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Curt Doussett, along with his wife Tonia, runs ComedySportz Utah, an improv troupe that is part of the larger ComedySportz national franchise and boasts two full casts with two full locations in Provo and Midvale, Utah. Jesse Parent met up with Curt at the Midvale location and distracted him from doing his taxes on-line while he asked some questions (actually, Curt was playing Mine Sweeper).
How did you get started out in improv?
Well I had been doing theatre and acting for years and Tonia, who owns ComedySportz, called up one of the theaters, the Hale Theater in Orem, to see if that had anybody who had ever done, or could do, improv in their place. They said, "We don't give out the names of our actors, necessarily, but you may want to try this one guy." So she called me and that's when I came down and watched a couple of workshops. This was back in 1999 as she was getting ComedySportz up and going. She had just come back from Milwaukee, meeting with Dick Chudnow, the owner of ComedySportz, and was getting this ready to open up down in Provo. I had just kind of came in about two months before we opened up the very first day.
As far as doing improv I started out learning just how to ref the shows. Doing theatre at the Hale Center Theater you learn to improv quite a bit, sometimes, because it's community theatre so you deal with a lot of variables.
A lot of ad-libbing and stuff?
There was a lot of ad-libbing. I got used to doing that quite a bit. I was the one who was kind of known for either being able to save a scene or screw it up.
What was it like at the beginning when you first started out with the ComedySportz format in Provo?
As far as I know, it went really well. The first three months of shows we were selling out shows. And then, school let out, and we were doing shows for 15-30 people. Which was tough, because we didn't realize how lucky were to have the shows that we were having.
Once we started the ComedySportz shows we started to hear about other troupes like the Garrens and I knew some people in Quick Wits and I knew that they did improv, but I didn't really know anything about how our shows differed from theirs, collaborative vs. competitive, I wasn't aware of what was going on at the time.
"I feel like the ComedySportz format basically pumps it at the audience"
Do you find the ComedySportz format limiting in any way?
I love the format. I think the format gives to the audience more than any other format. The format allows us to be more entertaining for the audience. There are no inside jokes. There's not a lot of not focusing on what's going on onstage. Even by the other team, because the other team is still a part of the show. Even though their competing for points, the other team can join in on the other team's improv and help them out and they can get a point for that. So there's never any loss of focus. I feel like the ComedySportz format basically pumps it at the audience, rather than us doing our thing. "You all can watch while we do it." And because it's so structured it allows us to do anything within that structure.
Why on Earth would you ever want to play in Charlie's Aunt twice?
I think you hit the nail on the head: "Why would I want to?" I was able to assistant direct that with Will Swenson and when I did it the first time I was out of town a lot and I only actually ended up doing the show eight times. I was fortunate enough… I had a great cast. They said, "It went really well, would you like to do it up in Salt Lake?" I wanted to know who the director was first. And it was David Damon and I had worked with him before. Amazing director! And I knew he would hit the nail on the head with it, and he did. And it was a great experience. And it was the first chance I had to do a show in the new theater, although I'd done many at the old theater in Salt Lake. The Hales and Swensons and Velines are practically family so I would do anything for them, even if I didn't want to do the play, I would do it to help them out if I could.
What's your role in the ComedySportz Utah organization?
I tend to focus more on the artistic side and Tonia on the business side, although we bounce everything off each other. I study in L.A. every week; I live in L.A. during the week. And I'm in three different classes down in L.A. and when I am here, like this week, I will teach the workshops up here [in Midvale/Salt Lake City] 100%. We've hired people to teach our workshops in our Salt Lake and our Provo clubs but they teach the material that I give them. What I get from my classes, everything that I glean from everything else, with their current knowledge as well. It's not just what I tell them to teach. Lincoln Hoppe and Joel Wallin are both amazing teachers, both of them with years of experience. So with the new information that I'm getting out of the improv scene in L.A. and giving it to these guys with their knowledge. That's kind of what I'm doing right now. I teach and run the workshops and I ref every single weekend whether here [Midvale] or in Provo.
What classes are you taking in L.A.?
I'm in a workshop called the Harvey Lembeck workshop, I'm in a Ivana Chubbuck workshop, I take the ComedySportz L.A. workshop, and I study independently with a group of other people on some long form
Even though ComedySportz has been in existence since 1984, your troupe is not the first competitive improv troupe to come to Utah. How do you feel about your format being compared to other troupes in Utah that do competitive shows?
I've only seen Quick Wits once, and from what I understand their format is based on the ComedySportz format directly, but it's different from what we do. I try not to… Not only do I do competitive improv but I am a very competitive person, so for me it's better if I just worry about putting on the best show that I possibly can and know that good improv breeds good improv. If I'm good, the other improv troupes will benefit from that. And as they get better our shows will too. I don't there ever to be any hard feelings between troupes. If people want to do a slightly different version of ComedySportz… ComedySportz has an actual copyright on their format, which the person with the most money will win that debate.
"For me it's better if I just worry about putting on the best show that I possibly can and know that good improv breeds good improv."
And ComedySportz itself was based off of Theatresports.
Yeah. And ComedySportz is a little different than TheatreSports and ImprovOlympic is a little different than that. So, I just say good improv will breed good improv and worry about making my troupe the best it can be by the classes that we hold.
Do you think it's an accident that you have so many former Garrens in your troupe?
I would not assume to guess why or why not, I think it's all just random circumstances. When the Garrens dismantled themselves in Provo, a couple of them had already come over, a couple more of them that just wanted to do improv in front of full houses came over. And then when Underground Improv went out, they contacted us and it was wonderful to have them. And then Lincoln Hoppe approached me at an audition and said, "I'd like to talk to you about just coming down and playing with you guys." And we very gingerly worked on that relationship for about seven to eight months before he approached us and said, "Would you take over the Skinny Lincolns and let us work for you?" And then we gingerly worked on that transaction as well. And I think every single person we've worked is amazing and every minute of experience that they have in the previous troupes has done nothing but benefit the ComedySportz shows.
You're a pretty big guy. What's your bench?
I stopped lifting weights because they're heavy. My philosophy is "no pain".
What drove you to start doing your long form improv show, Free Range Improv, every Thursday night?
Well, Dick Chudnow says, "Make the audience laugh. Entertain them, do anything you want. If you want art, go to a museum." So we realized that the ComedySportz show was entertainment, it was fun. You're not going to necessarily have any moments of Zen or anything watching an improv show. Hopefully you'll laugh. So we felt we'd get into the art of improv a little bit for the people who enjoy more scene based improv rather than jokey improv. The slapstick. And coming from a theatre background I enjoy scenework, I enjoy character development, I enjoy plot more than I enjoy coming up with a good pun. I'm not very good at that. And there are seven or eight other people who have the same background and feel the same way. So, I went back and studied at Chicago, their long form, and L.A.'s long form and we've developed about twelve different long form shows that we do down in Provo. And we do two of them, we rotate, but we do two of them every Thursday night. It's the most fulfilling thing as far as a performer that I've done other than reffing full houses, which is also fun.
Do you have a favorite long form?
Musical. I think our musicals… we have the best piano players, we've studied from the best musical teachers in Chicago, our format for our musicals, I think, I haven't seen anybody else do any, so I am just saying I feel really good about what we do. And I've had more people say "Wow" about our musicals than any other thing.
"[Our long form is] the most fulfilling thing as far as a performer that I've done other than reffing full houses"
Now, I saw a gleam in your eye when you talked about the long form that you do. Does it make you regret going with the ComedySportz format, which is stricter and dictated by a national franchise, rather than having a troupe where you can experiment with your mainstage show?
We can experiment all we want with games and improvs. The format, I think, ends up becoming a player in itself in the overall show. I would never want to take away from that. We can experiment all we want with how we do the improvs, learning new improvs. If I want to just do some free form open thing, that's what we have the Thursday night show for. We can do the Harold if we wanted to. We could do four or five shorter improvs. Our Thursday night long form show is for us to basically do almost whatever we want in the context of improv.
If you were a fish, what would a fisherman need to use to catch you?
Oreos. If it was on a hook, I'd take it.
No. Just regular.
What exactly is ComedySportz Utah's relationship with the Skinny Lincolns? Have you merged, have they been bought out, are they even called the Skinny Lincolns any more? It's a little confusing.
The Skinny Lincolns don't necessarily exist any more, they have become ComedySportz Salt Lake. So, when we took over the Skinny Lincolns, that was eventually something we would move away from. The name had a value in the beginning, but it was more to bring their current audience over to ComedySportz. Lincoln and Page [Hoppe] had said, "We are not interested in running our own troupe, any more. And we like the ComedySportz format. Here is our troupe and let's bring the two together and do ComedySportz." It wasn't necessarily something that Tonia and I were looking to do at the time.
Are Provo and Salt Lake the two closest ComedySportz troupes? Or are they both under the ComedySportz Utah umbrella?
It's one troupe. Tonia and I own both clubs. ComedySportz Utah has two clubs, players here, players there play at both locations all the time. It's under one umbrella as far as the World Comedy League is concerned right now.
The Midvale place is looking really nice. I came here the first night and you guys have made a lot of improvements.
Oh, it gets better every month… it gets better. We got [the Midvale location] up and going really quickly. Quicker than we would have liked to. So now we're stepping back, taking a breath, and starting to fix everything that needs to be fixed. It's going to take a while.
"Most of our ComedySportz players are very effeminate."
What's your impression of improv in Utah today? Where do you think it is going?
Hopefully it keeps growing and gets better. There's been a huge improv boom, which is good. I don't know how I feel about a ton of improv troupes popping up. I think it's getting better. We went to Illinois… Quad Cities, Illinois, for the national ComedySportz tournament and had an extremely strong showing and beat out the home team there which surprised everybody. It was our first national tournament that we went to and nobody expected anything from us. And it turned out that the team that I took down there did an amazing job. I personally was not on stage, I was in the back with the other owners watching and biting nails and stuff.
I think every improv troupe kind of ups the ante. It's going to get watered down and then it'll get thinned out a little bit, I think, and the best ones will rise to the top, just like anything.
Where'd you guys place?
We actually registered late so we were only put in one show. All the other teams were put in two. Somebody had said that they liked us. Of the teams, the managers voted, and we were their third favorite team to watch. The home city [Quad Cities] obviously won, Chicago came in second, and some people said, "Provo blew us away!" The four guys that I took did an amazing job. They were great.
That's got to feel good.
Yeah. I was nervous. I was very, very nervous.
Congratulations. ComedySportz currently boasts the largest cast in Utah improv troupes, followed by KYSOff. Which troupe would be left standing after an Outsiders-like gang fight?
Most of our ComedySportz players are very effeminate. I would have to say that KYSOff would probably be left standing wondering where ComedySportz ran off to. With the exception of me… and then they'd all kick my butt.
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