When comedy becomes a sport

Local students learn competitive improv in ComedySportz High School League

INSTEAD OF A FOOTBALL, baseball or frisbee, students in the ComedySportz High School League have been tossing around jokes.

ComedySportz Twin Cities is an improv outlet in Minneapolis distinguished by its game-like, competitive format in which two improv teams go head-to-head, taking topic suggestions from an audience. Through the years, 21 metro-area schools have joined the ComedySportz High School League, where students learn as much as they can about the improv format and gain new skills.

ComedySportz High School League pose for a photo after the ComedySportz annual tournament this year.

The ComedySportz High School League, which also takes place in other cities throughout the U.S., is the “largest and most successful improv training program for high school students in the country,” according to the ComedySportz website.

Sophia Wright, a recent Edina High School graduate who spent two years participating in the High School League locally, attributes improv comedy to building her confidence.

“Since I’ve joined the ComedySportz High School League, I’m much less afraid,” Wright said. “I feel like I can handle being in front of an audience and answer questions better, especially presenting in the classroom.”

The High School League is just like any extracurricular when it comes to commitment and organization, according to Doug Ocar, sales manager and co-owner of ComedySportz Twin Cities. In a typical season, each team has scheduled practices, a coach, a tournament with the other teams and optional shows hosted at schools or community centers.

Teams interested in joining the ComedySportz league need an adult supervisor and a willingness to expand upon useful skills, according to Ocar. These skills include collaboration, confidence, listening and audience interaction. And “making others look good,” Ocar said.

“The skills are very transferrable between improv comedy and real-life situations,” Wright said. “Real-life situations are always improved with comedy. People like to laugh.”

Improv creates an environment where it is OK to make mistakes because there are other people on stage to help out, Ocar said. The competitive aspect of ComedySportz isn’t as important as the team effort toward entertainment value.

“It wasn’t like we were competing with each other, we were just performing alongside each other,” Wright said.

One of the most important aspects of improv comedy is being able to play well with others.

“As kids we play and we learn about the world through playing, and we can still learn about the world through play,” Ocar said.

Ocar wants to offer the option of participating in the league to as many students as possible, which is why the league is in a transition period. The league used to run from January through March, but during that period, it was able to accommodate only a small number of teams at once. Now, Ocar said he wants to make the coming season longer.

“If the league is more spread out throughout the year, it’s more likely that we’ll be able to cover more schools and expand the High School League,” Ocar said. “More schools involved and less pressure on my coaches and their schedules. We want to be more accommodating.”

At first, Wright was hesitant and afraid to make a fool of herself in front of her peers, but “in order to improve at something, you have to be willing to make a fool out of yourself in front of people who are much better than you,” she said.

“I would say, if you’re skeptical, just go for it,” Wright said. “The worst that can happen is that you don’t enjoy it and you don’t do it the next year.

“With High School League, though, it’s impossible to not enjoy it. You’ll definitely take something away from it, make new friends, and pride yourself in all of the different things you can accomplish.”