Comedic madness all through March

By Luke Wilusz

While March Madness swings into full gear in the world of college basketball, a local improv group has adapted the tournament concept to a different kind of sport.

The ComedySportz Theatre, 929 W. Belmont Ave., started its seventh annual March Madness Improv Tournament with a show on March 4. The improv company treats comedy as a competitive sport, with two teams vying for the audience’s laughter and applause. Four teams compete in the tournament for bragging rights among their ensemble peers and the honor of being crowned the ComedySportz 2010 Downtown Chicago Bosses.

Ensemble member Tim Ryder explained that a typical ComedySportz match involves two teams of improvisers competing with one another at various improv games. Some games are head-to-head with a clear victor, while others require the teams to take turns at the games and the audience determines the winner. The winning team for each game is awarded points by a referee.

“It’s very simple,” Ryder said. “It’s just like a sport: at the end of the night, the team with the most points wins.”

The March Madness shows use the same game format as a regular ComedySportz show, but the team lineups don’t change every night like they do in regular play.

“What we wanted was an opportunity for the audience to follow specific players through a multi-night experience,” said ComedySportz President and CEO Matt Elwell. “And that’s what March Madness is. Instead of changing up who’s on what team every show, these players will play the same show several times in a row, and you’ll get a sense of how those teams perform. Instead of seeing three random performers out of 50 on a team, you’ll see these three specific people who are together to deliver this kind of comedy that they do very well.”

Elwell was in charge of selecting the players for each team. He said he wanted to form teams comprised of performers with specific strengths, such as scene-based sketches or musical improv.

ComedySportz Public Relations Director David Montgomery said the performers and the audiences always get excited about March Madness.

“Here with the March Madness Tournament, [ensemble members] get to play these four shows together, and they get really excited about that,” Montgomery said. “We have fans of the show, especially if they like a certain performer, and they know they can see them these four times, they’ll come. So it’s real fun for the fans as well.”

Ryder said the competitive nature of the shows makes performances more relatable to audiences by giving them a familiar viewpoint from which to experience improv.

“It’s pretty easy for people to understand, you know, because they’re used to watching sports and sporting events,” he said. “A lot of people quickly grab onto their favorites and start cheering for them, and booing the other side even, and they really get into it.”

Aside from the game format of shows, ComedySportz differentiates itself from other improv acts with the claim that its shows are always appropriate for all ages. Elwell said the clean nature of the shows was a point of professional pride for him.

“Artistically, it’s important to me because it’s a challenge,” he said. “Especially in improvising, especially when you’re making it up, it’s so easy to, as we say, ‘go blue,’ you know. And you’ll see blue improv all over the city. And I’m a fan of that a lot, but I think that ComedySportz players, when they get done performing our show and perform blue material other places, they’re so much better at it because they’re using it as a choice, and not because they have nothing [else] that will make an audience laugh.”

Elwell also pointed out that keeping the show clean allows the performers to entertain a wider audience than cruder material would allow.

“It’s a lot easier to get someone who likes dirty comedy to sit through a clean show than someone who likes clean comedy to sit through a dirty show,” he said.

The March Madness Tournament runs every Thursday in March at 8 p.m. The final championship show will be on March 20 at 10 p.m.