In the summer of 2009, I began writing a local theatre column for Examiner.com. And one of the first stories I wanted to write was a history of Comedysportz San Jose, the improvisation troupe who has made a major impact on the local theatre scene. I have seen dozens of their shows throughout the years, and have experienced first hand their impact on the community. Whether it’s running a massive high school league, partnering with companies such as “Psycho Donuts” or providing opportunities for other walks of life, Comedysportz has been an integral part of the theatre community.
This weekend, the company is celebrating 25 years. To mark the occasion, players from all over the country, as well as the current stable of performers, are converging downtown for a weekend of special shows to celebrate. The shows are also serving as a fundraiser for Ronald McDonald House at Stanford, Second Harvest Foodbank and the YMCA’s Project Cornerstone.
This story originally ran on January 7th, 2010 on the Examiner.com website…
That word might have been used a million times by San Jose’s venerable improvisation troupe Comedysportz during their 22-plus years bringing guffaws, chuckles and good ol’ fashioned belly laughs to the South Bay. But that word was downright prophetic during a show in the early ‘90’s.
You see, there are many different ways to induce labor – medications, walks in the park, a little well-timed nookie, to name a few. But on that fateful night in a restaurant that doubled as an improvisational comedy testing ground, some great laughs were the perfect medication for the miracle of life.
“There was a woman actually close to the front, nine-months pregnant,” said Comedysportz San Jose founder Jeff Kramer, performing that night. “We were doing the show and I noticed her leaving, going towards the back of room. I noticed her laughing a lot, and I thought it was strange she got up and left, because the show was going great.”
During halftime, the house manager came up to Kramer to let him know that this woman’s water had broke in the bathroom. Apparently, the woman laughed so hard her stomach hurt. When the laughter stopped, her stomach still hurt. Four hours later, an improv infant was born.
And so was a theatre company.
“We found out during intermission,” said Kramer. “The players were abuzz – ‘wow we made a woman laugh so hard that her water broke.’ That needs to be our new tagline.”
While inducing labor became quite the badge of honor for the fledgling company, it is only one anecdote that speaks to the method of their madness, a madness that includes more than 5,000 shows, which gives Comedysportz the title of the longest running show in the South Bay.
“WE HAD NO IDEA WHAT WE WERE GETTING OURSELVES INTO.”
San Jose’s version of the national company is a lesson in perseverance. While Comedysportz is an improvisation marvel onstage every weekend, it’s the amazing bit of improvising offstage that kept the company together in the leanest of times.
The year was 1987. At that time, improvisational comedy was not in the nation’s lexicon just yet. “Whose Line is it Anyway,” the runaway hit featuring stars Colin Mochrie, Ryan Stiles, Wayne Brady and Drew Carey, was 11 years away from American television sets. So in order for the company to take off, they had to build an audience. One problem – they couldn’t stay in one place long enough to let that audience find them.
Building this company mostly fell on the shoulders of three core members – Kramer, Jeff Ringgold and Tom Gough. Kramer, who helped build the Madison company while he was an MFA student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, took a job in 1986 with the California Theatre Center, the prestigious South Bay children’s company. Kramer also had a request shortly after coming to the South Bay from Dick Chudnow, the founder of the original Comedysportz – begin to build a San Jose company.
Gough and Ringgold were the first players at the first workshop, responding to flyers posted at San Jose State and Santa Clara University. That first moment of creating improv with Kramer in his living room was surreal. “At first we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” said Gough, who still continues to play and is also the theatre department chair at Foothill College.
Comedysportz San Jose founder Jeff Kramer. Photo by David John Chavez
That initial apprehension might have had something to do with rehearsal times – 8:30 am on Sundays in a small costume shop at Gough’s former elementary school. “You can imagine how fun that must have been,” said Gough.
Still, the pull on this new, revolutionary form of theatre remained intriguing. Kramer and his band of merry men continued to hone their craft, and finally premiered their show at the Bold Knight restaurant in September of 1987.
“SOMETIMES I FELT LIKE A CLOWN…”
In the company’s first five years, there were 11 venues. More if you count the moonlighting gigs.
“The three of us would perform at birthday parties,” said Ringgold with a hearty laugh. “We would go to these parties to try to get the word out. Sometimes I felt like a clown all dressed up.”
When the proverbial clown paint was cleaned off, they would go back to the real gigs. See if you might recognize any of these hot spots on the schedule – John Doe’s Pizza in Palo Alto on Thursdays, Hochburg Von Germania on Fridays, Brandons in Milpitas on Saturdays.
There were other venues, some with more success than others. Squeezers Burger Factory in West San Jose housed Comedysportz until their own demise. Kramer received a tip from the assistant manager that the restaurant was about to go under. A short time later, padlocks were slapped on the doors by creditors. But not before that assistant manager made sure to put the company’s belongings in the back alley for Kramer to grab and drop off at the next venue.
Everything changed in 1992. The dawn of a new era culminated with the opening of the Comedysportz Arena, which was a former workout gym on El Camino Real in Santa Clara. That home lasted for 11 years, finally giving way to a leaky roof and exorbitant rent.
After a short stint at Downtown San Jose’s Bella Mia Restaurant, the company moved to the Camera 3 Cinema’s on South 2nd Street, and have been there ever since. Their current home is quite the departure from their early nomadic days. Fresh popcorn, gourmet coffees and even fresh fruit are some of the fare that can be consumed while watching the show where audiences, known as “Tonight’s Loyal Fanz,” are expected to participate.
Jeff Kramer and Michael Wilcoxen delve into character during another
wacky Comedysportz improvisation game. Photo by David John Chavez
“THIS IS A HUGE DEAL.”
The show follows a tried and true format – two teams, the red and the blue, compete for audience laughs in a series of games. Audience members who hold the special “Judges Wapners,” consisting of a red and a blue flyswatter, have the privilege of judging the winners of each round. The show also always includes the national anthem, halftime, and a referee ready to call fouls on the “actletes,” or even the audience. And at the end of the show, the big plasma scoreboard reveals the winner of the match, while the players engage in a silly little epilogue, spoofing pop culture phenomenons such as “Police Squad,” or “Chariots of Fire.”
While the format of the show never changes (except for a special Friday “midnight” show, for adults only and where there are no rules of decorum), the content always does. It is a family friendly show, where there is no mention of religion or politics, and each improviser is well-versed in a series of games that tests their on-the-spot wit.
This rush of off-the-cuff, controlled chaos is what Gough has always loved about improv in general, and Comedysportz in particular.
“The most fun as a performer that continues to be appealing to me is the rush when everything is firing on all cylinders and the new players often push us old ones in new directions,” said Gough. “There is no kind of rush like when you’re creating something organically and it kind of smoothly jells together in a way that nobody can possibly foresee. That is very rewarding as a performer.”
Ringgold described his experience, which includes more than 3,000 shows, as one really long show. While improvisation acting was intriguing to him early on in the process, it was an improv tournament that garnered his attention and honed his focus.
“I remember going through my first tournament back in ’88 or ’89, and all of a sudden you see all these improvisers piling into the city, watching people that you know, performing in your city,” said Ringgold. “Seeing people from Kansas City, and New York City, I thought that this is much bigger than just the Bold Knight. This is a huge deal. I remember going away in awe and feeling that I need to get better, I need to really, really step up and learn the craft.”
ACCOLADES FROM EVERY CORNER
Now, more than 22 years later, the fruits of their labor are tangible. Comedysportz San Jose has received a myriad of commendations and awards. In addition to being the longest running show in the South Bay, the company has won Editor’s Choice from the Wave Magazine and was named “Best Local Theatre” by Metro Newspaper. Further shoving a feather in their cap, the company won the ComedySportz World Championship in 2006, performed at the prestigious Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal, and received a commendation from the city of San Jose for its 20th anniversary in 2007.
There are still plenty of goals to reach, but for now, they’re on pretty solid ground. The company is also still traveling around to different locations, but in a much different way. Comedysportz regularly books gigs at San Jose Giants games and Great America, to name a few. Many of Silicon Valley’s top companies have booked them for team building activities and corporate shows. And their high school league, which teaches young thespians all about improv and licenses teams to do the show, is one of the biggest of all the Comedysportz companies in the nation.
Even through the economic downturn, Comedysportz has still been able to thrive.
“Our ticket sales are up, but our corporate performances and teambuilding are down,” said Kramer. “We’re riding out the latest economic valley and waiting for the next peak.
“We have 25 players right now and their talent and enthusiasm is amazing. We have a very tight-knit group and they do a consistently funny and unique show three times a week.”
“WELL SON, YOU GUYS SUCKED.”
One of those players is Chris Scharmen, who just celebrated five years with the company on New Year’s Eve. It’s that feeling of standing at the edge of a cliff while an audience patiently waits for something, anything to happen, that has a hold on him.
“With ComedySportz, and all true improv, you are stepping onto that stage with absolutely NOTHING. No idea of what will happen next. No clue who will say the first line or even where the scene will go after a first line is spoken,” said Scharmen. “And for an audience watching it, it’s like being at a circus and watching trapeze artists with no net below them. You’re amazed when it all goes well. And even if they miss the bar it will still be memorable!”
Something that is memorable, but not necessarily in the best way, is one of Scharmen’s most vivid recollections of one of his first shows.
“My parents and sister came to see one of my earliest shows. It is the only time they have seen me perform professionally. It was my team’s turn on stage and I could just FEEL that our scene was going horribly. After the other team performed their scene it came time for the audience to vote. I looked up, and my mother was voting – for the OTHER team! I looked at her in shock! She just gave me a look that said, ‘Well son, you guys sucked.’ And you know what? She was right. We did. But still…”
“WE KEPT IT GOING BECAUSE WE LOVED DOING THE SHOW…”
Throughout the formative years of the company, there may have been many justifiable times that Kramer and friends might have thrown in the towel. Kramer admits that in a venture such as this one, there is never outright security. But if the first 22 years count for anything, rest assured that Comedysportz San Jose is not going anywhere.
“We kept it going because we loved doing the show so much,” said Kramer. “I think that’s what motivated us the most. I had seen it’s potential in Milwaukee and Madison and just didn’t want to stop being a part of it.”
Somewhere, a certain child who will turn 18 this year is most certainly grateful.
For more information on this weekend’s festivities, please visit http://25yearsoflaughs.com.