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|Never Follow a Hypnotist: Recollections, Reflections, and Advice from Veteran ComedySportz Players|
|News/Features - Comedy|
|Written by Mike Schulz|
|Wednesday, 11 July 2007 03:00|
I'm sitting with three of the early, still-active members of Rock Island's improvisational comedy troupe, ComedySportz: Jeff Adamson, Don Abbott, and Brad Hauskins. Original team member - and current Californian - Tom Hart is joining us, and for this gathering of improv veterans, Jeff has brought along an album, filled with ComedySportz photographs and news clippings from the early 1990s.
Some of those in the photos are still with the organization. Most aren't. And when Brad lands on a picture that features the smiling visages of Jeff, Don, Tom, and himself, he's quick to point out that something else is no longer with the organization, either.
"Look at that," Brad says, pointing at a 15-years-younger version of himself. "Hair."
He then points to the image of Tom. "Hair." Then Jeff. "Hair." Then Don. "Hair." (It should be said, though, that Don still has his hair; in the photo, he just had more of it.)
Hairlines may have receded - or vanished entirely - for these four ComedySportz performers, but their passion for the group they've been associated with since 1990 doesn't appear to have abated one bit.
Today, ComedySportz plays to frequently sold-out crowds every Friday and Saturday evening in downtown Rock Island, performs out-of-town shows (referred to as "remotes") for colleges, businesses, and special events, and is currently hosting the ComedySportz World Championship Tournament, which finds 14 national teams and the Manchester, England, players facing off in a four-day series of improv competitions. The annual tournament, which originated in Milwaukee in 1988, was previously held in Rock Island in 1997 and 2002; the city's team won its final match - and the title of "world champions" - both times.
(Asked if the results are fixed, Jeff says, "Not really. It's hard to lose at your home venue, but I've seen it happen; I've seen other cities beat out the home city. So it is possible that we could blow it.")
Since their ComedySportz debuts in 1990 - Jeff and Tom were among the group's original 13 members, with Don and Brad joining some three months later - a lot has changed. Jeff Adamson, who has been ComedySportz's manager since 1991, became its co-owner (with Circa '21 producer Dennis Hitchcock) in 1997, owns and operates Mama Compton's in downtown Rock Island, and currently serves as chair of the District of Rock Island's board of directors. Tom Hart, who still performs improvisational comedy in southern California, is an Emmy-nominated children's-television writer; a feature film he co-wrote - Care Bears: Oopsy Does It! - is scheduled to hit theaters later this summer. Don Abbott, a nurse at Genesis Medical Center East, is also a certified hypnotist, ordained minister, and, as he defines it, all-around "computer guy." And Brad Hauskins, a frequent stage presence at Circa '21, is head Bootlegger for the venue's staff of performing waiters. (He's also my freshman-year college roommate and - for the second time - a proud papa, as he and his family welcomed Daniel Preston Hauskins into the world on July 3.)
I should mention at this point that I was a ComedySportz member from early 1993 through 1995; I played alongside Jeff, Don, and Brad, and saw Tom perform in the years before my participation. And I'll readily admit that improvisational comedy just wasn't my bag. I always had a great time once the shows were over - they were enormous fun to reflect on - but I was a nervous wreck before they began, and those nerves only slightly abated once I was actually on stage. In short, I will forever be in awe of performers who can get through a ComedySportz show without shaking in their boots.
So I'm gonna shut up and let them talk. Here are a few of the tales recalled and lessons learned, along with some favorite memories. Over 17 years, chances are you have a few of your own.
[See "A ComedySportz Primer" for an explanation of ComedySportz terms, along with the organization's history.]
Loading Up the Shotgun
Jeff: My wife saw the audition in the paper. She said, "Why don't you go audition?" I said, "I'm not gonna audition! What do I know about improv?" "Aw, go ahead. Audition. You always liked doing comedy." She kept on me and kept on me to the point where I said, "Okay, fine. I'll go over there, I'll make a total ass of myself, and I hope you're happy."
Don: Little did he know that's what they wanted him to do.
Tom (to Jeff): I still remember the audition that we did together. It was a shotgun wedding. I remember you were loading up the shotgun, and you were talking about how you knew it was me because I was missing my two front teeth, and your daughter had a hickey, and you could tell.
Jeff: None of us had ever done improv before. Nobody. No-o-o-body. This was a new animal to us.
Brad: I still remember my very first show. I remember games that I played in that thing, I remember lines that I did in that show ... the first laugh I got.
Jeff: My first show, I was doing "Forward/Reverse" with Jon Horvath. I lassoed him because he got out of the corral. I remember getting off the stage, and I'm so wired I didn't go to sleep for like six hours after that.
Don: I remember the first rehearsal that Brad and I were in together. The first scene.
Brad: It was "Changing Emotions."
Don: When they said, "Begin," both of us started talking, and neither one of us shut up or listened to the other person.
Brad: They just stopped us in the middle of it and went, "Hold it! Hold it! One of you has to stop talking." It was improv. I thought I was supposed to talk.
The Clean Umbrella
Tom: I can remember saying "crap" on stage and getting brown-bagged for that, when I'm doing it as a reference to riverboat gambling, as in "craps." I said "craps" and got brown-bagged for that. There's a lot of stuff you guys can't get away with here that's well within the "clean umbrella" elsewhere.
Don: Other ComedySportz teams are much more risqué than we are.
Jeff: We're more 1980s TV.
Don: At the same time, I don't know many people in the group that complain about it.
Brad: I think it's absolutely necessary.
Don: I think it's necessary, and I think that we're kind of proud of that.
Brad: The easiest way out for any comedian is to get up and do some shocking stuff, some sexual humor, talk about their dick, anything like that.
Jeff: I got brown-bagged back at RIBCO. It was an "Emotional Replay" scene, and we were building a house or something like that, and one of the emotions was "romantic." So I came into the scene and someone said, "You look exhausted." And I said, "Yeah, I've been in the other room laying carpeting ... ." "Wait! Brown-bag!" "What? I'm laying carpeting!" "Yeah, we know what you meant ... ."
Don: One of my favorites was one time, with Jeff reffing ... .
Jeff: Oh, no.
Don: He was just explaining the fouls.
Jeff: I meant to say "blow the whistle" ... .
Don: And he said, "And if this should happen, I'll blow the blue team ... ." And then he stopped, and just looked up and went, "Blow the blue team?! Did I actually say that?!"
Jeff: Sometimes you surprise yourself. Sometimes you live up to your low expectations.
Don: I remember doing a scene with Louie [Naab] once. It was in the Grand Canyon, and one of us was like a miner or something. And Louie came out and said, "Hey ... nice ass." 'Cause I had a donkey. And I said, "Yep. Love my ass." And he came over and said, "Hey! Get off my ass!" The whole thing was just all of these "ass" jokes that we did not get brown-bagged on because it was within the context of the scene.
Tom: And I couldn't say "craps"? I'm still mad about that.
Jeff: I don't get nervous anymore.
Tom: I wish I got nervous like I used to. Because I don't have that new-player nervousness, and I think that's energy that gets added into your performance ... . I have to try to manufacture it in many ways.
Don: For years, right before a show, I would go out and try to get myself as down as I could get. I would just say ugly things to myself just to bring myself down, because if I got on stage with that kind of energy, then I had to pull it out of my ass.
Brad: I get nervous when I ref. In reffing, there's a certain amount of structure - you have to have some lines learned, you have to have some stuff that isn't improvisational. So you get nervous because you want to make sure you get all that right.
Jeff: I think anybody can do improv. I really do. The funnier a scene gets, the more serious you play it.
Brad: All you have to do is get into the moment, know who you are, know who everybody else is, and everything will fall into place.
Don: I think one of the hardest things is to un-teach funny. Un-teaching funny is the hardest, because you have people that go, "I'm funny! I'm gonna be in ComedySportz!" And then they train and bring their bits on stage.
Brad: We attract a lot of people who see ComedySportz and think that that will make them funny. And it really doesn't work that way. Your job, really, is not to quickly think of something funny. Your job is to play that game, be that character, and you will get those laughs and you'll see something honest in a moment, when you didn't think it was gonna be funny and it was.
Jeff: Here's the beauty of ComedySportz: We're each other's safety nets. So when I'm on stage, my job is to make Brad look good. Brad's job is to make Tom look good. Tom's supposed to make Don look good.
Brad: I have the hardest job of all, I guess ... .
Jeff: So I don't have to worry. If I go up there, and I start to suck, and my stuff doesn't work, I know that these guys are gonna step in front of me, and take the scene over. We're not stand-ups, where if you're up there and you suck, you're suckin' by yourself.
Tom: Your job is to make your partner look good. You're taking care of them, and as long as somebody's taking care of you, then you have no worries.
Don: It's about the scene. You're not up there to be funny, you're up there to be as honest as you can be.
Bring on the Singer!
Tom: I love it when the place is packed. The shows generally go much better when there's a full house. But I mean I've done shows where we've performed for fewer than 12 people and had great shows.
Brad: The hardest thing about those small shows is getting the players to understand that you can't blame the people who are there for the people who aren't. A lot of times when we look at the audience and there's 20 people there, the first tendency is almost to get up on stage and apologize, and make all these comments about, "Well, we'll take a suggestion from each of you 'cause there's nobody here tonight, so ... ." And it's really not fair. These are the people who showed up, you know? You wanna get mad at people, go out in the street and start yelling at people who didn't.
Don: If the audience is there, that adds no extra pressure to me. I want to make sure they're having a great time, but even if the crowd isn't there, I don't know that I'd work any less on stage. It's therapy. It's just letting go. Nobody does this, I don't think, for the money. It's not like anybody says, "I'm gonna work my way up in ComedySportz until I'm making the big bucks there, then I'm gonna jump over to Improv Olympics ... !"
Brad: The remotes that we do sometimes are difficult.
Don: A lot of times they're told it's improv comedy, so they're sittin' back waiting for the "shit"s and "fuck"s and things like that, and when we don't do that, they get turned off.
Brad: We'll get hired to do a remote for a Christmas party or something like that, and they're just drunk off their ass and they really just want to see us drop our pants and stuff like that.
Don: Which costs extra.
Brad: You should never follow a hypnotist, I'll tell you that. We did an after-prom once ... and there was this hypnotist, and we were supposed to go up 15 minutes after him. And they all got up after the hypnotist. It was like the mall - they were everywhere. So they announced that ComedySportz was going to start in a couple of minutes. Nobody came over. We were just standing there, wondering what we should do. Finally, these three girls came in. So I got up and said, "Hi! We're ComedySportz!" And these three girls got up and walked away.
Don: There was one [a remote] over in Davenport, and outdoors. And it was so hot. And there was a drunk woman in back going, "Bring on the singer!" She was the singer.
Jeff: We needed a suggestion at one point - we needed a title - and she yelled out, "The People Who Wouldn't Leave!"
The Ugly Stepchild
Don: I remember the first tournament we went to. People coming up to us and saying, "Where are you from?" "Rock Island." "Oh. Okay." And walking away. We had to hang out with ourselves because no one would talk to us.
Brad: We were the ugly stepchild.
Jeff: Oh, they hated us! They just hated us for years. And then they sort of realized we weren't going away, so it was like, "All right, I'll acknowledge your existence."
Brad: I always felt like we were the struggling group, but we had a turning point. We had Kansas City in. And they're kicking our asses. And we did a "Musical Comedy" scene. It was Cinderella.
Don: Brad was the prince and I was Cinderella.
Brad: I still remember doing "Mack the Knife" and singing, "Don't forget to / Leave your left shoe / So I can find you / Later on ... ."
Jeff: We waited three minutes because the crowd would not shut up.
Brad: We got a standing ovation, we had to take a curtain call ... .
Don: It was like the first time that we actually did a harmony. And one of us would sing a line and the other would sing the next line ... it was like, "Wow."
Brad: That was like the first sort of rock 'n' experience that I had with ComedySportz.
Don: I think the first time we won a tournament, all of a sudden people just went, "Holy crap. Look at the following these people have. Look at the venue that they have. Look at the support they have."
Jeff: One thing people still talk about was in 1997, where we were on stage against New York. And New York had rock-solid performers. I was reffing the scene, we were doing "Styles Replay," and I said, "Give me something for us to work with. Anything." Somebody yells out, "Silence!" So I gave the [Rock Island] performers "silence." The scene was based in a library - a one-minute scene - and then they came back and repeated that exact same scene in three different styles without ever saying a word.
Don: And it just rocked.
Jeff: And all the players in the balcony - 150 ComedySportz players in the balcony - gave us a standing ovation. So it's in those little moments like that. "Oh yeah. That's why we do ComedySportz."
The 2007 ComedySportz World Championship takes place July 11 through 14, with matches at Rock Island's ComedySportz venue, the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, and Heritage Wesleyan Church. For a complete schedule of events, visit (http://www.comedysportzchampionship.com).
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