NEW YORK — On a hot night in the East Village, Mark Hervey is down on one knee on the stage, arms spread, as music from an offstage keyboard drips with a soulful rendition of "Pagliacci."
Then Mr. Hervey belts out in makeshift Italian the beginning of a four-minute opera, "O tiramissuuuuu!"
The audience at the tiny Telephone Bar and Grill loves it.
Welcome to a new kind of comedy improvisation, an art form older than opera. "We're also cheaper than a movie," says Mike Rock, the leader of the New York team in "ComedySportz," a league of competitive comedy improvisation teams in 25 cities across the United States.
Launched in l987, the ComedySportz concept hinges on a competitive "sporting event" between two teams of as many as five or six players. They engage in a series of improvisations, such as guessing games using physical descriptions and indirect verbal suggestions, or short operas or plays based on audience-designated titles. Word games blend with tag games to move the fun from one performer to another.
Judges are picked from the audience. A referee calls fouls, and throughout the fun, swift wit holds hands with the Marx Brothers. Points are scored by inciting laughter during four-minute spurts.
Quick, cool, zany, and consistently inventive, the performers bounce across a spectrum of ideas and situations at rocket speed, feeding off one another. The audience, invited to suggest ideas or pulled onstage, is drawn into the action. The result is an unrehearsed night of nonstop fun, unique among today's comedy offerings.
The Milwaukee Sentinel has called the teams in the league "comic gladiators, [turning] the audiences inside out."
Off-color and suggestive humor is banned in ComedySportz. "Audiences really enjoy the fact that we are clever and sophisticated without being degrading or debasing," says Mr. Rock. "It forces us to find the humanity in the relationships we find onstage."
Use an off-color word or suggestion, and the referee bestows a "brown-bag foul." The offender has to wear a paper bag over his or her head for a short time.
To assure a flow of performers, some cities in the league offer workshops for those who come to a ComedySportz improv event, laugh their heads off, and then say, "I want to try that." Each city has a stable of anywhere from 10 to 35 performers, many of them performing for the sheer fun of it. Ninety percent of them have day jobs.
"In New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, the stakes are a little different," says Rock, "because people there want to be onstage or in acting as a profession."
On the small stage at the Telephone Bar and Grill in the East Village, New York's ComedySportz team tonight is in reality mostly a collection of young displaced comedians from Madison, Wis.
"One guy decided to come to New York after graduating from college," says Lee Becker, a New York performer, "and we all followed."
Comedy improv's roots
What they have in common is a skill that predates written language: the oral tradition of telling stories. Improvisation, as the modern world knows it, may have begun with traveling troupes in Europe, probably in the early 1600s.
But ComedySportz has its roots in the idea of improvisational games of TheaterSports, developed at the University of Calgary in Alberta and from Viola Spolin's ideas in the 1920s about teaching acting through games. The popular "Second City" improv theater in Chicago was the pioneering leader.
In l985, Dick Chudnow organized the first ComedySportz presentation in Milwaukee - still running strong - and now oversees the loose, friendly league around the country using the ComedySportz name as a trademark.
"We'd like to be recognized as the McDonald's of entertainment," he says, "and sooner or later we will be like the NFL and call ourselves the Comedy League of America, with competition among cities on TV."
Mr. Chudnow was one of the founders of the Kentucky Fried Theater that flourished in Los Angeles for many years.
Each year, many of the teams gather near Chicago to compete in the National ComedySportz Championship. This year the event was held in Rock Island, Ill., from Aug. 5 to 9.
In Milwaukee, Bob Orvis runs ComedySportz's successful foray into entertainment for corporate events. Intel, Tektronix, Hewlett-Packard, Sears, and many other companies have laughed at ComedySportz or done team-building workshops with the performers.
"We do about 300 shows a year," Mr. Orvis says. "I've made a living booking the shows and performing, but I would have probably done better as an accountant."
ComedySportz performers are usually paid modestly with a percentage of tickets sales. ComedySportz have been a hit on college campuses, and some cities have high school leagues.
Troupes of camaraderie
What draws performers to ComedySportz, and becomes like adhesive, is the camaraderie of the group. "I love creating something on the stage, especially in this environment," says Hervey. "We have performed so long together that the level of trust and creativity that happens I have never been able to find in any other part of my life. I feel very fortunate."
An audience knows when improv performers are just barely capable of handling the demands of being quick and funny, and totally unrehearsed. "Improv always makes me nervous," says Shira Margulies, a camp counselor seated in the New York audience at the Telephone Bar and Grill. "A lot of people try hard to do improv but die a horrible death onstage," she says. "You have to be very bright to do this, and this group makes you totally comfortable because they are so good."
Seven of the New York team - Dan Berrett, Dan Flemming, Joey Garfield, Josh Lewis, Chris Tallman, Hervey, and Rock - have successfully formed a scripted comedy troupe named "The Bert Fershners" (cleverly like "Monty Python").
Recently they appeared on TV's Comedy Central with a parody of "The Sound of Music" wearing flannel nightgowns. They have also released a music video and appeared in New York's top comedy clubs. The New York Post said ComedySportz "can sketch rings around 'Saturday Night Live.' "