Laugh your stress away with snicker therapy at comedy improv

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If you’ve been feeling a bit stressed with life lately, let me
suggest a form of mental readjustment I like to call

snicker therapy.

For the low, low price of $5, you can laugh your anxiety away by
watching me next Thursday make my debut in comedy improv.
If you’ve been feeling a bit stressed with life lately, let me suggest a form of mental readjustment I like to call “snicker therapy.” For the low, low price of $5, you can laugh your anxiety away by watching me next Thursday make my debut in comedy improv.

I discovered the art of comedy improv kind of by accident. A Silicon Valley CEO told me he overcame his public speaking fears by taking stand-up comedy classes and performing at a Sunnyvale nightclub called Rooster T. Feathers.

Prompted to try his method, I surfed the Internet for comedy classes and stumbled upon San Jose’s ComedySportz. The organization offers a series of workshops teaching people how to perform improv. I assumed improv was standup comedy where the comic, standing on the stage with microphone in hand, extemporaneously generated funny lines for the audience’s amusement.

At my first ComedySportz workshop class, I learned improv is not stand-up. It’s a theatrical performance where audience members provide suggestions such as famous people’s names, well-known products, movie quotes or whatever else a team of performers can incorporate into hilarious skits based on sets of rules.

Short-form skits – called “games” – last three to four minutes. Long-form skits last from 20 minutes to half an hour. Much like scripted theater plays, long-form improv can entertain audiences with an intricate plot full of quirky characters in conflict. They face humorous obstacles as the rising drama leads to a comical story climax.

Modern comedy improv has its roots in the commedia dell’art that was all the rage in 15th-century Italy. Traveling performers would set up make-shift stages in a village or public square and improvise comic dialogue for a pre-created scenario. Commedia dell’art died in popularity as modern staged theater immerged.

In the 20th century, the idea of improvised comic theater was revised by American acting teacher Viola Spolin. She devised a system to teach kids the craft of acting by using a series of fun games to present them with theater concepts.

An English drama teacher named Keith Johnstone co-founded the Loose Moose Theater in the 1970s in Calgary, Canada, where he invented Theatresports, a kind of hybrid of theater and team sports.

Two teams of improv performers compete in a series of games for points awarded by a referee serving as the master of ceremonies for the show. Audience participation is a key part of the fun.

In Milwaukee in 1984, improv guru Dick Chudnow spun off the ComedySportz theater based on Johnstone’s original Theatersports concept.

The idea was such a hit that a franchise of ComedySportz improvisational theaters grew throughout America.

Going through the San Jose ComedySportz workshops, I’ve discovered that improv has improved my creative thinking skills. When I’m on stage playing off the comical ideas my fellow teammates are putting into our improvised story, wonderfully wild ideas come to me on the fly. I’ll walk on stage without a clue what I’m going to say. Stepping into a character’s mindset, I find myself almost miraculously saying and doing comical things.

Silicon Valley companies often hire ComedySportz instructors to train their employees. Improv is particularly great for grid paper-oriented engineers because it helps them shift their paradigm of a problem and see new solutions. Comedy Sportz improv training also helps to stimulate corporate team-building and enhance employee morale.

In the South Valley region, I would love to see schools incorporate comedy improvisational theater into their extracurricular offerings. Improv could dramatically improve learning skills in children.

It can teach kids to use their imagination and get creative when they need to solve a problem. It can build greater confidence in public speaking and also enhance listening skills.

Improv might even be a better way to introduce kids to theater than the traditional method of putting on a scripted play. There’s no “star” performer, reducing jealousy and resentment that might arise in kids who get “spear-carrying” roles. Instead, everyone in comedy improv works together as a team – supporting each other when a fellow performer gets into a tight spot. Shy kids would blossom. Most of all, the sports aspect of comedy improv theater would lure a lot of boys – especially competitive teenage boys – into trying out this performing art.

Check out San Jose’s ComedySportz and find out for yourself how much hilarious fun comedy improv can be. In these stressful times, it’s a fun form of snicker therapy.

The ComedySportz troupe performs Fridays and Saturday nights at the Camera 3 cinema in downtown San Jose. Marty Cheek and six other ComedySportz Workshop Level 3 performers will perform at 8 p.m. Thursday. Tickets are $5 and can be reserved at comedysportzsanjose.com.

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