This weekend ComedySportz Indianapolis will celebrate twenty years of laughter with a gala event at the Athenaeum. After two decades in business together - and a series of ups and downs that included a serious health scare - owners Mia Roberts, Lynn Burger and Ed Trout have learned that comedy is indeed a serious business.
The trio met in the late eighties when, while in their early twenties, they were all working with a little theatre called Way Off Broadway.
"We were doing Paradise Now," Ed Trout recalls. "It was an updated version of the 1960s activist theatre, dealing with AIDS and Apartheid... the current issues of 25 years ago."
And then the troupe agreed to perform the show - a serious drama, to be sure - at a late night fundraiser for battered women.
"We were going on at 3 a.m. after this big, raucous band," Trout says. "We looked at the crowd and it was like ... they're not going to get it. So we just did an improvised set together. From that came a group called Below the Belt. [It] was sort of half sketch and half improvisation."
This Second City-esque comedy troupe had very humble beginnings.
"We rehearsed in people's living rooms," remembers Roberts, who joined the group after running into a friend at a gay bar.
"Our first show was at Tomorrow, which was a bar that was on Meridian Street," says Burger.
The troupe found themselves performing in a number of restaurants and bars that have since gone the way of history. As the players jumped from location to location, they eventually learned about ComedySportz, an improv comedy format developed in Milwaukee in the early '80s that features two teams of improvisors (or actletes) playing various improv games for points awarded by the audience. The concept has been licensed to independently-owned ComedySportz operations in cities throughout the U.S. (as well as in Manchester and Berlin).
"We were in a transition period with Below the Belt," says Roberts. "It was a good time to do something different. If we could have children come to the show and it was family-friendly, we thought that would be more marketable."
ComedySportz Indianapolis made its first home at Theatre on the Square, then in Fountain Square, where the group performed late night shows after TOTS regular season shows were done for the night. Each night they dragged out four painted flats to set up within the confines of whatever scenic design was on stage. Trout recalls the most difficult of which was the set for Nine, which "had a big fountain in the middle of the stage."
"Ron Spencer was very kind," says Roberts. "He took us in... and allowed us to perform a lot. He charged us hardly any money. He understood that we had this vision, that we had this dream."
But they lost their space six months later, when TOTS moved to Mass Ave and could no longer accommodate the group.
The team found a new home in a storefront on the corner of 30th Street and Kessler Avenue, a less than ideal location that soon gave way to a dream space downtown.
"This space right before us was Raleigh's Dinner Theatre," says Trout. "I had been in a few musical cabarets here, and I always thought it would be great for us. One day I was driving by and there was a for-lease sign in the window."
The trio pounced on the location at 721 Massachusetts Avenue, where they still live today. "We were here before Mass Ave was cool. Up here [on the northeast end of Mass Ave] it was kind of tumbleweeds," says Burger.
But the trio didn't care, because the move offered three important advancements: greater visibility, increased media coverage and double the audience capacity. And over time, ComedySportz began to see the area change. More businesses - and in particular, family-friendly businesses - opened over time on the Ave.
"We were a family-friendly venue and I think that opened it up for other people to look at the area and see it not just as a bar hang out," says Trout. "Silver In the City opened, as did Nurture and Mass Ave Toys. It's not a night club hang out place, like Broad Ripple; it's a little more urban family."
"As the years go on," adds Burger, "we've come to represent a certain amount of stability. When we first came down here, we saw a lot of places come and go quickly, and they still do to some degree. But more and more, places are coming and becoming viable."
However, it wasn't always a smooth road. Roberts and Trout remember watching the events of 9/11 on a tiny television at the office. Both were working full-time for the theater at the time.
"Ed and I couldn't pick up the phone that day or the next day or the next week or the next month," recalls Roberts. "The entire country was just sad, and we're here selling comedy. We started taking a hit financially, and we couldn't afford for both of us to work here. That's when I went and got a [different] job. I really think we could have lost our business during that time."
Roberts found work as a legal secretary while Trout held down the fort at the theater. Burger continued to work as an accountant for the Indiana Sports Corporation. Six months after Roberts started her new full-time job, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
"It really is very good that I'm the one that went to get the other job," says Roberts, "because at the time [Ed and I] were both living without health insurance. Otherwise, I don't know where I'd be."
ComedySportz will donate a portion of the proceeds from the 20th Anniversary Gala to the Indiana chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
"A lot of other fundraising organizations get a lot more recognition," says Burger. "But there are a lot of diseases that don't get attention. It's really great to help an organization that needs help because they don't get the same attention."
"Almost everything you donate to them is used to help people in the state of Indiana, who have MS," explains Roberts. "People who can't pay rent; people who can't get to a doctor's office because a lot of people [with MS] can't walk. The money you raise for them really stays in Indiana, and they help a lot of people. But [the gala] is not just a fundraiser for MS; it really is a celebration of 20 years in business."
With four full-time employees, a slew of contracted actors, and performances every single weekend, the owners of ComedySportz Indianapolis certainly have a lot to celebrate. The gala, which will take place down the street from ComedySportz's home, will honor those who have served ComedySportz with longevity awards starting from five years of work.
In addition, the troupe will hand out awards for most valuable player, best referee, and best musical improviser among others. The awards ceremony will be followed by an All-Star ComedySportz game/performance.
"It's a nice trophy, and at the top it's a horse butt," grins Roberts. "It's a horse's ass, because you know, we're acting like horses' asses... you get it."