What is red, blue and black-and-white striped all over? The answer is a fast-paced improv show in which a snarky referee moderates as two teams battle one another via short-form games and rack up points based on audience applause. The winners get a trophy and bragging rights. The audience, meanwhile, gets a clean, family-friendly night of laughs.
That description applies to both the show I saw in the early ’90s in a modest room inside the Congress Hotel on Michigan Avenue and last week at the 149-seat theater in Lakeview the company has occupied since 2008. Hey, if the format ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But times have changed at ComedySportz Chicago, which celebrates 25 years this summer with the triple theme of “competing, celebrating and giving back” and kicking off with the ComedySportz World Championship Wednesday 18 through Saturday 21 at the Athenaeum Theater.
ComedySportz originated in Milwaukee in 1984 and was cofounded by Dick Chudnow, a member of the University of Wisconsin’s Kentucky Fried Theater comedy troupe (the same one that launched the careers of Airplane! and Naked Gun’s Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers). It was initially based on Theatresports, a competitive form developed by Canadian director Keith Johnstone. Over time, the format evolved. “Theatersports people looked at it and said, ‘Well this is great but it’s not really who we are, so go your own way,’ ” says Matt Elwell, current president and CEO of ComedySportz Chicago.
The organization now boasts 18 theaters nationwide in cities like New York, Los Angeles and, most recently, Seattle (and two international locations, in Berlin and Manchester, U.K.) that operate independently but are licensees of a common intellectual property and united through an organization called the World Comedy League, which makes sure each theater is operating in accordance with the brand.
While players are still forced to wear a brown paper bag over their heads for dropping an f-bomb, in Chicago at least, times have changed. For starters, the once itinerant company has found a permanent home at 929 West Belmont Avenue after moving more than a dozen times, including stops at the Congress Hotel, Steppenwolf, the Turnaround Theater (now the Playground) and Fizz Bar and Grill. “This is the first time we have had our own backstage bathroom,” Elwell says. “We have fully arrived.”
It also has augmented its weekly lineup with stand-up comedy on Mondays, late-night shows like the filthy and unhinged Hot Karl and with visiting troupes like indie improvising goofballs Octavarius and the simian game show Impress These Apes. “When I think of Impress These Apes and Octavarius, both are high-quality shows but they’re also shows you could bring almost anyone to,” Elwell says. “A lot of art is, ‘if you don’t get it you’re clearly not up to our level of pretension.’ It’s like no, man, have a beer, laugh your butt off and have a good time.”
That mantra clearly carries over to its signature form, a tourist-friendly cash cow that anchors the weekly calendar but is a little safe. “What I think is really cool about ComedySportz’s presence in Chicago is that we are a great gateway drug to improv theater and culture in general,” Elwell says. “You get to see people playing with their imaginations in a way that is exciting and fun and non-threatening. They see four minutes of stuff and then they get to respond to it with voting, cheering and applauding. It’s very user-friendly.”