By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Village Voice Writers
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Sean Kelley
"'...He played Fan Number One in Galaxy Quest, the big cult guard in Dude, Where's My Car? fantasy nerd in Nerd Hunter 3004 — ' wait a minute, I'm starting to see a fuckin' trend here, people! Do they only cast you as nerd characters? I've heard of typecasting, but this shit is fuckin' ridiculous!
"More recently, ladies and gentlemen, if you didn't know, Bill was thisclose to securing a role as Curly in The Three Stooges movie. Unfortunately, you lost the role you were born to play — a crazy, short, fat sonofabitch — and you lost it to Jim Carrey, a good-looking, tall, slim guy with gray hair. How the fuck did that happen? Let me guess. At the audition you ate all the pies, so they couldn't do a screen test.
"...Seriously, Bill, I do want to say it's an honor knowing you, even though you are celebrating your birthday one month in advance, which is completely acceptable, because the people in St. Louis are still impressed with you.
"That shit would never fly in LA!"
What do you get when you cross Whose Line Is It Anyway? with Wrestling at the Chase?
You get St. Louis' first "competitive" comedy night, which Chott concocted and called "The Stagematch." It runs every Wednesday night at the Stable in Benton Park.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I was once the leader of the World Federation of Competitive Comedy, and if my teams win this prize, I will guarantee you I will turn the Stable into a dairy!" begins the Stagematch welcome from "Artie Smitten," an Archie-Bunker-meets-Don-King character of Chott's, whom he affectionately terms "showbiz dick."
Chott gallops offstage while the crowd sings the national anthem, then returns as a new character wearing a referee shirt. "Last week's winners, the Central West Enders, got into it over who screwed up 'Da Doo Ron Ron,' and that is why the World Competitive Comedy Federation split up this team and announces two new teams, the Meramec Dropouts and the Soulard Slingers!" Chott bellows.
Boas waving, wrestling shoes squeaking onstage, the players spew trash talk while Chott tries to hush them. "Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you the rules for the evening!" he hollers. "There will be no foul language, nothing below the belt, and" — he gives a once-over to the rows right up front — "nothing too college-y!"
With that, a rollicking evening gets under way.
The premise is simple: Eight to twelve improvisers (or "players") competing as St. Louis-themed pairs square off in five or six improv "games." Losers of the games are progressively eliminated, not necessarily when they don't get a laugh, but when they violate the rules of the game (which often gets a laugh). Audience participation is crucial, with crowd members supplying contextual suggestions and booting rule breakers with two claps and an "Outta here!"
In "Da Doo Ron Ron" the audience supplies a name (say, Ted), and the players take turns inventing lyrics on the spot ("Met him on a Monday and his name was Ted/Took him right home and I took him to bed/He liked drugs and he took a lot of meds/He cut himself bad and then he bled...").
For "Conducted Story," the audience suggests voice or character "endowments" with which each player, when called upon, narrates lines of a story, whose subject is also provided by the audience. Think: film genre (Bollywood), cartoon character (Superman); then imagine how a Bollywood character would relate a line about a runaway toaster (singing and dancing), or how Superman would talk about saving the runaway toaster (in a loud, brawny voice).
During "Play-by-Play" two characters slowly mime a mundane activity while two other players narrate like sports announcers. Example: The World Championships of Vacuuming ("Whoa, he's pulling a classic North American move here, folks.... Oh my gosh, he's vacuuming the drapes! This is unprecedented, folks.... Oh, boy, he's going for the Dustbuster!").
Shits and giggles aside, Chott is utterly serious about putting on a professional show. Before the curtain rises, he coaches his actors (all are Improv Trick students or graduates) through an hourlong warm-up; after the show he critiques the participants' pacing and performance.
And though the crowd is encouraged to imbibe at will, there's no drinking for the Tricksters (as they call themselves), nor for Chott. "I was at a Christmas Party at iO [improvOlympic] one year and Del Close was there with his brood. They're all playing the 'A Priest and Rabbi Walk into a Bar' game, and they're drunk beyond recognition, slurring their words. Del turned to me and said" — here Chott adopts a Close impression — "'There's nothing sadder than a drunken improviser.'"
Chott is trying to revive a moment in time when Close and St. Louis improv figured large in the limelight. The art form was developed by a Chicago working mom named Viola Spolin, who used her theater games to entertain inner-city children during the Depression. In the 1950s her son, Paul Sills, formed the Compass Players to take his mother's games to the stage. The comedy troupe expanded to St. Louis during its golden age; it was here that Close, a Kansan, got his start, performing with Elaine May and Mike Nichols in Gaslight Square.