Funny Business

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

Ocar pauses: "Good jokes!"

He gives his best mad-scientist laugh as Strutzel glares. Take any of the two dozen CSz performers and put them in a room, and their interactions will waver from the philosophical to the silly and right back again, peppered with a few groans and punches in the arms. The business of the group is quick thinking. The CSz approach is based on a series of improvisation games (see Drew Carey's British television import Whose Line is it Anyway?), part charades, part make-believe. It's a tried-and-true formula: ComedySportz is a national organization, and the Twin Cities branch has been around for eight years.

CSz Twin Cities plays for one of the most diverse audiences you'll see in a theater. In the front two rows of their home in the Limelight Theater in Uptown sit the PG-13 set: aspiring frat boys with baseball hats set askew, arms around their Gap-encrusted, (artificially) blond, (artificially) skinny dates. Toward the back sit groups of twentysomethings among scattered pockets of business folk, family folk, and just folk folk.

The high the players get from these performances is palpable. Many seem addicted to the rush of the action onstage. Five-year vet Jill "I'm No Saint" Bernard's cheeks flush and her hands vibrate with intensity as she talks about performing. "There's a Buddhist feeling to it, because you can never have it again. It belongs to the 120 of us that are in that room. It's brand-new, and the minute the scene is over, it's gone." Bernard performs with her hair tied up in two little buns on top of her head, a Minnie-meets-Princess-Leia effect. During a performance, it becomes apparent that they mask little antennae which channel energy like the electrified cables on a bumper car. Bernard, like most of her colleagues, believes she's found her calling. "It has to be an extreme situation to make me nervous now," says Bernard. "Now I understand why some people have to jump off higher and higher buildings."

To an extent, the ComedySportz formula is almost an exercise in risk management. The games give structure, sport lays out the stakes, and if a sketch doesn't work, hell, it'll be over soon. Most importantly, the games provide opportunity for the freshest moments in improv performance--and the most gleeful audience reactions--when people screw up. There's something genuine and intimate about these mistakes; in a weird way, we identify. The loudest laugh in one CSz performance comes when a team tries to get their captain to identify Hannibal Lecter's "muzzle" out of some mime/ballet. "Brian, you have, uhh...that creepy mask thing!" the eager Fire team member pants.

"All right," Brian smiles encouragingly. "And if a dog were to wear it, it would be...?"

Pause. The actlete shakes his head, bewildered, and shrugs: "Uhh...inhumane?"

Right around the corner from ComedySportz rests an Uptown icon. Over the years, the red, white, and blue decor, the flashing lights, the semi-naughty posters that decorate the Brave New Workshop have all become ingrained in Minneapolis's cultural memory.

BNW has always been seen as the pre-eminent improv institution in Minneapolis. For most of its history, Dudley Riggs's classes focused on the same short games that ComedySportz plays to train company members for comedy. Since the theater's inception in 1958, the spawn of Dudley Riggs have gone on to national fame: Success stories include Louie Anderson, Al Franken, Pat Proft, and Emmy-winning Larry Sanders writer Peter Tolan; most recently, a homegrown Mo Collins just made her debut on Fox's Mad TV.

Then Riggs retired. Enter the Brave New Owners: Marc Bergman, and husband-and-wife-team Jenni Lilledahl and John Sweeney. The triumvirate has founded the Brave New Institute, devoted to coaching comedians, actors, and acolytes alike in the fine art of improvisation. And they do mean fine art. The Institute's mission statement begins: "We believe improvisation can take us to a place of pure white light, a place where all thoughts and actions are purposeful because they are the truth. We believe we can achieve this state of white light only when we have emptied ourselves, have emptied our minds, emptied our egos and have allowed pure creative energy to flow...."

This is no game. With all the white-light talk, there's an element of let's put on some tennies, cover ourselves in purple shrouds, and wait for the mother ship to the statement. It's just comedy--improv comedy--for the love of God. But Sweeney and Lilledahl's devotion is undeniable, as is the success of their program, which now has more than 200 students, each paying $150 to practice the art of spontaneity. For Sweeney, improvisation can change a life: "I just had my third year of sobriety. My improvisational understanding has as much to do with that as any AA program."

Welcome to long-form improv--the opposite approach from their Sporting (er...Sportzing) neighbors. In long form, the scenes are, well, longer and more naturalistic. Like their opposites around the corner, though, Sweeney and Lilledahl are seeming opposites. Sweeney is an imposing figure, tall, muscled, and (temporarily) completely bald. Lilledahl, who is gaining recognition nationally as an improv instructor, is tiny with curly hair and funky glasses. They both share a rapt intensity, a commanding air. They own the space around them, jumping up to demonstrate a scene--a routine performed without thought or introduction. You imagine them sitting at home, lapsing into characters.

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