5 Things I Learned From ComedySportz

1. Joy is contagious (and exponential)

 Like the moment when an octogenarian makes a 12 year old laugh, like getting teary-eyed at the end of your Dad's favorite movie, like watching a grumpy toddler fall asleep on a dog, Joy is a cathartic recognition of a beautiful moment coupled with the knowledge that it is a fleeting perfection. That toddler will grow up, that 12 year old will get mean, and your Dad will micromanage dinner. 

Performing a show for everyone means finding these intersections between people, pieces of common ground that allow us to relax and enjoy the time we have together. If you step on stage with that intent, your presence is inviting, your shoulders are at ease and you don't mind looking the audience right in the eye to say hello. A big smile and a genuine sense of hope goes a long way. 

The first time up people tend to be anxious, they over compensate, they view the show as treading water lest they should drown. That energy radiates to the viewer and the stress in the room is palpable. If a person can approach the work with a welcoming grin, that joy is contagious, and it grows exponentially. ComedySportz is in the business of manufacturing that feeling.

2. You are on both teams

The competition element of the show is crucial, and it would be a mistake to downplay the importance of the points or the penalties. The best matches I've seen have made the competition element of the show so important, so heightened, that it becomes satire. Everyday we cling to petty victories that don't matter in the long run. On the field, we have a chance to act out the emotional roller coaster of each gain or loss. People want to see you have fun, and that means getting excited about playing the game.

That being said, your competition is your partner. Even the Harlem Globe Trotters played against a team (The Washington Generals). The Generals had to be coordinated in their support to allow the Globetrotters to look supernatural. In the end, playing your best is the goal, which sometimes means being second banana. Because what is funnier than a couple of bananas?

 In real life we are confronted with people who assume an adversarial position no matter the circumstances. They find a way to undermine teamwork in the name of winning praise or attention. Maybe this is insecurity acting out, or maybe it is the most lucrative strategy in this crazy, mixed-up world. In any case, I’ve learned to appreciate people who seek friends in their competitors: people who support, who listen, and who search for solutions that build the team.

3. Limitations are your playground

Optimism and enthusiasm are at the core of this list, and this is especially important when you start to perform regularly, become comfortable with the show, and have the potential to lose some of the initial excitement. Playing the same games over and over can fool you into thinking that there is nothing left to explore. 

Part of this can be helped by a change in programming, like rotating what is done each week to keep it fresh and innovating to create new ways of working. Personal motivation is just as important. Even inside the rules of the game we're playing there is room for challenge, room for innovation, and a new path to be uncovered. You can get that rush of something new. 

You might have had a teacher challenge an improv class to 10 scenes with the same suggestion, or to start a scene over 3 or 4 times to see where else it could go. You are in charge of seeing the endless possibilities of your situation. How many times have we seen accomplishments of creativity that arose from a bold limitation? How did Pollock and Rothko move us without subjects or symbolism? How did Chaplin and Keaton accomplish pathos without words? How did Clerks get made? (See The Five Obstructions for more on this.)

4. You have something to learn from every person you meet

I must admit that when I stepped into an ensemble of seasoned players I noticed patterns in performance and bits that seemed to repeat unwarranted. I started to write off people that didn’t immediately impress me. This was fueled somewhat by the ribbing that the players gave each other. “So-and-So is always bringing up Nuclear Waste in an effort to create mutants in scenes.” etc. But as I got to know these people, and got to play with them, something struck me.

Certain people in the audience seemed to identify with these players and really enjoy their idiosyncrasies. It occurred to me that I could not expect any other improviser to bring up nuclear waste and create mutants on stage. That was a unique trait. Precisely who they were was bleeding into their work, and that truthful taste was speaking to specific loyal fans. As time went on I watched players of varying levels refine their voices and turn their strangeness into strength.

Offstage, the more I spoke to performers, the more I realized how different we all were. How each of us possessed a vast knowledge on subjects that no one else in the world seemed to care about. How we were living very different lives but choosing to devote time to something we loved. I would recommend to anyone who is beginning improvising to seek diversity in their first troupe, in gender, in race, and in body types.  I would also recommend playing with adults. They know things you don’t, shut up and listen.

5.  You can empower people by dropping expectations

This point is hand in hand with #3 but from a different angle. I think it is human nature to try to find a category for people you meet, to understand them as quickly as possible. You ask them the basic questions ("what do you do, what was your major, where are you from, do you have pets, have you seen Clerks") and in most cases, you find something you can relate to and the conversation moves forward. This is a good thing most of the time, especially if everyone’s in good humor.

But what if you make an assumption that isn’t correct, or that’s in bad taste? “you’re from Texas, huh? How many guns do you own?” Someone might be offended, or they might have an answer ready for the assumption they knew was coming. “I don’t, but I have an uncle with a whole room dedicated to loading buckshot.” Either way, we’re having the same conversation we had at the last party. We trap people in our assumptions of them.

In improv we might do similar things to people we have worked with in the past. We put them time and time again in the same situations because of how we see them, (consciously or unconsciously) and what we expect from them. The remedy is to work from a clean slate, and allow your scene partner to surprise you. It means making a statement and waiting for the response, working moment to moment, and looking for the next line in the eyes of your fellow player. This free fall is where real cooperation happens, and where the best show is. You’re discovering what is next at the same time as your partner, and enjoying the rush of not knowing.

Bonus Points:

My journey with ComedySportz has been from headstrong teenager to semi functioning adult, and all of these lessons have definitely made a difference in my day to day life. Relationships, work and recreation have all improved under the influence of ComedySportz. That’s why I continue to wear nice shoes. (It's a CSz thing.)

This is how Shakespeare put it to a young smart ass who needed to learn some humility, from the mouth of the woman he wanted to be with. She tells him to go try his jokes in the hospital for a year and see if they land. Comedy is pointless if it doesn’t comfort the afflicted:

Oft have I heard of you, my Lord Biron,
Before I saw you; and the world's large tongue
Proclaims you for a man replete with mocks,
Full of comparisons and wounding flouts,
Which you on all estates will execute
That lie within the mercy of your wit.
To weed this wormwood from your fruitful brain,
And therewithal to win me, if you please,
Without the which I am not to be won,
You shall this twelvemonth term from day to day
Visit the speechless sick and still converse
With groaning wretches; and your task shall be,
With all the fierce endeavor of your wit
To enforce the pained impotent to smile.

To move wild laughter in the throat of death?
It cannot be; it is impossible:
Mirth cannot move a soul in agony.

Why, that's the way to choke a gibing spirit,
Whose influence is begot of that loose grace
Which shallow laughing hearers give to fools:
A jest's prosperity lies in the ear
Of him that hears it, never in the tongue
Of him that makes it: then, if sickly ears,
Deaf'd with the clamours of their own dear groans,
Will hear your idle scorns, continue then,
And I will have you and that fault withal;
But if they will not, throw away that spirit,
And I shall find you empty of that fault,
Right joyful of your reformation.

Loves Labour’s Lost: Act V, Scene II

Robert Price

I'm a writer/performer by the beat of my heart but should I be a vegan? How can I fight injustice from the comfort of my couch? Are Televisions a positive force in the world? I'm writing and living and playing (and working) in NYC, having the time of my life.