Summarizing what typically happens at the Fighting Improv Smackdown Tournament is like trying to write a travel article on a city after talking with a few crazy people in a back alley. Who knows what world a wandering soul speaks for, other than the terrain of their own cracked mind? And even if they’re an interesting bunch, good luck finding them again. The city of FIST is in flux, with new populations flowing through every night. Nothing’s the same from minute to minute. It wouldn’t be a smackdown otherwise.
Since March 10th, 141 Improv actors on 47 teams have been climbing the brackets over at the Source Theater, going head-to-head several nights a week on the quest to be this year’s reigning champions of comedy. This weekend — the ultimate weekend — the winner will be decided. On Friday, April 15th, the final pair will emerge. On Saturday, they’ll duke it out for the most laughs.
Now in its fifth year, the tournament has become a magnet for comic talent as well as the attention (and, in some cases, obsession) of paying audiences. It’s also drawn a lot of eyes to the tournament’s originator, Washington Improv Theater, and has brought a fresh wave of new students into WIT’s sizeable curriculum of comedy classes.
Every night, teams head home hanging their heads, voted out of the tournament by the audience. It’s not always pretty. But it’s un-pretty on an epic scale, and the spectacle is hard to resist (the poster for FIST, featuring a wall of fire — and, unsurprisingly, a lot of punching — looks like something Michael Bay would drunkenly assemble in Photoshop). But under all that posturing is a deep, fiery channel of comic creativity, flowing like magma beneath the surface of our suit-and-tie city. Many sink, many swim. Some are really funny. Some are not in the slightest. But all are brave warriors indeed.
“People are so creative and energetic that it’s a breeze to play with them,” said Maggie Dempsey earlier this week. With Justus Hammond, Dempsey is the co-coordinator of FIST. “Seeing brand-new improvisers go out there and wow me just as well as the more seasoned players that I look up to has been super rewarding.”
Dempsey and Hammond don’t vote in the tournament, but they’re around every night, MCing the show and making sure things run smoothly. “It has been a blast so far and it’s only getting better,” Dempsey said. “I feel like now we’re really getting into the meat of the brackets.”
“The increase in the number of student teams, and teams from outside of the WIT arena that are competing in FIST has made it special,” added Hammond. “That and the new grand slam matches.” He refers to a new element this year: FIST doubles the fun on certain nights by throwing four teams into the mix to vie for two slots at once. Hammond refers to it as an Improv battle royale. When WIT tried it out for the first time on Saturday, they found that grand slam style detours the danger of one team stacking the house with friends; with two votes rather than one, each audience member has to decide who merits a vote beyond their own social circle.
Even so, it’s an art, not a science. “The definition of a good FIST show is who gets the most votes, and it can get ugly out there,” Dempsey said. “There have already been a few heartbreakers and upsets, but that’s the beauty of FIST, man. I love it.”
“I am also surprised at the number of lower seeded teams that have made it into the grand slam matches,” said Hammond. “While we always expect one or two dark horses in the competition, this year they are the ones to fear.”
The scene onstage changes minute to minute. On the evening I happened to attend, we were met with a homicidal monster, characters with split-personality disorder, an old horse fated for the glue factory, some black-market open-chest surgery, some very strange dragon impressions, and an incident involving drug-spiked raspberry soda. The next night it was all gone, replaced with a mountain of brand-new notions.
Some groups pull inspiration from the audience. Some teams work off their own group energy, whether it’s wordplay, characterization, or simply searching for a disaster funny enough to form into a scene. Some teams play games. Some shape drama. Some teams lean on gross-out gags. Some strive to form grounded characters. Some rely on physicality. Some are just brilliant impromptu poets of the absurd. Some of it’s terrible. Some of it’s offensive. And a lot of it — more and more these days, as the strong eat the weak — is an absolute thrill.
A thousand x factors combine to determine whether a moment is funny. The team needs to be having a good round and feeling strong in their shoes. They need to latch onto a notion and run in the right direction. And the audience needs to share their style, their sense of the ridiculous. It’s a miracle anything’s ever funny at all. Yet, somehow, the struggle breeds results. Like a blockbuster barfight in the movies, FIST is large-scale organized chaos. It’s a dauntless knockout mess. It’s a laugh — and a punch in the face.
For tickets, team bios, fun with brackets, and more, visit the WIT site at http://www.washingtonimprovtheater.com/
Fighting Improv Smackdown Tournament
Produced by Washington Improv Theatre
Commissioned by Maggie Dempsey and Justus Hammond|
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Rating: Highly recommended
Running time: approximately one night at a time