CINCINNATI -- The folks running ComedySportz Cincinnati take the "sports" part of the name seriously -- and with good reason.
ComedySportz, a comedic competition that pits two teams of improvisers in a head-to-head battle of funny, has franchises across the country and in Europe -- and now in Cincinnati, thanks to directors Kirk Keevert and Eileen Earnest with producing help from OTRimprov.
It has been a journey eight years in the making, said Keevert, an improviser, official ComedySportz Cincinnati referee and the driving force behind the local chapter. The basic concept of the game is this: Six players are divided into two teams of three, squaring off in multiple rounds of short-form improv games, with the winning team taking home a trophy and accolades. Short form is a specific kind of contained improvisation, based on an audience suggestion within the basic rules of each different short-form game.
Keevert was first introduced to the concept of clean (no cursing, all family-friendly content), lightning-fast, short-form improv games in Houston in 1991 and has played with various teams ever since.
"I moved here in 2009 to start one here," said Keevert. "It was a little hard, so I started an improv troupe with the intention of it becoming a ComedySportz; it instead became OTRimprov."
Following another move and then a return back to Cincinnati, Keevert never gave up on his dream. While Keevert was away, OTRimprov had taken off, performing out of the Know Theatre in Over-the-Rhine, producing an annual improv festival (IFCincy) and growing. Keevert saw this growth as an opportunity to restart his ComedySportz mission under the umbrella of OTRimprov and with fellow director Earnest.
After another year and a half and a lot of planning, ComedySportz Cincinnati was born.
"I signed on to ComedySportz in part because of my love of short-form improv, and in part because of Kirk's passion and excitement over the ComedySportz Match format," said Earnest, who joined OTRimprov in 2013. She eventually was named co-director of short form, making her a natural fit to help guide the short-form-driven ComedySportz.
"We practice the skill set just like a baseball team practices their skill set," said Keevert. "They have no idea what pitch is going to be thrown at them, we have no idea what's going to be thrown at us, so we practice the skill set. Just like in sports."
There are more than 100 short-form games on the official ComedySportz roster for Keevert and the cast members to choose from, many of them familiar to OTRimprov audiences and improv fans in general (think "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"). A few include: Emo Symphony, in which team members must create a vocal symphony based on a suggested emotion; Naive Replay, in which one team member creates a scene and the others come into the scene one by one, not knowing what already has been created; and one Keevert intends to have in every match, Five Things, in which audience suggestions are boiled down to five random things for one team member to mime out to the next.
If the games sound challenging, mentally rigorous and sometimes convoluted, they are. Short form requires improvisers to be ready for any suggestion, no matter how ludicrous, vague or enigmatic. (For instance, at the inaugural ComedySportz Cincinnati competition in February, two of the things in Five Things were a femur that a wizard used as a wand and the act of watercolor painting.)
"Each show, you have to be very aware of what's going on and always be aware of your presence and what you're offering," said Dave Powell, co-producer of OTRimprov and one of the ComedySportz cast members. "I think with ComedySportz, you're putting on the persona of an athlete, and as an improviser, being very aware of the moment and the overall show. You are more of a sprinter in competitive shows, whereas in long-form shows you're going to pace yourself like in a marathon."
Audience members pick up on the competitive nature of the sport, he said, and their collective energy feeds the players.
Along with generating suggestions for players to use in each game, the audience is also in charge of doling out points based on level of applause and keeping the game "clean"; anyone who suggests something that isn't family-friendly must put a brown paper bag over their head. Randomly selected audience members also become part of the show as "celebrity judges," picking the winning team for others.
Each win adds up in points, which are mostly arbitrary but ultimately decide the winner. A trophy is given to the winning team, Powell said, but it's returned at the next match and given out again.
"A lot of what the audience responds to is the joy that they see the players get from playing the game," said Keevert. "When things fall into place, the audience just eats it up, and even when they don't, the audience loves seeing us try."
Keevert hopes to see ComedySportz first expand its audience base -- the clean format makes it appropriate entertainment for church groups, school groups and corporate settings -- and then, as many other ComedySportz franchises have done, one day create a league for high-schoolers.
"It's community outreach that we're looking to do," he said. "We're looking to get people started in improv early."
ComedySportz plays at 8 p.m. Fridays in the Memorial Hall Studio, 1225 Elm St., in Over-the-Rhine. Typically, matches run about one hour and 45 minutes, including a halftime break. Tickets are $15.