordthat has been performing off and on in the D.C. area since 1987, things could be worse. After all, this is Opening Night; improv comedythanks to the raging success of ABC’s Whose Line Is It Anyway?is once again hip; and both the early and late shows are sold out.
Even more uplifting, the troupe’s rotating cast of 26 “actletes”most of whom conjure chuckle-filled daydreams during dreaded, decidedly unfunny day jobshad been out of commission for several frustrating years. These lawyers, bar managers, G-men, nuclear scientists, and such hadn’t had a regular comedy gig since a late-’90s romp at Alexandria’s now-defunct Fun Factory. There’s also the chanceif the Saturday-evening shows keep selling outthat more nights at the GG Cafe will be added.
And what the hell, there’s always that shiny, besotted future to look forward to: The GG Cafewhere the troupe has just signed a six-month performing leaseis supposedly getting a liquor license any day now. (And as for that crummy waiter, hey, at least he’s laughing.)
So, yes, things could be a lot worse for Frank and the folks behind ComedySportzbut that beer is still reeaally gonna help.
Abe Vigoda jokes: Unless you’re Conan O’Brien, Vigoda gags are a risky way to kick off a night of yocks. (Only Nipsy Russell jokes are riskier.) Before the 90-minute show, the performers (ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-40s) wander through the crowd, offering up prop-comedy delicacies to random guests. “Would you like the fish and chips this evening?”: They hold up pictures of Vigoda and Erik Estrada. “Barbie-cue! Who wants Barbie-cue?”: They proffer pool cues with dolls attached to them. Yes, indeed: Rip Taylor is somewhere dabbing proud tears with his toupee.
All too aware of Whose Line?’s rampant popularity, ComedySportzactually a nationwide franchise started in 1984 in Milwaukee, Wis., by Dick Chudnowdoesn’t stray far from the setup of the hit show. Two three-person teamsthe Reds and the Bluesdressed in sneakers, sweat pants, and baseball jerseys do improv battle on a small Astroturfed stage and are kept clean (and, with any luck, funny) by both a refereeour man Jim “Ballpark” Frank (they all have wacky nicknames)and select judges in the crowd; the judges wave color-coordinated fly swatters when they’re pleased. The ref chooses a game (Scene in Reverse, 6 O’Clock News, and Crime Story are just a few of the countless options) and then asks for “suggestions” from the “loyal fans.” (I should mention that these are also clean suggestions: ComedySportz bans humor that is “lewd, crude, rude, disgusting, or of a sexual nature” from its act. If either a performer or a fan gets a touch bawdy, then a brown paper sack is placed over the naughty person’s head.)
Tonight’s games include Countdown, in which a team acts out a brief version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and then condenses the madness to 15 seconds, 10 seconds, five seconds…(this involves much shouting and falling down); Story, which features both teams squeezing onto the stage and taking turns telling a twisted tale (in tonight’s case, “The Potty Monster,” which should have been a real rib-ticklerGod bless the cucka humor, I saybut gets derailed by a side story involving easy topical target Regis Philbin); and Five Things, in which one team member leaves the room while the ref gathers pop-culture buzzwords from the crowd. The team members left onstage then have to act out bizarro things for their blissfully unaware mate on his or her return (such as “Playing Frisbee With Freddie Mercury” and “Flamenco Dancing With St. Luke,” which are the best bits of the night).
During the first few games, the performers display occasional stutters, and it’s obvious that they’re still getting a feel for each other’s comedic styles. But no matter: Despite its nagging sobriety and lack of a reliable server, the crowd is having a damn good timelaughing, clapping, and shouting out inventive suggestions. Stage death avoided: The people are digging the show.
Watching the crowd’s kickass response, ComedySportz manager Liz Szaryc, who joined the group in 1993, couldn’t be happier. Along with running the show and its various offshootsComedySportz is also available for weddings, banquets, bar mitzvahs, and corporate functions (“D.C. has a really great corporate-performers market,” she says)Szaryc, 29, is in charge of making sure all her players get plenty of stage time. “I try to spread people around pretty evenly,” she says, adding that she’ll also throw herself into the performing mix from time to time. “With improv, you don’t have to be a comedian for all seasons. Someone can be a physical performer or a verbal performer.” The key to improv is working the line between “thinking enough and thinking too much.” Plus, “If someone’s having an off night, they have five people to cover their butt. You just need to trust each other onstage.”
One of ComedySportz’s standout talents is Corey Szaryc, 25, who just happens to be married to Liz. (They met through the show: “a year and a half of bliss,” Liz says.) Corey, a manager at a sports bar when he’s not hamming it up under the lights, has been doing improv since he was 14; his mother started a ComedySportz franchise in the ha-ha-hotbed of Racine, Wis. After seeing the show, Corey
begged and begged his mother for a chance to performuntil that one day when she finally let him take the stage. Corey, of course, killed. (Corey is also the guy who manages to guess what’s going on in “Playing Frisbee With Freddie Mercury”truly a remarkable achievement. “Corey is veryI don’t want to say ‘the best’but one of the best at Five Things,” Liz says.)
“I just go up there to have fun,” Corey says. “I don’t do any stage work. I don’t do it for the exposure. I do it for the good time. I’m more of a physical improvist. I do a lot more charactersgoofy characters that will save me. I’m not a real verbal person.”
And as for ComedySportz’s no-naughtiness rule, Corey claims, “It’s always easier to go for the crude joke; it’s more of a challenge to go for the clean joke.”
Which doesn’t explain the flurry of bra jokes at the end of tonight’s show, but we’ll save those for a little later.
Now, about that Wheel of Death.
A computer analyst at his day job, Frank has been with ComedySportz “just about since the beginning.” But he’s had an even longer stint hamming it up at the Maryland Renaissance Festival: 16 years. Each festival season, Frank and his wife, Lauren Muney, perform as WhipFlash! (“Hot comedy at the speed of sound”; the duo can also get appropriately dolled up for black-tie or Western-themed events), a two-person thrill-seeking team that wows the medieval masses with classic fire-eating feats, the Bullet Catch (Muney fires a black-powder weapon at Frank, who must catch a lead bullet in his mouthafter it shatters a ceramic plate, naturally), and the infamous Wheel of Death (Frank, sometimes wearing a kilt, gets strapped onto a huge spinning disc, while Muney, using a bullwhip, tries to prune several wheel-mounted flowers without pruning her husband). Several other ComedySportz members, including Bob “Danger” Garman and the highly amusing and dangerously manic Jim “Ratboy” Nieb, also work the fair.
Tonight, nobody’s decked out in jerkin or wimple, but Garman, who cracks wise for both teams, is resplendent in red-and-
Crouched down low to the ground like a wrestling referee ready to declare a pin, Frank, his teeth biting down hard on the requisite whistle, watches the action onstage intently. But don’t be fooled by those zebra stripes: Frank’s not monitoring the madness here; he’s orchestrating it. If a string of jokes is falling flat or a crowd idea fails to yield any zingers or an improvised song is dragging behind the beat, Frank will quickly change the game or the audience suggestion or even the lamely riffing performer. Except for not stopping “The Potty Monster” story once it wanders off into played-out Philbin territory, Frank calls a good show.
Although Frank will proudly join either the red or the blue team during a ComedySportz show if needed, he prefers to be the all-powerful referee, “a high-status character.” “Being a ref is much more different than being a player,” he says. “The referee has to watch the whole show…call the game, look for the endings.” Being the ref also means that you have to deal with the occasional heckler. “The key to handling any heckler is to have the whole crowd be mad at him,” Frank says. “You have to be firm, but you can’t be mean.”
For an improvist to be successful, Frank says, he or she has “to live in the scene whatever the scene is. If you live in the scene, something will happen that will be funny. The scenes are designed to work; they will be funny.”
With the score between the two teams just about knotted up, Frank calls the final game of the evening: 185, in which the improvists have just a few seconds to come up with punny punch lines that fit this model: “So 185 [blanks] walk into a bar. The bartender says, ‘We don’t serve [blanks] here.’ So the [blanks] say…” Members of the audience are then asked to fill in the blankstonight, they suggest aardvarks, Ford cars, and, alas, bras.
The Blues rattle off the bra punch lines as if they had been waiting to unload the saucy stuff all night: “But we were just looking for some cups” and “We were hoping to offer some support” and “I don’t have a joke; I just wanna visualize 185 bras.” The stone-cold-sober crowd is a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’. The judges hold their fly swatters high and loudly crown the winners: The wiseasses on the blue team win with the bra jokes. Of course they do. CP
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