We all know Ph.D. candidate Dannagal Goldthwaite as our resident expert on the uses and gratifications of political humor. But did you know she is a comedian as well, appearing downtown every Saturday night with ComedySportz at the Playground?
What is ComedySportz? As the website describes, "two teams of 'act-letes' vie for points in a hilarious competition by playing a series of improvisational theatre games. A referee governs the action, calling fouls and keeping the match moving at a blistering pace." Adds Danna, "[It's] sort of like Whose Line is it Anyway, but in sports uniforms."
Danna has been performing with ComedySportz since February 2000, when she met the ComedySportz director and co-owner, Mike Young, who is now, as of this summer, her husband.
Explains Danna, "Improv is satisfying as a performer because the audience’s expectations are so low going in. You get up there, you have no script, and the people in the crowd are like, 'How do they do this? I could never do this!' So every strong choice you make on stage is completely satisfying to the audience. It’s as if they share the victory with you. And no choice is ever the wrong choice. Every 'mistake' is an opportunity to take a scene in an entirely new direction, and to the audience, it seems like it was always 'meant to be.' One of the things I love about performing with ComedySportz is that we create laughter without insulting people, using potty humor, or even swearing. Our show is funny because the relationships, characters, and situations are funny, and the crowd leaves knowing like they were part of a positive interactive experience, not thinking, 'Wow, I wish that comedian hadn’t made fun me in front of all those people.'”
Danna views performing in ComedySportz as a weekly experiment testing what makes people laugh and what people find funny. "Given that I study the psychology of political jokes and their effects on public opinion and knowledge, it is a great line of work to be in." Danna's M.A. thesis (2001) is titled "The Stiff Guy and the Dumb Guy: Priming Candidate Caricatures in Late-Night Comedy Programs, and the Moderating Effects of Political Knowledge."
"As a performer," Danna continues, "you start to understand that it is the “A-HA!” that makes people laugh. Reincorporating some specific suggestion from a scene that was done 10 minutes prior will always get a laugh. Tying up all the plotlines in an intricate five-minute Shakespeare scene (ie: the witch is actually her father and the soothsayer was only pretending to be the soothsayer) is always funny. Making a specific choice (saying “rutabaga” instead of vegetable, saying “Duran Duran” instead of rock band) is satisfying to the audience. Another interesting element of ComedySportz in terms of my research at ASC concerns the audience suggestions. Every game or scene is based on a suggestion from the audience. And asking a room of 100 people for the name of a dead celebrity is nothing short of a salience experiment. Elvis and Marilyn Monroe come up over and over. Ask for a generic suggestion and you’ll get, SPAM. Ask for an active activity and you’ll get Bungee Jumping and Skydiving. After the 2000 election, for weeks we would get Katherine Harris, Dimpled Chad, and Ballot Box as suggestions. After a round of games between the two teams, if the losing team demanded a recount, the crowd would explode with laughter! These things aren’t inherently funny, but there is meaning behind them that the audience helps to construct."
Recently ComedySportz Philadelphia joined teams from 17 other cities around the country for the CSz Annual Tournament in Washington, DC where they performed at the DC Improv to packed houses twice a night, four nights in a row. One evening the teams played with Greg Proops from Whose Line is it Anyway.
Reflects this scholar-clown, "The best part about performing with ComedySportz is that as grown ups we don’t get a lot of opportunities to play make believe, and that is really all we’re doing up there: a big grown up game of 'let’s pretend.' So when people come and see me play and then say, 'I could never do that,' I always tell them that everyone can do improv. As kids we all did it. I basically have two sessions of scheduled make-believe recesses each week (Tuesday practice and Saturday shows). Not a lot of grown-ups get that chance…and for that, I feel lucky."