Astroturf covers the stage and a brick wall backdrops a rollicking physical spree of improvised activity. Two gangs, distinguishable only by their red and blue colors, have taken the role of life-sized puppets. Before them, a diverse and jam-packed crowd of students, musicians, doctors, professors, nerds, families and comedy fanatics are screaming directions. These people are playing their own role: a collective crowd-sourced plotline trigger.
Video screens on each side of the stage note the score. The players, blue and red, are jumping on top of each other, waving their arms, offering a helping hand, doing anything they can to get their teammates to guess the right phrase. The match seems out of control until a ref blows his whistles over and over again, trying to curtail the madness, but to no avail. Everyone is cracking up. Even the keyboard player, seated behind the audience in the rear of Camera 3 Cinema, is laughing while he jams out circus-style melodies on cue. It all depends what transpires on stage, but ComedySportz is bringing down the house yet again.
Thirty years ago, the Bold Knight steakhouse in Sunnyvale unexpectedly launched an improv revolution. The show Whose Line Is It Anyway? didn’t yet exist and the old-school banquet-room crowd wasn’t familiar with comedy teams competing on stage and improvising their own skits based on audience suggestions.
Jeff Kramer changed all of that.
After finishing his MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1986, he came west and landed in the San Jose area, jonesing to start a local chapter of ComedySportz, an improv phenomenon that Dick Chudnow had spawned in Milwaukee. The show had erupted to great fanfare in 1984, so much so that it expanded to Madison a year later. Kramer was a founding player on that team. When he arrived in the South Bay, he assembled his own crews and convinced the steakhouse set at Bold Knight to give him a chance. As anyone getting started in the comedy biz understands, it was anything but easy going.
“The best part was trying to explain what we wanted to do, and saying, ‘Give us one of your banquet rooms so we can do this show,'” Kramer recalls. “If you said ‘improv’ to people at that time, the only thing they thought of was the Improv standup club. That was the only organization that also used the word improv.”
The first show, performed for friends, family and a few steakhouse drunks, was in September of 1987. For the next four years, Kramer and company took their act to anyone who would give them a chance. Bars, restaurants, backrooms of pizza joints—anyone who would provide free space for the fledgling group. Kramer has horror stories. Nefarious bar and restaurant operators would shake on deals with him and then act as if they didn’t remember the conversation.
“One night we actually showed up at a restaurant and it had been padlocked by the IRS, because the owner hadn’t paid any taxes,” Kramer says. “We literally had audience members showing up and we had a padlock on the front door and couldn’t do the show that night.”
These days, ComedySportz has exploded into 26 cities across the United States and Europe, with world championships taking place every year in various locations. Different city teams regularly travel and compete with one another. Members perform at conventions, corporate team-building sessions, banquets, grade school assemblies, parent-child combo classes and even dating seminars. College, high school and rec leagues are rampant.
After years of bouncing around and being locked out of venues, the group secured a long-term location in a strip mall on El Camino Real near Lawrence Expressway. Popularity accelerated entirely by word of mouth. In 2006, the troupe moved into the Camera 3 theater in downtown San Jose, where they have been ever since. The San Jose chapter has surpassed 6,000 shows and the 2017 world championships will take place this week, June 28 to July 1, at the Hammer Theater Center.
Unlike standup, improv requires people to work together on stage. Unlike most improv, ComedySportz forces two teams to compete for audience points in a variety of different improvised games.
Everything is done on the fly, as the audience ticks off topics selected by a referee. A red team and blue team wear vintage baseball jerseys with white torsos and colored sleeves, while a referee resembling a Foot Locker employee calls fouls whenever someone goes off script, starts to “die” or the humor expands beyond family-friendly. More risque material is saved for 18-and-over shows that start at midnight.
Performances draw from a multitude of schemes created over the years, and they often feature players gesturing, acting out or saying anything they can to get their teammates to guess the right phrase, word, or sentence chosen by the audience. No matter a person’s sense of humor—be it dark or light—there’s something in the show for everyone.
Improv has a team aesthetic that usually doesn’t bode well for egoists, prima donnas, pessimists and people eager to interrupt. Athletic ability isn’t necessary, but mental and emotional maturity are prerequisites. Likewise, a rocking vocabulary is a must. Participants need quality listening skills and the ability to think on their feet. They must simultaneously embrace the moment and be able to recognize each other’s talents, cede the floor and collectively build a safety net in case someone stumbles. In that sense, it’s like any other team sport.
“What we’re looking for is people who are talented enough to make everyone around them look good, as opposed to featuring yourself,” Kramer says. “Because it really is a team event and it’s an ensemble work.”
Since the audience is a participant, there is no rock star separation between the players and audience members. Everyone contributes to the experience. When all cylinders are firing, a goofy, transcendental magic spontaneously appears. Something greater than the orderly sum of its parts emerges from the chaos, not unlike a killer jazz set. The cliché “you had to be there” rings true.
“Improv is like a huge inside joke between the audience and the players for that night, for that specific moment,” says Courtney Pong, who went pro in San Jose and now manages ComedySportz Boston. “It’s unique and wonderful because it was created right there. We play as one team, but we play it like one team is the audience as well. Like we’re all in on it.”
ComedySportz San Jose has been around long enough that the group is experiencing its second generation of fans. People often approach Kramer after shows and say things like, “I first saw you in sixth grade. Now let me introduce you to my kids.”
Kramer’s former students have gone on to front ComedySportz teams in various other cities. Pong, for example, first discovered ComedySportz in Modesto about 16 years ago, where the San Jose operation was launching the equivalent of a farm system. In junior college at the time, she joined the group and then, while working at Great America in the summer, Pong played ComedySportz San Jose for the first time. After enrolling art San Jose State University and becoming a regular, Pong signed up for life in 2006, when San Jose first hosted the world championships.
“When you meet 200 people that all have the same sense of play and kindness, you just glom onto that,” Pong says. “That was it for me. I felt like I was a lifer from Day 2, when I started meeting everyone and realized what we were a part of.”
In addition to managing ComedySportz Boston, Pong teaches improv classes for families, focusing on better communication and collaboration between parents and children. She even uses her improv skills and experiences to teach people who frequently bomb first dates.
Kelsey Wagner saw her first ComedySportz San Jose show at age 9, back at the old El Camino Real location. She eventually played in all four years of the high school league, continued through college and then rose up to the pros. Wagner now directs education initiatives and runs daily business operations for ComedySportz Buffalo, all while still performing in the shows.
“You have to constantly be a student,” she says. “You have to know what’s new in pop culture, you have to know what’s new in the sciences. Because when your audience gives you the suggestion of ‘fidget spinner’ they’re going to expect you to be able to work with it.”
The rebooted Hammer Theater is a far cry from the throwback steakhouse crowds at Bold Knight in Sunnyvale, circa 1987. Thirty years later, ComedySportz San Jose is the longest-running show in Silicon Valley, and the entire network of cities will descend upon downtown this week to once again do battle on stage.
As one of the few remaining players left from the original San Jose squad, Kramer can’t help but reflect. For decades, he has spread an extemporaneous gospel and instilled a joy of improv in the masses. Now his disciples are returning home to show us what they’ve learned on their own.
“It’s great to see this dream that we thought about 30 years ago actually coming to fruition,” Kramer says. “We used to say: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had these championship matches where we have ComedySportz in cities all over the world and they all come together for this?’ Seeing this come to fruition is what’s most amazing to me.”
The Bold Knight may be gone, but ComedySportz lives on. And it’s no longer an inside joke.