"That's a foul!" referee Patrick Short cried, then whistled the play dead on the AstroTurf carpet. Instead of a 15-yard penalty or the loss of a down, the Red Team in this tight game played in San Jose got hit with the Brown Bag. For the next two minutes, with the crowd howling in delight, the offending player had to stagger through the fast-paced action with a shopping bag over his head. His infraction: a gratuitous remark about female anatomy.
Careful wordplay is crucial in ComedySportz, an artful and increasingly popular form of stage entertainment that packages the fragile art of improvisational comedy as a spectator sporting event. Taking suggestions from the audience for a theme, setting and character traits, two teams of actors create spontaneous comic skits and sketches, mock tragedies and minioperas in comedy sports matches all across the country. Judges award points for the entertainment value of each exercise. It's a dazzling put-on that is complete with team uniforms and zebra-striped referees, wooden benches and water bottles, scoreboards and rulebooks.
Moments after escaping from the Brown Bag, San Jose player Derek McCaw found himself in the thick of a slo-mo round, one of many possible games that are played in ComedySportz. While his teammates mimed the movements of trimming a hedge in superslow motion, McCaw supplied frenetic color commentary.
"There's almost no horticultural talent out there today," McCaw chattered into an imaginary microphone, at which point the trimmers turned on the announcer and began hacking away with their invisible blades. That effort was good enough for the three judges to award the Red Team five points and give the Reds a narrow lead over the opposing Blue Team.
The audience-involving hook of team competition has yanked acting-school exercises out of the classroom and turned them into hybrid entertainment on AstroTurf-covered stages in Boston, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., and 12 other Comedy League of America (CLA) cities. Further expansion is in the works, promises CLA commissioner Dick Chudnow, who claims that a million people have passed through a ComedySportz turnstile since 1984 when the first branch was opened.
The CLA is not, however, without competition. Theatresports, the original (started in the late '70s) form of competitive improv games, has branches in Denmark, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, England, Canada and the U.S. With nine shows a week in two different theaters, the thriving Vancouver Theatresports League does $500,000 (Canadian) worth of business a year.
"The sports format is the key to our appeal," says former Vancouver general manager, Jim McLarty. "We get hockey players and soccer players in here who are so into the competitive aspect they start taking workshops and performing in our matches. These are people who've never been onstage in their lives."
Except in Chicago and Toronto, where the famed Second City comedy clubs have nurtured such superstars as Dan Aykroyd, Joan Rivers, Shelley Long and John Candy, straight improvisation is a marginal draw in most theaters and clubs. But for Keith Johnstone, a theater professor based in Calgary and the inventor of Theatresports, the rarity of success in improv is the very thing that underscores its affinity with sports. "The reality is that failure can be just as interesting as success," he contends. "Maybe more so. Edited highlights are O.K., but they're not the game. The moment when a goal is missed may be just as intriguing as the one when it's made."
For Johnstone's disciples, the "dare to fail" dictum is like a mantra to be repeated before, during and after every game. There are no scripts, no routines agreed on by teammates in advance. The players are all out there performing without a net. "To play well," says San Francisco veteran Barbara Scott, "you have to surrender yourself completely to whatever someone else wants to make of you at a given moment."
In Theatresports jargon, that's called "accepting an offer"; a failure to do so is "blocking." The idea is that if a teammate suddenly decides to identify you as a three-eyed alien or an ax murderer or his long-lost twin brother in the middle of a scene, you're supposed to pick up the ball and run as hard as you can with it. Players describe the sensation as euphoric.
"There's a kind of trance that comes over you," says Los Angeles Theatresports's Dan O'Connor, fondly recalling the night he became a pig in a long musical scene. "You discover all the things that are right there below the surface, ready to pop out of you and come to life."
For struggling New York actor George Babiak, Theatresports offers the opportunity to "play a monster, a king and a surfer all in the same night. You can go a long time when nothing at all happens in your career. Here it can all happen at once."
Despite their differences, the two versions of competitive improvisation have decided similarities, right down to the Brown Bag penalty. Johnstone, who is writing a book about the history of Theatresports, says his lawyers have advised him not to talk about possible infringements on his original idea. ComedySportz czar Chudnow sounds wounded by the suggestion that his league is "some sort of perversion of the real thing. We have a different approach. We call different fouls—illegal use of props, uncomedylike conduct."
In both of the leagues, the premise of competition is the not-so-secret ingredient that captures the audience. Johnstone says that the idea first hit him after he had attended several professional wrestling matches in London in the 1960s. "It was obvious that this was theater and not the real thing," he explains, "but the boisterous response of the audience was so striking. Somehow the regular theater audience has lost all that. They're like whipped dogs by comparison, sitting on their hands, wondering if they should like what they're seeing."
After Theatresports proved to be a hit at the Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary, Johnstone says the idea sold itself in other Canadian cities. At first, he recalls, intercity rivalries could get quite heated. Now, even at international Theatresports tournaments, it's clear that the competition is more or less a ruse to get the audience pulling for the performers and uniting in good-natured loathing of the bewigged, black-robed judges. If the spirit moves them, in fact, players from one team sometimes jump into the other team's scenes.
ComedySportz works a little harder at seeming like a sport, with the two teams glowering at each other from their benches on opposite sides of the stage. "The only thing that sets us apart from any other sport," says James Thomas Bailey, general manager of the Los Angeles branch, "is that the audience listens."
Steven Winn is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle.