Reviewed by Tom Lawler
Maybe you’re a virgin to the ComedySportz experience, but you’re probably quite aware of it. Those ads with the teams of improvisers in red and blue bowling shirts and that guy in the Foot Locker uniform presiding over it all are omnipresent – and seem to follow you from city to city. Perhaps you know that this a true comedy franchise (it started in Milwaukee back in 1984 and now has outposts in 21 cities across the U.S. and Europe), but somehow you’ve never felt any urgency to see one of these bouts in the flesh. People seem to be enjoying themselves in the ads, but maybe you’ve just decided …this wasn’t for you.
It is, and it’s time to come see this for yourself. The ComedySportz World Championships are here in Chicago – for the first time since 2001 – and feature 19 teams from across the U.S. and Europe battling it out over four nights and nine total matches. The venue is a good match for this history in-in-the-making — Lakeview’s 100-year-old Athenaeum Theater — and the audience on opening night couldn’t have been more fever-pitched and passionate for these performers. Likewise, these improvisers matched every bit of the audience’s energy and excitement for this year’s festivities.
After an opening ceremonies parade in front of the Athenaeum featuring all 19 teams, Opening Night commenced with a match-up between Manchester (England, not New Hampshire) and Los Angeles. On paper, this competition looked like a toss-up – the UK team could be expected to rack up some points for their accents alone and you would think the team from Hollywood would be larded with faces you may know from film and TV. Referee Rance Rizzutto (who preferred to be known as “RanceInThePants.com,” which was easily the edgiest thing said all night in this all-ages, kids-friendly show), capably played the role of game show host, tossing off arbitrary rulings and dry bon mots with the elan of ESPN’s Kenny Mayne.
In reality (and for a ComedySports virgin), it was surprising how the competition aspect is almost besides the point. The competition angle is essentially the gimmick of the franchise and certainly helps maintain the intensity of each match/show, but each team often played together in the same scenes and genuinely seemed to delight in each other’s choices and performances. In other words, ComedySportz has taken the best parts of an athletic competition – structure, rising stakes, back-and-forth drama – and have completely skimmed off the more unsavory elements (e.g., poor sports, injuries, asshole jocks) to create a wholly satisfying night of comedy. Indeed, Referee Rance scolded the Manchester and LA teams for tying each other in the first game, but the audience couldn’t have been happier with the result.
The secret ingredient of this show may be the heavy contingent of kids in the audience. Since the show is family-friendly (Referee Rance threatened to enact the “Brown Bag Rule” for any audience member whose suggestion is determined too lewd), the audience is as young, boisterous and supportive as any comedy show you’ve probably attended. The performers match every bit of this enthusiasm with boundless energy and child-like enjoyment in their improv “games.”
Teams are allowed to pick the “games” (structured exercises that all ComedySportz teams seem to know such as Spelling Bee, Last Second Expert and Forward Reverse) they want to play – and often the audience is heavily tapped for suggestions which are then thrown out to the performers throughout the game to heighten or quickly change the action. It was beyond amusing to see the UK performers try their hands at New York and “Montana” accents – which were actually quite good. When the Los Angeles team elected to perform an improvised telenovela based on an audience-provided title and half of the team seemed to be fluent in Spanish, you sensed this was in their wheelhouse and their go-to game for putting points on the board. Although the ComedySportz format is fast-paced and built for quick bits, ironically, this telenovela routine was allowed to play uninterrupted for several minutes and scored the biggest laughs of the night.
Although both teams were stocked with solid, versatile performers, the LA team felt a little stronger, led by standouts Scott Palmason and Chris Mathieu – who in addition to their hilarious work on the telenovela routine, conjured sublime magic in an improvised Sondheim-ish musical about catty British Olympic gymnasts. Teammate Maurissa Afandador was perhaps the engine of this team, however, with an hilarious sprite-like presence who is seemingly destined to be cast as the wacky neighbor on a sit-com in the very near future.
If you can’t quite remember who ultimately won the match, that’s OK. It’s really not about that. What you will remember is how much fun you had watching these lightning-quick improvisers. If can’t attend this year’s ComedySportz World Championships, make plans soon to see a ComedySportz Chicago performance. Stop being such a snob and go see one of Chicago’s best known – if not most underrated comedy shows.
Running Time: 2 hours with intermission
At Athenaeum Theater, 2936 N. Southport Ave
Wednesday, July 18 — Saturday, July 21
Friday July 20 at 8 and 10pm
Saturday at 6, 8 and 10pm
Buy Tickets at www.athenaeumtheatre.org or call 773.935.6875.