The 2008 edition of the Improv Summit, a inter-university improv competition hosted yearly by McGill Improv, is being held today. For the 6th consecutive year, I will be hosting. it is being held in the Lev Buckman council room (2nd floor) in the Shatner Building at 3480 McTavish. It runs from 7PM to 11PM. $6.
Last year, I had prepared a post about the Summit, but never completed it. The draft has being lying in wait for a year. What better time to display my heretofore unpublished thoughts than on their anniversary?
I had the pleasure of refereeing the Improv Summit for the fifth straight year. The Improv Summit is an inter-university improv competition hosted by McGill Improv. This year’s edition featured 7 teams and over 6 hours of improv. Next to the Canadian Improv Games, the Improv Summit is the second biggest improv festival in English Montreal. The best past of the Improv Summit? It features French universities with French players, often performing in English for the first time.
This is the third year since the Summit switched to LNI format, a format in which teams perform against each other in pairs, each having to perform scenes with the same constraints. Constraints always involve a title and a time limit. Other constraints include anything from the number of players in the scene to the genre of the story told. Some scenes involve players from both teams. After each round of scenes, the audience votes for their favourite and the winner gets a point. The French universities are used to this format which partly makes up for the fact that they are performing in a second language. The fluently bilingual team from l’UniversitÃ© d’Ottawa had the best of both worlds.
We were treated to some really wonderful and hilarious improv, but the day didn’t go by without incident.
The tournament started out with round robin play. McGill, l’UniversitÃ© de MontrÃ©al and l’UniversitÃ© d’Ottawa opened the first round. McGill had some good scenes and acquitted itself respectably. They lacked a bit of the humorous punch they brought to Toronto back in January, but if anything, their storytelling was improved. I really liked the tension they created in a scene where a boy and girl went on a date at a farm.
U de M had, I’d wager, 1.5 bilingual players if you added up their fractional capabilities, but it was a real pleasure to watch them work around that. Wisely, they used a lot of physicality and let their good naturedness and open spirit guide them. In particular, I enjoyed their 2-man archer-centaur–one guy standing tall shooting arrows, the other bent over with his head up the back of the other’s shirt.
L’UniversitÃ© d’Ottawa had some really good scenes in the first round, including a scene about Jesus at Jerusalem High School. They easily made the transition from French huddles to English scenes and got a lot of good, smart laughs.
Now, I’ve never had to give out very many penalties before. The teams usually respect the constraints and keep their scenes within the bounds of good taste. In exchange, I usually allow the teams a bit of leeway in terms of the odd giggle in a scene or a bit of chatter off to the sides. This year, however, offensive content was on parade and in increasingly shocking ways.
For starters, l’UniversitÃ© d’Ottawa performed a scene in a gangster genre. Rather than go for a mafia scene, they went for gangsta. They whipped out a dizzying array of hip-hop slang and awesome one-liners. To wit, a convalescing gangsta, having been shot 15 times exclaimed: “I may be a G-I-M-P, but I’m still a P-I-M-P!” The entire scene, while drowning in stereotype, was good-natured and funny, until one player dropped the n-bomb into casual conversation. In context? Yes. Appropriate? Hell, no! I guess I live a very sheltered life, cause hearing that word out loud really shocked me. When the scene ended, I penalized them by forcing one of their players to do a bad white stereotype. I think the audience was satisfied that the transgression was just a lapse in judgment, and nothing more sinister. Phew!
In the second round robin, the combined forces of the University of Toronto and Humber College, a 3-player team, got on a roll. I enjoyed their wry sense of humour and their long-form sensibilities.
L’UniversitÃ© de Sherbrooke was a very masculine team. In their jerseys, they looked more like a hockey team than a bunch of improvisers. They looked like they would have, had they been in High School, bullied the geek-chique U of T/Humber team. Despite appearances, they were a nice bunch of guys and were good at teamwork. They performed a lot of scenes where all members were involved. It didn’t feel forced; it flowed well.
Carleton was also up in this round. Individually they had some bright moments, but it didn’t quite come together for them as a group. I’ve seen the Carleton team on many occasions over the past few years and I feel that they have forsaken storytelling for the games and jokes. They played to their strengths back in January at the U of T’s improv competition, but they looked decidedly uncomfortable doing open scenes here. To top it off, some of the guys were peppering their scenes with misogynist one-liners. The lines were eliciting groans from the audience and it didn’t even occur to me to give them a penalty cause that kind of humour is its own punishment. To be frank, I find it more tired and uninteresting than offensive.
Defending champion UQAM was on fire from the start. As in past years, they played bold. They sang, bore their (male) chests and kept things very lively and upbeat. They circumvented the language problem by keeping what they said simple. They kept their narratives simple too, but usually managed to add something thoughtful in there as well.
However, during their set, one of UQAM’s players performed a gratuitous impression of a gay cub scout leader that left me scratching my head. If you’re going to engage in this type of stuff, I think the 2 rules are: be good-natured so the audience knows you’re just goofing, and be smart about it so that you’re lampooning misogynists, racists, or homophobes as the case may be. You can chalk part of it up to the language divide, but in my opinion, that scene was just uncomfortable and offensive. In sharp contrast to my unease, the reviewer from the McGill Tribune, in her own barely grammatical way, praised the improvisers for their edginess:
Budding comedians from Quebec and Ontario walked the line between good humour and outright disrespect, a refreshing experience for PC-gorged audiences, showing a keen understanding of the subtleties of joking without being offensive. [...] For example, during a match between UQAM and the University of Sherbrooke, when the assigned scene was a debate between two people vying for a spot as head scout, one of the actors played an applicant who was gay. The punch line of the joke was the kind of joke that would employ homosexuality in this way, not homosexuality itself. After the scene, the moderator jokingly announced that the actor who had played the gay scout leader would be required to perform a straight stereotype as a penalty. Good-naturedly, the actor exaggeratedly portrayed an enraged volleyball player with a sock in his crotch. The moral was not that it’s okay to laugh at anyone else’s sexual orientation, but that in improv, the best thing to do is be flexible.
Next, the Ontario all-stars faced off against the Quebec all-stars in what proved to be a fabulous hour of improv. The teams really managed to coalesce quickly. Team Ontario beat Team Quebec by one slim point.
In the final round, UQAM, U of T/Humber and l’UniveristÃ© d’Ottawa faced off for all the beans. In this round, accumulating 3 penalties cost your team a precious point. UQAM began the round by telling the story of a child waiting for a clown on his birthday. Instead of a clown, he got … a gratuitous stereotype of a black man with no distinguishing features other than being black and reminding the audience of this fact over and over again. The audience reacted poorly to the sketch; I gave them a penalty for being offensive. In the next scene, UQAM forgot to use the title of the story, so they were penalized again.
And then it happened. In a scene that alternated focus between UQAM and the U of T, all hell broke loose. This scene will go down in infamy. An audience member blogged about it, sparing me from having to describe it. The blogger, Fagstein, charitably attributes the slur to accident; I suspect it was horribly misguided irreverence:
But the most memorable moment of the evening certainly came as UQAM and the University of Toronto competed together-but-separately in a sketch about a planet of basketball players being invaded by aliens. [...] As UQAM (the aliens) scanned the planet with Toronto (the basketball players), they used the term â€œniggermanâ€, entirely by accident, to refer to a stereotypical tall black basketball player. The audienceâ€™s jaws collectively hit the floor.
Amazingly, it got worse.
The UQAM aliens â€œmorphedâ€ Power-Rangers style into one large basketball-playing machine, and threw out the only name they could think of right off the bat: Magic Johnson.
Toronto scanned the invading force, identifying it as â€œa large black man with AIDSâ€. Again, the audience is floored. We start laughing uncontrollably with a mix of horror and amazement. This sketch is going out of control.
As the two groups battle to the death, we hear Toronto utter the line that shocked me into missing the rest of the sketch:
â€œQuick, his vulnerability is his immune system!â€
There was only one person who could stop that scene, and that was me, and I didn’t. I was horrified and frozen like everyone else in the room. After the shock of the initial slur wore off, I considered whistling the scene dead, but I really didn’t want to end the scene on that word. I thought that I could let them repair the damage a bit before giving them the penalties, but things just snowballed. I was pretty pissed cause as a ref, I felt disrespected that a team would repeat (and amplify!) something for which I had just penalized them.
In all other respects, though, UQAM was an awesome team, but their third penalty ultimately cost them the win. L’UniversitÃ© d’Ottawa had churned out good scenes with regularity, including some great singing and a dead-on impersonation of CÃ©line Dion, and ended up beating them by one point. U of T/Humber was also good in the finals, but it felt like their small team had run out of gas. They peaked during the all-star round, I think.
Despite some bleak moments, the overall quality of the event was fantastic. Congratulations to the organizers and all the teams who participated.