By the time Randy Reese had entered his 32nd straight hour of improv comedy at North Tonawanda's Riviera Theatre, he was just about ready to collapse.
In a marathon fundraiser at the theater in late April, Reese and a dozen other die-hard members of the plucky improv troupe known as ComedySportz stretched their funny bones to the limit to raise money for a trip to the organization's world championship in Portland, Ore. After the nonstop "improvathon" finally came to a close, Reese said, "I was sick for a week."
Suffice to say that the motley cast of volunteers who make up Buffalo's ComedySportz team, which performs 50 shows a year, will go to superhuman lengths to make you laugh.
Since launching the group -- one of 21 chapters of the international ComedySportz franchise -- in 1993, Reese and his growing comedy collective have performed hundreds of shows in half a dozen venues around Western New York. And on Saturday, they'll celebrate their 15th anniversary of continuous chuckle production with a performance featuring a host of local television and radio personalities, curious giveaways and the group's trademark brand of audience participation.
But despite its self-billed status as Western New York's longest-running comedy show, the ever-shifting group still floats far below the cultural radar of most Western New Yorkers. For that reason, a little explanation of its madcap M.O. is in order.
As one might infer from the title, ComedySportz is thematically organized as an athletic competition, complete with the national anthem, a bona fide halftime period and various types of "fouls" that audiences can call on players. Two uniformed teams -- one red, one blue -- face off against one another in a series of increasingly complex comedy games officiated by a referee in full black-and-white-striped getup. Audience members are almost constantly pumped for suggestions, turning the evening into a kind of symbiotic Mad-Lib where actors transform the whims of the crowd into clean, old-fashioned and only mildly irreverent comedy.
For all the moans this statement will surely cause among the troupe's elder statesman, a ComedySportz show is like a slightly more competitive and audience-friendly version of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?", the television show that, for better or worse, introduced the world to Wayne Brady. But the Milwaukee-based founders of ComedySportz are quick to point out that their project, founded in 1984, preceded the United Kingdom-born "Whose Line" by several years.
During more than a decade of regular performances, in venues ranging from an East Buffalo Holiday Inn to the now-defunct Comix Cafe in Tonawanda, Buffalo's version of ComedySportz has attracted its share of fiercely devoted fans. And at a performance earlier this month at the Riviera (the troupe's current home base), they were out in force.
Michael Bass is a ComedySportz true believer. He has been coming for 11 years -- and rarely misses a week. His reasons for that degree of unwavering loyalty are simple.
"There isn't anything else like it, at all," said a resolute Bass, dressed in jeans and a Buffalo Bills sweat shirt and sitting knee-to-knee with the rest of the die-hard fans in the theater's front row. "If you see a comedian twice, you know his whole bit. This is different every single week. And the words coming from the audience are never the same, so they're always acting out different stuff every week. You never know what you're gonna get."
It also doesn't hurt that the performances (with the exception of the 15th anniversary show) are funded by donation only. That's one of the main draws for Kevin Larsen, a Batavia resident who has been coming to ComedySportz shows since he found the group through a Google search over the summer.
Bass, though, admits a personal hankering to be up onstage himself. He has participated in two of the improv and stand-up comedy classes offered by Reese, which aspiring ComedySportz members have to complete before they're able to join the collective. At the marathon improv session in April, Bass won a chance to perform with the troupe and managed to get a standing ovation from the crowd. But he's still humbled by the troupe's seemingly endless ability to create hilarious situations out of practically nothing at all.
"I've taken the course, but I'm not good enough," Bass said. Still, he touted the major impact the troupe's performances have had on to his life. "I won't move to another city unless they have a ComedySportz there," he added.
Reese commended the dedication of fans like Bass, and chalks it up to the element of surprise that comes prepackaged with every show.
"Out of 50 shows a year, they're here 48 of them," Reese said. "Some of them yell stuff out before I do. They've got [the games] memorized. I think they're amazed at the fact that it's all made up, and those that come week after week realize that because it's always different."
A typical performance lasts around two hours and features eight or so games drawn from the troupe's pool of more than 100. In "Six Things," a group favorite, one member from each team leaves the room. While they're gone, the audience makes suggestions for bizarre and incredibly complex activities, which are written down on a white board. Each team then acts out these activities for the two members to guess, and whoever guesses first wins. Other games find players acting out game-show scenarios, making up songs on the spot and -- at least in this instance -- running around half-clothed and being consumed by an offstage bear.
As integral as the competitive aspect is to the ComedySportz conceit, Reese admits it's not a big factor.
"Realistically, nobody cares who wins," he said.
If improv comedy connoisseurs notice some significant similarities between ComedySportz and the monthly Eclectic Improv performance at the Shea's Smith Theatre downtown, that's because the groups have plenty of shared DNA. The Eclectic members, with the exception of pianist Michael Hake, were all at one point members of ComedySportz before breaking away in 1998 to form their own separate endeavor.
In an atmosphere where comedy -- stand-up, cinematic and otherwise -- has become one of the more vulgar forms of expression, ComedySportz has insisted on keeping it clean. Members say that's as much because clean performances attract family audiences as for the fact that keeping comedy G-rated is a much more challenging -- and ultimately rewarding -- proposition for both players and audiences.
"We're cleaner than network TV," said troupe member Joe Piazza, who joined in 2004. "Innuendo is much funnier than dropping the f-bomb. It's harder, too."
Ellen Gallagher, a longtime troupe member, found out the hard way which words were acceptable in a ComedySportz performance and which weren't.
"I said something like, 'A robot dog doesn't poop,' " Gallagher said about what she thought was a seemingly innocuous comment. But as part of ComedySportz's strict rules, she was forced to wear a paper bag over her head for the rest of the bit.
And for Richard Satterwhite, the second longest-tenured member of Buffalo's ComedySportz, the tendency to treat players who mouth off like kindergarten students fits right into the group's childlike ethos.
"It's a chance to play again," Satterwhite said. "It might sound a little cliche, that whole being a kid again thing, but it's actually what drives me up there."
WHAT: ComedySportz 15th anniversary show
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Riviera Theatre, 67 Webster St., North Tonawanda
TICKETS: $20 in advance, $25 at the door and $10 for children
INFO: www.buffalocomedysportz.com or 304-1971e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org