A rash of comedy competitions pits jokesters against each other in a showdown for audience approval
Every six weeks for the past year and a half, the theater company Chemically Imbalanced Comedy has launched a brand-new Friday night show. On the plus side, this schedule meant plenty of opportunities for ensemble members to flex their comedic muscles. On the minus side, the hectic timetable meant the group was creatively tapped out and nearly broke.
"Our company members would get exhausted not only trying to come up with a new show, but also trying to market something all new every six weeks—and trying to find a new audience every six weeks," says Angie McMahon, the group's executive director.
Then CIC hatched an idea: a two-month-long contest pitting sketch comedians, improvisers and stand-up comics (many of whom perform in the company's regular Saturday night showcase) against each other in a weekly elimination. "We decided if we did a competition, not only would it be easy to put up, but because the performers would want to win they would bring as many friends as possible to vote for them. Thus our marketing is much easier," McMahon says.
And so began King of the Mountain.
Sneaky? Maybe. But Jay Gish, whose sketch troupe, Q–5, takes the stage for its KOTM matchup in a couple of weeks, looks at it differently. "You'd like to be as hot a performer as you can every time," he says. "But getting a reaction from a big crowd unavoidably makes you better." Big crowd, better performance, everybody wins.
Chemically Imbalanced isn't the only company in town hoping to boost its spring schedule with a competition. ComedySportz, the well-established short-form improv theater, is in the midst of its March Madness tournament. Throughout the month, the company is replacing its usual Thursday and Friday matchups—which, like most competitive improv, mean nothing after the show concludes—with a contest to determine which members of its ensemble earn the title "Downtown Chicago Bosses," a worthy, albeit minor, honor.
Meanwhile, Dave Odd, a local stand-up comedian who produces innumerable open-mike nights and showcases across the city, has launched another in his series of contests called The Edge $500 Comedy Competition. Unlike many of his other events, this one dangles a cash prize in an effort to draw Chicago's top up-and-coming stand-up talent to the weekly showcase at Cafe Amante.
Most improv skirmishes can't match this generous reward, but performers still take the cash-free face-offs just as seriously. "I think a lot of players put more pressure on themselves, because losing these shows is really losing something," says Molly Hale, still smarting from the recent elimination of Chicks with Picks, her March Madness team. "It really felt bad when we didn't win at the end."
The excitement of competition not only offsets the possibility of a painful defeat, but it adds an exciting level of pressure, Hale says. "There's more adrenaline going, because there's more tension between the groups," she says.
Jeff Grace, a stand-up comedian and member of sketch troupe The Mantasticks, agrees. "You want to win, so it forces you to focus a little more, to have a tight set. The quality of everyone's show goes up a little," he says. "I think in general, it brings out better comedy."
If nothing else, adding a competitive element simply tacks on a twist to an otherwise stakes-free genre. "It's a layer on top of what you would normally do," Gish says. "Usually, you do a show and beat yourself up or congratulate yourself, but with this, there's an added element of, 'Did we succeed or did we fail?'"
But McMahon of CIC thinks the desire runs deeper, all the way to our genetically imprinted urge to one-up the other guy. "People have an instinct to win, especially in show business, where artists seek approval through love from strangers—applause—to fulfill something they need," she says. "To win a competition is just another outlet for approval, so they do their best."
As an audience member, seeing these shows provides a familiar thrill. "It's the closest thing to reality TV that you can get live because you choose the outcome," McMahon says. "Like American Idol, but funnier."
March Madness plays Thursdays and Fridays through April 1 at ComedySportz. King of the Mountain continues Fridays through April 29. The Edge runs Fridays through April 1 at Cafe Amante.