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..."

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.

The couple got their long-form training in Chicago, the improv capital. To get to Chicago is to make it in the world of improv comedy. Sweeney went there with the personal recommendation of one Dudley Riggs, tons of press clippings, and years of experience on the BNW stage. He was told he could audition to be in the first level of classes.

"There are about 300 improv-ers in Minneapolis," says Sweeney. "There are 4,000 in Chicago. The Second City training program has 850 students. If you tried to do a ComedySportz game there, people would throw stuff. It's a culture. These people all hang out and talk long-form talk... There's this whole vocabulary that not many people have heard of here."

Right now, improv at BNW exists mostly as a tool for the resident company (five to seven members) to develop their shows. ("The title is Viagra, it's about what's fashionable now. Improvise for a while, and show me what you've got.") But BNW's new owners are slowly trying to make improvisational theater a spectacle in itself. Their goal is to introduce a long form act developed in Chicago and known as a "Harold." The structure of a Harold begins when group members riff on a given theme for a while, then two members of the group improv one scene, then two others launch off into another, then another. Eventually the stories begin to overlap--until ideally, magically, all the threads come together. Voilà, Harold ends. (For a more polished example, think of Seinfeld: coffee shop gathering; subplots; another coffee shop gathering; subplots come together in unexpected ways; roll credits.)

But Seinfeld has a script. There's a problem with long-form: While at times the result is fresh, it can also be sloppy. At the BNW's midnight Harold featuring the resident company, scenes meander, and one gains a definite, frustrating sense that there are rules here we don't know about. (Which, in fact, there are.)

Of course, all this improv is free--the Brave New Improvisers aren't looking for financial gain here. Yet. "I don't expect the audience to laugh every 30 seconds," says Lilledahl. "I want to take them along for a ride. In Chicago, you will pay as much as $10 to see a Harold. We want to educate our audiences as to what this form can do. You can see our regulars catching on, and really enjoying it." As this midnight Harold progresses, we do slowly figure out the rules. As Margi Simmons and Joshua Will's demon baby (a blue line means positive; a red X means you're pregnant with the Antichrist) joins with Eriq Nelson and Kim Schultz's Bluebird of Happiness/Vulture of Despair riff, we nod and smile: I see, I get it now.

This doesn't mean that BNW has totally eschewed games, but they do deride them. Games sell, and the company uses the format for the 100 corporate shows it does each year. Sweeney plays in many of these performances, and as he gets up to demonstrate what game scenes look like, he oozes self-hatred. "If my goal is to make someone laugh, what I'll do, because I have a very small brain, is go back to the stuff I know works. When I do the corporate shows, one thing I do is prepare a lineup of as many vice presidents as I can because I know that if I say their name in a sketch I will get a laugh and that's my really shallow whorish goal for that show. And it's the opposite of what I believe in as an improviser, but that money keeps us going."

This fierce will-to-profit has not gone unnoticed by other groups: In an interview, one competing improv actor reads bitterly from an August '98 Corporate Report article about the new BNW, in which Sweeney says, "We're running this company as a business first; the artistic side comes second."

As a business, it has been seriously successful. The Workshop has recently announced plans to open up a new 300-seat theater in Calhoun Square. And they have signed a contract with Disney Cruise Lines to be the Mouse's exclusive comedy provider. So what is the Brave New Workshop? An improv troupe? A playpen for intense performers? A training regimen for dull Edina dentists? A spoof-spewer with a fondness for feeble sex jokes? A drooling capitalist machine? A self-help program for aspiring comedy stars?

Yes.

ComedySportz's game style and Brave New Workshop's long-form improv stand at opposing sides of the improv debate, but there are other players here. Off the Top Improv might be called the hired hands. The group, run by local actor/director/10-year improv vet Zach Curtis, sends four players to gigs around the Metro: businesses, colleges, retreats. There they perform games similar to the ones offered by ComedySportz.

The setup allows OTT to escape the burden of rent. Without that obligation, the business has done well enough for Curtis to quit his day job--and pay his troupe handsomely for their efforts. Perhaps because the company is new, perhaps because they don't have obligations, Off the Top has the easiest repartee with their audience of any of the Twin Cities groups. They banter back and forth, get to know specific audience members based on their suggestions. There's a certain lightness and specificity to their performance, and a real connection with the people in the seats.

Off the Top frequently goes to Concordia College, and judging from the audience's inventiveness in offering words and ideas, it's not hard to see why. The Concordia crowd prove themselves sadists: During a bastardized version of charades, the Toppers must use mime and gibberish to get an unwitting Jimmy to act out, "You are building the pyramids under the orders of Billy Dee Williams using bricks of Jell-O that tastes like love which you can't appreciate because you have no inner child"; and "You're playing duck-duck-gray-duck with the cast of Up With People wearing only a football helmet and dreaming of cheese."

In "Instant Replay," the players perform a simple scene (this time based on the suggestion "toilet"), then take audience suggestions for what genre to replay the scene in (e.g., opera, Western, film noir). This time, the audience chooses "Chaucer." The players stop and stare. "Whoever said Chaucer, I'm going to beat up after the show," Zach Curtis announces into the microphone. The audience loves it.

The same levity exists in the youngest group in town, ThreePenny Improv. Like Off the Top, ThreePenny features a cast of twentysomething performers--though they seem closer to the twenty side. This is the least seasoned and least polished of the groups, and their show could use a bit more structure. But their flaws also make them accessible: We forgive their lapses precisely because they are not polished, and it makes the company's better moments all the more enjoyable.

The group is the love child of several other young itinerant groups who are (pause, bow head) no longer with us. For them, there's no place to go but up. As founding member Joe Scrimshaw explains, "When we were all in these separate groups, we became friends pretty quickly, then sooner or later we started to do shows together. Well, suddenly none of our groups had an audience because all of our friends were in the show."

ThreePenny is now building an audience of its own. Their Saturday Night REALLY Live series at the Phoenix Playhouse has been attracting between 30 and 60 people a night. Saturday night seems to invite an unpredictable crowd--many scruffy patrons could be card-carrying members of the Society for Creative Anachronism--and there are a fair number of folks who cross over from the adjacent smoke-filled Laughing Cup coffee shop.

At a typical Saturday Night REALLY Live performance, the audience becomes as much of a character as the actors on stage. The players begin a one-liner game. "OK, give me a noun, something that can be found on the farm," an emcee says. "Great, now an adjective. OK, thanks, we will now tell jokes with the first line being, 'Your tractor is so hazy...'" They play a few rounds, each player stepping up to the mike, some bombing completely. For the last round, Scrimshaw asks his audience, "All right, I need a noun; how about something you find in your closet?" at which point one peppy audience member shouts, "gay people!"

Both of these groups are making it--enough to keep going, and even to grow. People show up for improv comedy in greater numbers than they do for much independent theater. There is something more accessible about it to mainstream audiences, an expectation that one will be entertained, instead of bettered.

CSz keyboard player Dennis "To Society" Walker sums up the experience nicely: "I was talking to this bass player, and he was telling me how he was putting together a work on the influence of theosophy on the Prairie School of architecture and I said, 'Wow, I bet you're going to have to write a grant for that.' This is neat. No grant writing. The audience comes, they pay their money, they have fun."

ComedySportz plays every weekend night; call 870-1230. The Brave New Workshop performs a set of improv at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, and class teams perform on Tuesday nights; call 332-6620. ThreePenny Improv will perform at Bryant-Lake Bowl Cabaret Theater (825-8949) this month, and at the Phoenix Playhouse (813-0385) the first Saturday of every month. Off the Top Improv can be booked for events; call 879-8090.

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