at the Ivanhoe Theater

Floyd’s Toothbrush. No Shame. Nude Puppets. Raging Denial. Atlas Shrugged. DePaul.

These are not basketball teams, or racehorses, or frat-house punk-rock bands. They’re improv comedy groups, formed for the purpose of competing in “The Harold.” Organized by veteran improvmeisters Del Close and Charna Halpern, under the auspices of the ImprovOlympic, the Harold puts teams of performers together in competition. The winter 1987 semifinals start this weekend at the Ivanhoe Theater, with the finals scheduled for January 2.

Can comedy be competitive? Should it? The question becomes especially pertinent in the case of improvisation, in which process is more important than product and what’s best isn’t always what’s funniest. At the prefinals performance I saw last weekend, the sense of competition wasn’t too overt. The teams did their stuff and were graded afterward by the audience, which registered its judgment by applauding more or less loudly in each of four judging categories: theme, structure, intelligence, and teamwork. Logic is not a requisite; certain formal guidelines, paradoxically, give the performers permission to be much wackier than the usual slick, pseudocasual, we’re- just-here-to-entertain-you improv troupes.

As Charna Halpern says when introducing the players, “We don’t ask for 25 different ideas and then come out and do some scenes that have nothing to do with any of them”–a pointed jab at such commercial companies as Second City. Instead, the ImprovOlympic teams take one broad theme–“glass” and “art” on the night I attended–and then, in tag-team format, break into subgroups to improvise freely in situations that–maybe–evoke that theme. Faust & Ten, the group that had “art,” started off with a sketch set at an Art Institute cocktail reception; the scene ultimately fell flat, but there were good bits along the way and the total concentration of the actors more than made up for the scene’s failure to reach a standard satisfactory resolution. Later, a spoof on movie critics reviewing foreign films turned into some sublimely ridiculous sketches within sketches. Faust & Ten, which, like all the competing teams, is made up of Halpern and Close’s students, is a motley all-male crew still short on technique; it was, for instance, often hard to hear some of the dialogue–basic theatrical skills need to go hand in hand with fertile imaginations in improv. But the team was also engagingly brash and unfettered by the carefully cultivated types that populate most improv revues.

Floyd’s Toothbrush, which began the show and apparently appears at every performance, is the ImprovOlympic’s “house team”; its members are a little slicker, much more poised and artful, but still on the loonier side of the comic edge. The sketches they performed contained an unusually high number of on-the-spot comic songs, which was, I gather, the result of overzealous cuing from pianist George Goetschel. Taxing though this may have been for the actors, the songs were quite funny, and their absence in Faust & Ten’s segment (the pianist having been subdued) was a loss. Trial and error is part of the improv process.

As an extra attraction, Halpern has arranged for solo appearances by some of her more distinguished alumni: I saw, for example, Steve Burrows playing a saw with a violin bow (from a repertoire chosen from the “top 1,000 all-time hits”) and Honor Finnegan, who recalls Tracy Nelson with her tiny frame and gigantic bluesy voice, singing Blossom Dearie’s ultrahip “Peel Me a Grape.”

What Halpern and Close have defined as “The Harold”–that sublimely ridiculous moment of inspired perfection when all the strands of the different subgroups’ skits suddenly come together–didn’t happen convincingly in either team’s performance. But rather than being unsatisfying, the effect was to draw those in the audience into the process; they can see what is happening, what might be happening, what doesn’t happen, and what might happen the next time. In that way, the Harold can be addictive: the performers are witty and talented, and their process stirs an audience involvement that’s more stimulating and far less passive than the usual comedy couch-potato syndrome.