at Frankie’s Sports Bar & Grill

Competitive sports and comedy improvisation: it was only a matter of time before someone got the brainstorm to connect them. While most stand-up comics are so many lone talents howling at the audience, comedy improv requires teamwork, coordination, flexibility, and raw courage–real sports stuff demanding team spirit to pull it off. So why not divide the improvisers into factions, bring the spectators into the sport by letting the audience shape and even judge the 30 or so improv games (each about three minutes long), and get a referee to keep order and the score?

That’s the formula that Charna Halpern and Del Close developed for their long-running Improv Olympic. It was also the 1977 brainstorm of a Canadian college crowd in Calgary, Alberta (a town that probably needs all the laughs it can get). In 1985, entrepreneur Dick Chudnow brought that concept of comedy competition to Milwaukee — and added a referee with a whistle. Then last summer Chudnow created the Comedy League of America, a laugh empire that, with nine teams already, is growing like kudzu in August. Under the rubric ComedySportz, its nine teams (ranging from Denver to Dallas) have competed in such unsung play-off classics as the “Cheesehead Challenge,” which recently pitted the Chicago “Blues” team against the original Wisconsin-ites. (They practice a lot with their cows . . . )

Of course, with our proud Second City improv traditions, the Chicago franchise had better be quicker than a judge on the take. Divided the evening I saw them into the blue-clad “Old Town Bosses” and the red-jerseyed “Schaumburg Top Siders,” the comics, quick on their brains, sprang into hilarity a lot more often than they fell on their faces — and some of the never-to-be-repeated howlers were snappier than in several recent comedy revues I could name where folks were strolling in the aisles well before the revues ended.

Part of the success is the format, which produces a faster-paced, more commercialized (and less off-the-wall) competition than the Improv Olympic, sometimes as funny but not as risky. ComedySportz starts out a bit like a cutesy tourist show, with the audience singing “Take Me Out to the Improv” and the players, as vendors, hawking stuff like deviled eggs (with horns coming out of them), frozen liver-on-a-stick, and eternal friendship. (Is everything franchised these days?)

The sports side quickly surfaces. The “actletes” come on, we sing the National Anthem (only three in the crowd actually stood up), and the teams “toss” for the opening advantage. With the pep of an overachieving cheerleader, ComedySportz head honcho and referee David Paul Knudten explains the three kinds of penalties: one for “waffling,” or taking your scene nowhere slowly (the referee blows a whistle to warn players they have 15 seconds to move it or lose it); the “brown bag,” for talking or acting dirty outside the context of the scene (the offending player wears the bag on his head); and one for the cheap laugh, the “groaner,” awarded by the audience — the offender must then apologize to the crowd, and if the aggrieved audience rejects his apology as insincere, his team forfeits a point. (Unfortunately, the only foul I saw was for “waffling.” Hell, I wanted to see the paper bag.) Designated jokesters from both sides can switch off as needed. Volunteer audience members help the referee score by flashing color-coded scorecards.

Traditionally, the play begins with “What Are You Doing?”–a rapid-fire warm-up in which each team player strategically lies about an activity he’s acting out (the pronoun is deliberate; as in professional football or baseball, there are no women). If anyone screws up by hesitating, repeating himself, or copying an earlier action, the other team takes over. (On the evening I was there, “bowling for brides” was one of the wackier explanations.)

Audience members then pick games from a comedy menu provided. The “Slo Mo” turned out to be a sidesplitting “ironing championship” between two very different, ideologically incompatible, ironers (the mayhem built like a Rossini crescendo). In “Soap Opera” a player has to speak out his inner turmoil by sitting on a special “agony stool,” while in just plain “Opera” the cutups don fancy dress and wail out an audience suggestion (here, a family argument that included a piercing falsetto riff on “Money isn’t free!”).

“Chain Murder Mystery” is a brand of charades: several players leave the room, then return to guess — with the mimed help of their teammates — the audience’s version of a crime. (Our composite murder was committed by a monster in Gary who killed his victim with a cat: the players guessed everything but the monster.) Other gambits include “Emotional Replay,” where the same scene is run through with diametrically different feelings, and “Freeze,” where players suddenly confront an object and, like Jonathan Winters with a mop, must use it as it was never meant to be used (the gyroscope did everything but rotate).

Best of all was “A Day in the Life,” an audience member’s recent experience acted out by the merry pranksters–and invariably distorted beyond recognition. A waitress’s description of her fiance’s proposal became a vaudeville version of Stanley Kowalski trying a little tenderness (“I just don’t want ta wake up widout you dere, unnerstand alreddy?”).

Finally, the Top Siders won, but you had to be there.

There are a lot more ComedySportz games we didn’t get to play, among them such self-descriptive teasers as “Siamese Scene,” “Insults” (this one, be warned, with an audience volunteer), “Lounge Lizard,” “Slide Show,” “Limerick,” and “Foreign Movie.” They benefit immensely from the hilarious backup sound effects provided by the busy mouth of Rich Vickery and the clever, impromptu mood music from Nathan Syfrig’s synthesizer. (On July 17 the ComedySportz troupe move their contact comedy to Sluggers World Class Sports Bar, just off Wrigley Field.)