The six little girls bounce in their chairs and scream-sing along to Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball.” They are there for a birthday party and they are amped. As the audience files in and pop music thumps, audience member Michael Bass greets folks and cracks jokes. “Did you hear about the restaurant on Mars?” he asks the gaggle of girls. “No, what!!!” several yell in unison. “The food is good, but there’s no atmosphere!” he chortles.
The girls smile bemusedly, glance at one another, then go back to twittering and bouncing amongst themselves until the house lights dim and Madam Voice booms over the intercom. “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to ComedySportz!”
On this oddly temperate November night in Amherst, NY, the teams at CSz Buffalo are welcoming their audience to another near-sold out match at The Arena for their flagship show, ComedySportz. The rollicking, highly physical two-hour improv comedy show regularly entertains 7, 17, and 77-year-olds, all in the same two hours. The family-friendly production boasts a solid 21-year-run-and-counting in Buffalo (it’s the longest running improvisational comedy show in Buffalo, with more than 2,000 shows in the WNY region), and there are no signs of slowing anytime in the near future.
The magic ingredient for this success? The audience members who have made ComedySportz in Buffalo a go-to event week after week.
View What It’s Like To Be At Buffalo ComedySportz Show
“We’ve been fortunate to have the audiences that we have. We call them Loyal Fans [during the show] for a reason. They’ve followed us through all of our various venues, like a nomadic tribe. We’ve gone from Holiday Inn on Ogden St., to the Keystone Grill on Union Rd., to six years at the Comix Café, the Riveria Theatre for two years, to finally finding a space vacated by [Theater Company] O’Connell and Company and making that our new home,” said Richard Satterwhite, acting president of the CSz Buffalo’s Board of Directors.
He’s referring to the company’s current home at The Arena, 4476 Main St. in Snyder Square, where they’ve taken up residency for the past five years and have no plans of leaving anytime soon. The 94-seat house packs in every Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 7 p.m. for the company’s signature show, ComedySportz, and myriad afterhours shows that rotate on a weekly basis every Saturday night.
The jokester/greeter Michael Bass is one of CSz’s uber-supporters. “He’s one of our Loyal Fans,” said Satterwhite.
A couple, Jeff and Joan Myers, who had been sitting next to Bass, are two more.
“If we’ve done 1,000 shows, the Myers’ have been to 998 of them,” he said.
There are people who come multiple times a month, who bring their kids, who book group reservations for birthday parties. There are party packages that include time before the show when the kids can open presents and have cake, and some of the packages even include an improv workshop prior to the evening’s event. Generally the workshop is led by that evening’s designated referee, giving participants an opportunity to work with a player that will then be on the playing field for the remainder of the evening.
But wait, what’s this about a referee? I thought this was a comedy show? “It’s not comedy about sports; it’s comedy that IS a sport. Its structure is that of a sporting event; the audience in this case plays a big role in determining who wins each of the matches during our show,” Satterwhite explains.
So, there are two teams of three players each, a playing field, and yes, a referee, who times the games and calls fouls and penalties. It’s a clean show so if you say the wrong thing, you might end up wearing a paper bag on your head or having to apologize to the Loyal Fans for a really bad joke. There are also the Lights of Justice (but really, that’s something one must experience for one’s own self). The teams go head-to-head for points (determined by the aforementioned Lights of Justice), competing in nine or so ‘matches’ comprised of classic and modern improv games. The company is able to pull from a repertoire of more than 150 fully developed games, which then play out based on audience suggestion.
The odds of seeing the same show are approximately 35,492,467,304,962,434,765 to none.
There are currently 44 players that comprise the ComedySportz player roster. This number includes 24 members of the Pro team and 20 of the Minor League team. There is also a High School League. Satterwhite estimates that since the 1993 establishment of CSz Buffalo, hundreds of players have played on The Arena field. Players do move on and some make their way to NYC or America’s improv mecca, Chicago.
A former CSz Buffalo player, Jeremy Hardwick, was home for the holidays this particular Saturday night. Hardwick had been on the team from age 14 until age 18, when he went away to Boston for college.
“I was the youngest one by a few years, and I grew up real fast and probably learned a lot of things too quickly. But it was great. It really broke me out of my shell and shaped me into the person who I am today,” said Hardwick.
He got back together with the old home team for the evening’s competition, subbing in as “Designated Jokester” and switching back and forth from team to team as points (and his mad skills) were scored. Hardwick currently lives in NYC where he works as Script Supervisor at Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
“There’s a lot of new blood in the group and they’re fantastic. A couple people I played with Saturday I had never met before. And they were so much fun to both watch and perform with. But, there are also a lot of old timers that have been around since when I was a regular. I was sitting on the bench with Richard Satterwhite and John Kehoe and John said, ‘This is just like old times.’ And it was. And it’s a great feeling to just go out and play with people you don’t see very often but are a big part of the reason you are who you are,” said Hardwick.
“There’s an open door policy around the country and elsewhere. If I were traveling in Europe, let’s say, and it had been arranged ahead of time, I could play ComedySportz in Germany. I could play in England, or LA, or Chicago. Seattle. Any other place with a home team. It’s a big family,” he said.
Satterwhite exudes positivity when he talks about both his career in patient advocacy at a major medical institution and about his passion for improv comedy. In both he plays a part in the healing process, bringing assurance, calm, and humor into sometimes torrid situations. Coming from a theatrical background, Satterwhite attended his first CSz show in 1996, somehow finding himself on stage as a volunteer during a match. Due to his time in theater, he was at ease on the stage and able to deftly get laughs during his short stint as an audience volunteer that night. CSz Buffalo founder Randy Reese almost immediately invited him to be a part of the group.
He’s been with the company ever since, most recently stepping in as acting president of the Buffalo CSz board of directors. He is driven when he speaks of the company.
“We want to make sure that you have a really good time. The ComedySportz experience is important to us, which is why before the show you’ll see players out mingling with our Loyal Fans and talking to people, inviting them in, greeting them…There is a certain experience we want our audience members to have when they come. We want them to talk about the experience. We want to be impactful to the point that even the next day they’re talking about what they saw,” said Satterwhite.
The company also works with local non-profits, welcoming in groups with special needs and coordinating fundraising initiatives with organizations such as Buffalo School 66, Danceability, Inc., Friends and Family Support Niagara Falls Air Force Base, Zonta Club, and the Learning Disabilities Association of WNY.
Even after 18 years with the company, it’s this community interaction and the joy that comes from the experience that keeps Satterwhite excited. “That’s what keeps me energized and wanting to do this,” he said.
“We’ve been around 21 years and it’s taken a lot of work to have that kind of staying power. Our standards are high. Our players work really hard at their craft to maintain the consistency that our Loyal Fans have grown to expect from our shows. This is why we all love showing up every Friday and Saturday night.”
The audience filing out of the venue after the show is all smiles, pop music ushering them out into the young night as a new, lively crowd files in for the next all-ages show starring wise-cracking, smack-talking puppets. The players switch out and the evening begins anew.
For more details on the company, its current season, how to buy tickets, player bios, training classes, and more, please visit CSz Buffalo.