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by Kathryn Krawczyk
Buffalo ComedySportz makes a game out of comedy improv
Loyal fans wait in anticipation for the teams to appear. It’s like that with any sport, hockey, football, basketball, and so on. Finally the opponents are there, the announcer introduces all the players and the arena joins together to sing the national anthem.
And then the players are off…shooting their best jokes back and forth to beat the other team.
No, it’s not a new Buffalo major league sport, but the fans are just as emotionally attached. Buffalo ComedySportz is improvisational comedy that’s played as a sport. The competitive talent is a quick wit not quick running and having 260 pounds of muscle.
The Arena is what ComedySportz calls its theatre on the corner of Main Street and Harlem in Amherst. There’s a referee that keeps things clean and announcer that updates fans on the action. At the end, there’s a score and a winning team. There’s even a minor league whose players sometimes get pulled up to the majors.
A significant way ComedySportz differs from traditional sports is that when fans make a suggestion, players might actually take it. In fact, ComedySportz is built around audience participation. At the start of every performance, players ask for suggestions from the audience and then build the family-friendly show from there. No material is prepared ahead of time, which makes things harder for players but more exciting for everyone involved.
“You’ve got a bunch of people trying to continue telling a story and you’re not actually sure where you’re going with it. That kind of trust is so much fun,” said ComedySportz player Daina Burke.
Audience suggestions also ensure that each show is different—and they keep fans coming back for more.
“We look out in the audience and we see the same faces weekend after weekend. We have Friday and Saturday shows, they’ll be there. Minor League shows, they’ll be there,” says Richard Satterwhite, Vice President of ComedySportz Buffalo. “In some cases, we have loyal fans who have been with us since the beginning.”
That’s some real dedication, considering ComedySportz arrived in Buffalo back in 1993 and estimates it’s performed about 2,000 shows. ComedySportz is actually an international sensation with shows in more than 20 cities in the U.S., as well as in England and Germany. So when Randy Reese saw a show in Milwaukee and kept going back for more, he knew he had to bring ComedySportz back to his hometown of Buffalo.
But back in 1993, not many people in Buffalo even knew what improv was. Reese advertised $1 improv classes and managed to put together a team, which performed its first show at the Holiday Inn. From there, the group performed at many different venues like the Riviera Theatre, Keystone Grill, and the Comix Cafe, before finally getting its own Arena in 2009.
Having its own space has really helped ComedySportz to expand. While traditional matches are good, clean fun for the whole family, ComedySportz now offers the same caliber of humor with an adult spin at its After Hours shows. The wide variety of performances include the two-person longform show Transfixed and the improvised sketch show Chillin’. There’s also Flesh vs. Felt, an all-ages ComedySportz match featuring one team of humans and one of puppets.
However, even if fans are looking for adult humor, that doesn’t mean they should skip out on the regular ComedySportz show.
“It’s safe for kids, but also the innuendo that goes on for adults is like a Pixar movie,” said Rich Hy, another ComedySportz player. “There’s all those little hidden gems that the parents are like ‘Oh cool, yes they’re making fun of Justin Bieber and oh my gosh, did they just reference some sort of sexual act?’”
For those who want to give improv a shot themselves, there are weekly classes for all experience levels running throughout the fall, winter, and spring. Those who conquer all three levels are eligible for even more advanced classes and may be drafted into the minor league and eventually the majors. Since ComedySportz used to hold auditions but wasn’t quite getting the results it wanted, this has become its biggest way of recruiting new members.
Classes aren’t just for aspiring comedians; they’re also a great way to build confidence and communication skills that are useful everywhere. ComedySportz even hires out for business training to foster teamwork among coworkers.
Brian Tabak, a ComedySportz player, uses his improv experience in everyday life.
“It really makes me less afraid in the world,” he said. “Any situation that I come across, whether it’s at my day job or with family members or anything, I know that I can take it on because of the improv training. No need to get sweaty or nervous, we can handle this, we can take it on.”
Kids in grades five through eight can join in on the fun with classes all their own, and dedicated older students can sign up for the High School League that runs throughout the school year. The High School League has a fall and spring session each year, and students get to take part in up to five matches on the big stage.
Fans don’t have to get onstage to be part of the fun. ComedySportz has lots of different birthday party packages where birthday honorees can step up and be part of the show or watch comfortably from their seats.
ComedySportz is closely tied to other members of Buffalo’s theatre and comedy communities and is dedicated to helping them in any way it can. For example, it often hosts Buffalo Sketch Comedy as part of After Hours.
“We are fortunate—knock on wood when I say that—that we have our own space,” Satterwhite said. “So whenever they can put on a show, we give them a slot.”
But ComedySportz isn’t just bringing laughs to Buffalo; it’s also doing its part to better the city as a whole. Satterwhite said ComedySportz is always looking to help with fundraising, especially for nonprofit organizations. And if it isn’t fundraising for them, ComedySportz is making donations to nonprofits as well.
ComedySportz has also formed close relationships with other businesses. In fact, it’s partnering with neighbors Oh Pour L’Amour Du Chocolat to put on Sundae in the Square on Sunday, (8/2). For $10, fans can experience ComedySportz’s annual outdoor match while eating a delicious sundae from Oh Pour L’Amour Du Chocolat. To get tickets to the 5pm show, visit cszbuffalo.com.
This sense of community connection is what really defines ComedySportz. Besides being closely tied with the city, Buffalo’s ComedySportz shares a strong bond with other ComedySportz cities. When Buffalo ComedySportz holds its Improvathon, a 49 1⁄2 hour non-stop comedy fundraiser, members from other cities always come to support and perform with the group. This event raises money to send players to the ComedySportz World Championship, where players from around the world meet up and compete. The event is held in a different city every year, and was even in Buffalo in 2013 when Buffalo claimed the championship.
No matter the ComedySportz city, its players share one thing: dedication. Not all of them come from comedy or theatre backgrounds, but they all love what they do.
“We have people from all walks of life, and they bring that life experience to the performance,” Satterwhite said. “They got caught up in it, and now it’s all they talk about.”
Some players have even gone so far as to get tattoos of the ComedySportz logo or the famous improv mantra “Yes, and…” referring to how players accept what fellow players say and keep the game going.
Claire Wilcher has taken that loyalty to a new level. The ComedySportz Indianapolis player is spending four months driving cross-country in a used RV, visiting every ComedySportz city along the way. Wilcher’s journey, dubbed the ComedySportz World Tour, aims to raise awareness for ComedySportz and hopefully attract some new fans. Though Wilcher has already made her stop in Buffalo, fans can still follow the rest of her journey through her blog at cszworldtour.com.
ComedySportz players are definitely dedicated to improv, but above all, they’re dedicated to their fans. Since ComedySportz is a nonprofit itself, it has relied on its loyal fans to keep it going over the years. In return, ComedySportz takes care of its fans in the best way it knows how: keeping them entertained.
“There’s such a unique connection with fans when you’re up there doing improv. It’s not scripted, we’re not doing a play that was written 10 or 20 or 150 years ago. If I’m doing a show for you and I can see the glazed look on your eyes, I know this isn’t working and I can switch it,” Tabak said. “And then when I see something is connecting with you, we can switch it just like that to give you more of whatever it is that you love.”
But even though players may get up close and personal with the audience, they won’t push fans too far out of their comfort zone.
“We will not make fun of you,” Satterwhite said. “We want you to be part of the laughs in a safe environment.”
With its steadfast fan commitment, loyal players and family-friendly atmosphere, ComedySportz is a Buffalo sport that will never let its fans down.blog comments powered by Disqus
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