Part of a national chain of comedy clubs, this company is known for quick improv games (think Whose Line Is It Anyway?), but it also stages long-form improv. LCD screens and sophisticated lighting and sound systems amplify the sports-style improv of the company's eponymous production, ComedySportz. There's a snobbery in the Chicago improv community that looks up at the "art" of the long form, with its emphasis on story and characters, and down on the "entertainment" of the short, with its emphasis on games and punch lines. ComedySportz falls emphatically in the entertainment camp; its bottom line is laughter, and it gets plenty of it. The show is structured as a competition between two teams performing multiple games that require audience participation. A referee ensures that the players--a rotating roster from a company of about 50--work clean or they finish the game with a brown bag over their heads. The formula is practically foolproof: players may flash their quick wits in winning responses, but they're even funnier when they fail. In one game a team had to devise a pick-up line, each member contributing a word. Moving rapidly from player to player, the line developed: "Tonight-I'll-tango-with-your-face." Probably wouldn't work at a bar, but at ComedySportz it killed. --Ryan Hubbard $19
Last spring, five Second City faculty members inaugurated a troupe devoted to Stephen Sondheim. The mission? To dream up Sondheimesque musicals on the spot. One year later, the gambit has paid off. Their tribute trades a stable plot for riffs on characters and themes; their lyrics testify to their knack for internal rhyming. "Birthday" was the audience suggestion on the night I attended. The opening fanfare rapidly devolved into a cacophony of voices. After the prologue wrapped, the players introduced the show's central cog, Geraldine, a fresh-eyed high school dropout from Ohio who's trying her luck on Broadway. In Sondheim style, there's an absurd conceit: she intends to make it on the street, not onstage, handing out flyers—a job with more potential for rejection than a Broadway career. —Jena Cutie $15
It takes a great deal of good chemistry for an improv group to click—without it, funny riffs go hanging and good scenes are cut short. Dinner With the Elams has an unfair advantage in that department, as three of the performers are siblings and the other two are marrying into the family: joining Erica, Brett, and Scott Elam in the experienced team are Brett's fiancee, Jet Eveleth (artistic director of the Chicago Improv Festival), and Scott's fiancee, Lisa Burton. It's an enticing hook and makes for plenty of ribbing, like on the night I went, when Erica started off the show by having Scott tell how he lost his virginity. But it doesn't devolve into awkward teasing and gross-out humor, and only once did siblings threaten to kiss. Instead, the family builds scenes unselfishly, working as a really poised and awfully hilarious unit to bring out the best in each other. If their Thursday night show is this good, the family reunion must be formidable. —Asher Klein $12
Improv and stand-up comedy by Keenan Camp and Logan Dean.
Seven strapping men in swashbuckler shirts improvise a two-act Shakespearean play based on a title suggested by the audience. At the show I saw, "The Taming of the Jew" inspired the Bard's usual themes (religion, family, betrayal) and plot devices (murders, disguises, fortunes gained/lost) as well as an uncomfortably funny circumcision. Director-performer Blaine Swen, a veteran of long-form Shakespearean improv who swears they don't conspire during the intermission, has assembled a vigorous ensemble of actors and proven improvisers. Their experience doing Shakespeare flowers in the language: they relish iambic dialogue, execute perfectly timed asides, occasionally utter rhyming couplets (some hilariously forced: "Let us be quick-sa, and get to the bar mitzvah!"), and drop parodic phrases ("scurvenous knave," "midfortnight report") and well-placed anachronisms (the bar mitzvah had a DJ). Even the ending echoed the real plays: story lines resolved tidily--and uproariously. (RH) $14
The current incarnation of director Jason R. Chin's production is smart. On the night I attended this show, based on audience contributions of news stories, a sketch involving Bipedal Locomotion Enterprises would have taken a prize for vocabulary alone. The ten-member ensemble also made casual references to Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and William Golding. And how many twentysomethings can do an accurate Alfred Hitchcock impression extempore? Instead of going for the broad and vulgar, these folks more often opt for the microcosmic. A patriarchal defense of polygamy is transformed into a wife lamenting the responsibilities of having multiple husbands. A report about terrorists plotting via Internet cafes sparks visions of subversive activities impeded by spam, pop-ups, and IMing. The players exhibit a genuine rapport: articulate dialogue unfolds logically, swiftly, and concisely. --Mary Shen Barnidge $14
Written by three alums of the memorably bizarre TV sketch show The State, this antic 1998 farce gets its first Chicago staging from Chemically Imbalanced Comedy. Equal parts sharp self-awareness and broad buffoonery, it feels like something that could have been written yesterday—at least under Angie McMahon's whip-smart direction. The story, such as it is, concerns a Teaneck, New Jersey, sheriff's battle to rid his town of the evil Tad Theaterman, who controls a local empire of hookers and gigolos and is known for what he calls his "asshole ways." But the show's real strength is its unrelenting train of gags, and McMahon mainlines them with a wide bore. It's a powerful combination of intentionally dumb material and eagle-eyed comedic execution. —Keith Griffith $15
I'm pretty sure I fall outside the Cupid Players' target demographic. Judging by this show's content, the troupe's ideal audience member is young enough to be weirded out by the thought of his parents having sex but old enough to worry that he's starting to act like his dad. He dreads romantic rejection almost as much as he fears commitment. And he's not above a hand of strip solitaire. A longtime married man with kids, I don't merely fail to fit the profile--I may be its antithesis. But I had a great time with Cupid Has a Heart On all the same. Directed by Brian Posen, who also plays piano and sings barbershop bass, this late-night show takes a standard element of improv revues--the satirical song--and makes it a raison d'etre. A charmingly goofy cast of ten performs no less than 15 original ditties, mostly keyed to the sensibility of the young, single, heterosexual urban male on the make. That this doesn't result in an unwatchable testosterone fest is testament to a wit that's always firmly based in character and in situations that remain truthful however far they get pushed. Also see this Reader's Choice review and video clip from the 2008 Best Of Chicago issue. --Tony Adler $20
Baby Wants Candy--a tight troupe now famous for its improvised musicals--began in 1997 as one of the dozens of ImprovOlympic teams formed every year. Somehow they've avoided the usual dissolution of such groups. More impressive, they've never experienced the artistic conservatism that paralyzes improvisers eager to "do it right"--and reap the reward, presumably, of a career in NYC or LA. Instead the troupe has become the very model of smart, physical, quick-thinking, and just plain silly long-form improvisers; they still play well together and manage to entertain. Inspired by the improbable suggestion "So this is it" at the show I saw, nine actors (backed by the five-member Yes Band) improvised a complicated, hilarious, tongue-in-cheek tale of three partnerships on the rocks--two marriages and a professional relationship--and the narrator who helps bring the couples back together. --Jack Helbig $15
At the start of each show an all-star ensemble creates a tableau onstage, then asks after a blackout, "Where in Chicago did that take place?" "Soccer practice" was the response the night I was there, and after an hour the improvisers--intensely alert and feisty--had crafted a veritable community, complete with idiosyncratic characters, unpredictable backstory, and tragicomic intrigue. Veteran T.J. Jagodowski, recognizable from a series of Sonic commercials he's done with quick-witted cast member Peter Grosz, played a thick-accented German coach. Abruptly launching a new scene by charging to the front of the stage, he squatted and gestured as he yelled at his coed youth team, "I will yank on your nuts like the Hunchback of Notre Dame working a bell!" --Ryan Hubbard $8
Susan Messing's weekly show, where she pairs off with a guest "friend" for an hour of purely improvised comedy, is one of the funniest entertainments in town. Messing is deeply talented: her acting is focused and nuanced, and she's got one of the the sharpest shit-detectors around, allowing her to cut or extend scenes like a good director. She works with a different "friend" at nearly every performance, often for the first time ever, and each prods her in unpredictable ways. But Messing stays on her toes, finding newer and quirkier characters—like a chatty old lady who sings musical numbers and pop songs at work or a wife from a 1940s screwball comedy who encourages her husband to tie her up—and the proportion of what works to what doesn't is a testament to her congeniality, experience, and broad intelligence. Messing was my pick for Best Improviser in the Reader's 2008 Best Of Chicago issue. --Ryan Hubbard $5
Five-minute performances by stand-up and sketch comics. $5
Hosted by Bretty Lyons and Nathan Jansen, audience members are invited to perform improv with some of iO's "best veterans."
Like the Cupid Players, another musical comedy act that performs at iO, the Deltones have a penchant for the nasty and the absurd. But unlike the Players, the Deltones improvise. Accompanied by veteran iO keyboardist Dave Asher, they create varied song structures and impressively catchy lyrics, and demonstrate a good feel for when to turn scenes into tunes, capitalizing on fortuitous openings in plot or character development. At the show I saw, the suggestion of "couch" led to an authentic long-form piece with intertwining characters--including a hilarious couch potato who fell onto a plumber, prompting her husband to beg, "Aw, don't pull tools out of your folds, hon!" (RH) $14
Sketch comedy inspired by children from two Avondale grade schools; some of the skits are performed in Spanish. $5-$10