Funny Business

In the growing local improv scene, everyone's a comedian

"LET'S GET READY to rumble!" the WWF-announcer-wannabe screams. Mortal Kombat theme-music blares. The "Minneapolis Fire" storms the stage. Decked in red bowling shirts with their names embroidered above the bosom, Brian "Damage" Kelly, James "Dinty" Moore, and Nancy "Always a McBridesmaid, never a" McBride holler, pose, and flex like high-schoolers on Androstenedione.

Lights flash and the "Saint Paul Ice" bounds in (wearing blue bosom-embroidered bowling shirts, natch): Linda "Happy Holly" Draze, Doug "Horshack" Ocar, and captain Mikey "He Hates Everything" Heinrich holler, pose, and flex like, well, you know... And meet your referee, Michael "Balding for Dollars" Ritchie!!!! (Wild applause.) A balding man wearing the black and white stripes of the law leaps on stage, blows his whistle, and takes his place between the two grunting teams. The members of the Fire and Ice start to get jiggy with it. "Now, please stand for the national anthem..."

The players are revved tonight, ComedySportz fanz. The two captains sneer and jeer as the ref asks the Ice, "Have you picked the first game?" "Yes," says Heinrich. "I challenge the red team to...PLAYGROUND INSULT!"

Music crescendos. Getting jiggy, redux.

And so the Fire and Ice will put their comedic muscles to the ultimate test--yet again--in a series of rigorously structured gamez. At stake: Pointz. It's a head-to-head ballz-out battle of the Cities, of the elements...

Well, it's improvisation. And Pointz are a distant second to the god of Dollarz. ComedySportz is one of several Minneapolis groups who have bet their livelihoods (or at least their pride) that they can entice people to pay to watch them make stuff up--or inflict groans trying.

Pity is a highly undesirable emotion for a spectator. Bad improv hurts. There are few experiences more painful than watching other human beings bomb--better to see them spontaneously combust on a barstool, really. Think back to the very worst Saturday Night Live sketch you've ever seen. Now imagine what the scenes might have looked like before there was any writing. Imagine them live, in your living room. Think endless amateurish Monty Python retreads ("We are the knights that say NEE!"). Repeated riffs involving the anal cavity, and things inserted into that cavity. And--worst of all--lame jokes, meandering story lines, and unreachable fire exits.

It's a frightening prospect: no script, no preparation, just the things that spring off the top of your head. Would you share a stream of impulses that run through your brain with a crowd of strangers? Would you charge them money?

The evidence offered by the growing improvisation scene in Minneapolis would suggest that many people will do just that, as upstarts surface regularly, and the big groups keep getting bigger. ComedySportz is beginning to dream of a new space, while the Brave New Workshop just bought one. The secret to success in improvisational theater is really no secret: It's a low-risk venture. There are no production values, no start-up costs. You don't need writers or sets. The one requirement--and it's a biggie--is a talented group of improvisers who give reason for an audience to come.

In the 1970s, British theater guru Keith Johnstone started the renaissance of improvisation. Theater, he said, had become too pretentious, too inaccessible. Improv would bring back the audiences, allow them to laugh, help them identify with performers stripped bare and placed on the spot. Out came Theatresports, which made comedy a competitive event. With a structure and a gimmick, Johnstone delivered the audiences.

This example spawned an improvisational boom in Western theater, and like every other art form (or commercial product) today, it has since splintered into dozens of variations on an unwritten theme. For some, improv is comedy; for others, it's instant theater. There's a good deal of heady theory and interdepartmental sniping floating around--even here in these nice Twin Cities--as groups try to carve out professional niches within an activity that seems inherently amateurish at its core.

But, to its practitioners, improv is no funny business. Improvisers can hone their comedic skills. They can turn a healthy profit. They can strut their stuff for a chance at the big time. And, if some local folks are to be believed, they can learn to heal their inner pain. Improv comedy is, in a literal sense, a big joke.

ComedySportz co-owners Mary "Stray Cat" Strutzel and Doug "Horshack" Ocar are waxing improvisational over what they look for in their "actletes." They're an odd pair, these two. She's in her mid-'30s, slight and sporty, with a blond ponytail and an affable, innocent demeanor. She looks more like a schoolteacher than a comedian. Ocar has that funny look about him: A mass of curly hair and a perma-grin face that made him destined for comedy from day one. Onstage, both are standouts: one fresh, the other spastic. Now, though, they're all business as they expound on the nature of good improv. The phone rings and Ocar excuses himself.

"It's all about being a team player," Strutzel says. "You're only as good as the person standing next to you. Some people feel they need to make jokes instead of playing the reality of the situation. If you play the scene to make good jokes, the scene can't go anywhere." She pauses as Ocar returns. "We're talking about what makes a good improviser..."

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