“We took one look at the audience and knew we had to make it a little edgier or we were gonna get killed,” said comic Matt McDonald after the late show by the National Comedy Theatre, a “clean” improv comedy troupe that performs on India Street.
It was McDonald, director of NCT's San Diego chapter, who received the only “brown bag foul” (a bag placed over his head) of the night. It was during a sketch called “Things You Don't Want to Hear Your Doctor Say.” McDonald mimed the delivery of a baby, tossing it on the ground and squishing the newborn like a bug with his innocent grin.
It was the only dark-and rather hilarious-moment of the show, a hint that the NCT actors are as perverse as the average Joe. As their audience.
“We're thinking about adding a midnight show that'll be 18 and over,” McDonald explained.
“Clean comedy” doesn't sound very appealing. It conjures the hosts of childrens' television shows, Mr. Rogers with a stilted punch line concerning fruit or the animal kingdom. Add the fact that all of NCT's comedy is improvised, and there's good reason to be apprehensive that the $12 will be worth it.
Yet, for more than half of the night, the audience at NCT was busting with laughter. More than one skeptical audience member left the theater after the show with the pleasant realization that “clean” doesn't mean childlike or boring.
For their performances, NCT divides into two teams that compete for the audience's laughter through a series of sketches. A referee emcees the events and can call three types of fouls: the “Delay of Game,” called when a team is tragically unfunny for an extended period; the “Groaner,” called on lame punch lines that cause the audience to groan; and the aforementioned “brown bag,” called for lewd, crude, sexist or racist remarks.
Gary Kramer, officially NCT's “Big Cheese,” explains the art of improv as “all about saying ‘yes.' Whatever anyone else brings to the scene, you go with, even if you think you've got a better idea.”
Kramer and the NCT crew teach improv workshops; often, their students were audience members who thought, “I could do that” (current players include a stock broker and KSWB weather gal Renee Kohn), Kramer says learning improv is a matter of “unlearning what you learned in school, which is, ‘Say what's appropriate, say what's expected. Don't speak out of turn, and suppress your first instinct.'”
Improv is all about the first instinct, he explains, no matter how surreal or nonsensical. It's that sort of instantaneous nonsense that makes shows like Whose Line is it Anyway? and NCT work so well.
But isn't your first instinct a lot of the times a cuss word? Or something dirty?
“It always is dirty,” Kramer laughs. “That's the only part of our show where players will edit themselves at all. There's an artistic reason and there's a business reason for that, and they're equally important to us.”
The artistic reason is that profanity, in and of itself, is a cheap punch line. Most Americans laugh harder when the modifier is “fucking.”
“Artistically, it's sort of the easy way out,” Kramer says. “It also gets old, especially during a two-hour show. Our team is filthy backstage-horrifically bad. But during the show, we've decided, ‘Look, why don't we try and be a little more clever.'”
The other reason for keeping it clean is business-Kramer estimates that 50 percent of NCT's revenue comes from corporate and private events. Their improv comedy teams are used to lighten up corporate “team building” exercises or to entertain a new legion of college dorm residents. They've been hired by everyone from John Deere to Xerox, from SDSU to BYU (“We had to sign a contract that said we wouldn't even refer to the fact that there is a higher power,” Kramer recalls of the BYU gig).
Most of their corporate clients, Kramer says, tell him that the “clean” aspect was what convinced them to hire the NCT. After all, in the world of hyper-politically correct corporate cultures, Chris Rock isn't the best fit for a Qualcomm picnic.
“It hasn't really been a problem,” Kramer says. “Our show is television level in terms of behavior and language. You wouldn't turn off the TV just because they're not swearing.”
Kramer created National Comedy Theatre after 12 years with ComedySportz (he ran his own chapter in Santa Barbara from 1991 to 2000). “It only took us 10 years to realize it won't work in Santa Barbara,” Kramer ruminates. “If you've got a really good product, even if it's in a difficult area, you will eventually find your audience. And that's what happened in San Diego.”
They opened the San Diego NCT three months prior to closing Santa Barbara. Within those months, San Diego matched the older chapter's revenue. Three months later, they were doubling it.
So at the small theater, things have been relatively good. Kramer says they usually fill 90 to 100 percent of the 105 seats for their four weekly shows. Players get paid, as opposed to Los Angeles' “pay for play” system (though Kramer admits it's “close to minimum wage”).
“Our biggest competition is the lack of knowledge that this is going on,” Kramer says. “It's a big city. I hate being the best kept secret.”