SOMERVILLE — Imagine assembling a piece of IKEA furniture using a fish instead of a screwdriver. Or skiing downhill on a turtle’s back. Or playing softball against KISS.
If you’re a member of the Boston Baked Beans or the Cambridge Ivory Towers, the teams that “compete” each weekend at the Davis Square Theatre in an improv comedy show called ComedySportz, your task is to act out these scenarios and to score points — literally — while avoiding penalties for corny or crude jokes.
It’s like “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” played as team sport, and every night is unique. One performance last month featured rap battles, improvised scenes acted in forward and reverse, and an homage to “The Dating Game” featuring celebrity impersonations ranging from Michelle Bachmann to Flipper. The fast-paced, family-friendly show runs just short of two hours (including half-time intermission), during which two teams of three or four “actletes” perform up to a dozen improv “games.”
The concept for ComedySportz was created in 1984 in Milwaukee by a group of local comedians. It has since expanded to 24 locations around the world.
After catching a performance in Philadelphia with his wife, 12-year-old son, and 70-year-old mother, Boston-based entertainment entrepreneur David Goldstein thought it could catch on here. (It had an earlier run in Boston through the early 1990s.) “We all enjoyed it,” he said. “It seemed almost like it was missing here.”
Goldstein, the owner and manager of Boston’s Mystery Cafe, launched ComedySportz at the Davis Square Theatre in Somerville in October, bringing in Jason Burke from the San Jose headquarters as his creative director.
“I love the show because it not only appeals to people that are into improv, but also people who are interested in comedy in general, and sports fans, too,” Burke said.
The show has booked dates at the theater through April, but Goldstein would like to make ComedySportz a local fixture. He hopes to expand its audience by running special dates at other venues around Boston and in the suburbs.
A performance begins when the audience is welcomed to the 150-seat theater by a cast member outfitted in track pants and a referee’s black-and-white striped jersey who provides a rundown of the rules in a punchy and fast-paced opening monologue. The referee is both moderator and master of ceremonies. His job is not only to keep the show clean and family-friendly, but also to make it creative, entertaining, and funny.
The crowd — consisting mostly of 20- and 30-somethings, but also including some children and older adults — provides much of the energy. A swell of voices joins in at the start of the show to sing the ComedySportz theme song, a variation on “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” called “Take Me Out to See Improv.” Once the evening is underway, audience members will shout out suggestions and joke with the players. Sometimes kids are the most likely to get involved; at one recent show, a boy volunteered as scorekeeper.
A Jock Jams pump-up track plays over the PA system as the referee welcomes the performers to the synthetic turf stage. Members of the visiting team in blue, the Boston Baked Beans, followed by the home team in red, the Cambridge Ivory Towers, jog onto the stage to greet their teammates with chest-bumps and high fives. The players maintain this same goofy-but-genuine enthusiasm throughout the show.
There are “317 fouls” in the ComedySportz lexicon, the referee jokes, but the audience only has to know two: the “Groaner Foul” and the “Brown Bag Foul.” Though these infractions are typically called at the discretion of the referee with a toss of his invisible penalty flag, audience members can also make these calls.
A Groaner Foul is flagged on a player for making a joke that is so corny, so punny, that it causes the audience to literally groan.
The Brown Bag Foul can be called on any person in the theater for making a lewd, crude, or distasteful remark, and as punishment, a paper bag is placed over the head of the offender for the duration of the scene. “So far nobody has said a blatant curse word,” Burke said. “In one game we were rhyming with the name ‘Liz,’ and someone off the top of their head rhymed it with ‘whiz.’ It’s not actually dirty, but it’s a cheap laugh.”
A segment modeled on “The Dating Game” is a crowd-pleaser. While one teammate steps outside the arena, the referee asks each section of the audience to shout out the names of fictional and nonfictional figures in pop culture for the remaining teammates to impersonate. The player returns and must guess who they’re impersonating. And so during one performance last month, the audience was treated to spot-on impressions of Bachmann, Flipper, and John F. Kennedy.
Putting their verbal wit and hip-hop swagger to the test, the cast that night also performed a rap battle in the style of the Beastie Boys, placing the signature stress over the rhyme at the end of a line. After up to a dozen games, the referee will wrap up the evening with a lightning round where each player shouts one-liners until someone chokes.
The performers are playing for the love of the game. The point system is entirely arbitrary. A winning team is usually determined by crowd applause. Or if a player breaks the rules of a game, it’ll cost his team. The competition gimmick gives the show its momentum, but ultimately it doesn’t matter which team wins. Because of the rotating lineup, rivals this week could be on the same side next week.
The teams are made up of a core cast of about 15 trained performers who auditioned for their roles. But cast members come and go, and Burke plans to keep stocking the roster with recruits from improv classes he’s created at the Boston Center for Adult Education. The first of those classes begins in April; meanwhile ComedySportz is offering two classes at the Davis Square Theatre this month taught by one of its longtime performers from Minneapolis, Jill Bernard.
“Improv as an art is about building something with other people,” Burke said. “But an audition by nature is competitive. You’re competing with other performers for a slot in a show. In an ideal improv audition, you’d be working with other people beforehand.”
In as difficult a game as improvisation, not every swing is going to be a home run. At times, the real comedic talents of the performers are outshined by the ridiculousness of the audience’s Mad-Libbed suggestions. But what a show may lack in consistency is made up for with the energy and chemistry of the cast.
“It starts to feel like you’re playing these games with your friends,” Burke said.