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ComedySportz has been an online winner with its improv shows — and vows to stay ‘digital first’

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 1/22/2021 Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune
a group of people posing for the camera: ComedySportz Chicago has found success with its online shows and now pulls from a national audience. © ComedySportz/TNS ComedySportz Chicago has found success with its online shows and now pulls from a national audience.

CHICAGO — In a conversation some days ago with Jason Geis, the artistic director of the Chicago improv company known as ComedySportz, I heard something I’d not heard said before.

Geis said that he now wants ComedySportz, a national theater-games franchise with a longstanding Chicago location on Belmont Avenue in Lakeview, to be a “digital-first theater.”

Permanently.

Digital first?

That succinct dictum is familiar to those of us who work, or who have worked, at a newspaper or magazine. Over at least the last decade, those two words have been used as a corporate call to arms to persuade change-averse journalists who still love the smell of ink and paper to think less about an allegedly archaic printed product and more about serving the online environment, allegedly the entire future.

But a theater? Can an analogue theater really be digital first? Should it be? Would it not then cease to be a theater?

These are all questions we never thought we’d be asking. But then, a lot of stuff has happened that we did not predict.

I’d actually called Geis to find out how ComedySportz was doing, given the disastrous year that has befallen mostly for-profit Chicago’s improv community.

iO Theater, the improv theater in Lincoln Park known for its prominent role in developing new talent, has gone out of business. Second City remains up for sale; its Chicago theaters are shuttered and, some virtual programming notwithstanding, the company has not chosen to move either its justly beloved mainstage or its e.t.c. comedy revues online. The new executive producer, Jon Carr, has yet to say anything in public about his vision for the near- or long-term, including how the company will relate to the online/live nexus.

Annoyance Theatre was an early adopter of online fare (it even locked in some actors and put up virtual shows back in March), but as the months of the pandemic have dragged on, it’s become more clear that its heart clearly remains lodged in the live experience.

Understandably. It’s a live theater. Mick Napier, the artistic director, chose not to go to Hollywood for that very reason.

But Geis said that ComedySportz was, in fact, thriving online. So much so, it does not intend to quit that space when live performance resumes.

“I suppose it came down to the gamble that any theater had to make,” he said, “and some people clearly decided that improv doesn’t work online. That was probably the right gut reaction for a lot of people. But we thought we could make it happen.”

If you’ve been to ComedySportz over the last couple of decades, you’ll know its raucous shows have a competitive, sports-like structure of improv games, complete with rosters of players, fouls and referees. Ever since its beginnings in Milwaukee in the mid-1980s, the populist theater has been a far cry from the kind of Del Close-inspired long-form improv you could find at places like iO, known for experimentation and artistic risk-taking before a respectful and mostly quiet audience.

Not so good for Zoom.

ComedySportz, which is actually a for-profit franchise with outposts in multiple cities, long has been more targeted to a youthful general audience looking for a good night out with friends. And much of its income has come from group sales. Like WhirlyBall or other similar sports-themed operations, ComedySportz has been known as somewhere fun and nonthreatening that corporations could take employees to promote team building and an esprit de corps.

“I actually think we had an advantage because the format of our show is so easy for people to understand,” Geis said. “We could move online more quickly and easily and we also decided straight away to make sure our shows remained super-interactive. We say ‘hi’ to people. We make sure we say their names. That is what we’ve always done and people now are craving that kind of interaction.”

ComedySportz is not, of course, the only live-performance entity to realize that the online programming has palpable advantages, such as the ability to attract a national audience of a size that could not be fit into a single building. Many of the other ComedySportz franchises have not moved online in a similar way, meaning that fans of the format from across the country have been gravitating to the Chicago operation. “We started with our Chicago audience and our local fan base,” Geis said, “but things really grew from there.”

Financially, it’s more complicated. The shows, which use the Twitch streaming platform (a subsidiary of the e-commerce giant Amazon), were initially set up as pay as you wish, with any revenue mostly being split among performers. Audiences who liked the show were asked to visit a Gofundme page.

But in recent weeks, Geis said, the theater has started encouraging people to become ComedySportz channel “affiliates” and online subscribers, resulting in a growing revenue share with the theater.

Meanwhile, of course, the second-floor theater and bar on Belmont Avenue remains closed. Geis said the landlord had been helpful with rent concessions, the theater was helped with some payroll protection plan funding, and, as with most other bars, restaurants and leisure attractions in the city, there is hope of a return to live performance in coming weeks or months, as regulations permit.

“But we won’t stop doing the virtual shows, ever,” Geis said. “We want to add more online content. New shows. We really created a big new network for ourselves now and we want to try and keep everything viable, everything growing.”

In whatever new world awaits.

ComedySportz shows can be seen online at twitch.tv/csznchicago.

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