Performed Saturday, September 18, 2010

SALT LAKE CITY — The idea of Utah Battle of the Improvs is ingenious. Gathering together nine improv teams from across Utah to come and compete for a hilariously tacky trophy promises for a great night of spontaneous humor. It’s the Utah Olympics of making stuff up. However, the format of the competition and the technical difficulties forced some of the teams to fight against the venue to get their laughs.The competition was divided into three rounds with about half the teams being eliminated from each round. However, the system for scoring the teams was rather vague and wasn’t explained well to the audience. It consisted of two judges who were seated on the stage, both of whom would give a score between one and ten. Then there was what they called the “applause meter” which they “calibrated” at the beginning of the show. As far as I could tell it was just a microphone near the front of the stage that was linked to a projected display of a bar-graph. These two elements combined decided who advanced in the competition. The problem is that the applause meter didn’t give an actual score, at least not to the audience.

This vagueness in scoring led to audience confusion as the rounds progressed, specifically when the two final teams were announced. One of the teams that made the final round had the lowest score out of all four semi-finalists. Of course, that was going off the judges’ scores, since we had no clue what the applause meter did. I heard multiple audience members audibly questioned how those two teams were the ones competing. I was also confused, because my favorite team of the evening had just been cheated out of the finals and replaced by a team I didn’t feel was that strong. It was good to know that I wasn’t alone.

While it might seem like a minor thing, it really seemed to put a damper on some of the audience members. It also made the final round a little painful to watch because the two teams weren’t evenly matched. The lower scoring team really got hammered, especially in the second game of the finals. It started to be almost sad to watch as the more experienced team just destroyed the newbies.

One other element that could have been better utilized was the humorous overhead slideshow. This projection was used to introduce the teams with random facts as well as the general rules of the evening. The major problem was that the audience didn’t have enough time to read it. We were too busy trying to pay attention to what the host, Richie T. Steadman, was saying. I know that I missed quite a bit because I was trying to read the jokes while listening to his jokes.

Speaking of the host, Steadman did a wonderful job. He had a quick wit which he used against teams, judges, and even audience members. He kept the night flowing at a pretty good pace. He also had a good report with the judges and the individual teams. It seemed that his banter helped the teams to relax and get comfortable in the space.

Finally, I want to talk about the teams that competed. I haven’t focused this review on the teams mostly because they will rotate year to year, and some of them only competed for about four minutes. The show’s structure will stay, the teams will not.

My favorite performance of the evening was by HiJinks. These guys had an amazing connection with each other and you could see them working together as the game went on. They took a huge risk in their opening game with a musical game called greatest hits and they executed it flawlessly. Unfortunately, they were also the team that I feel got cheated out of the final round.

The Quick Wits also took a huge risk in the first round by playing a game that included not only an audience participant, but the use of Shakespearean language as well. It paid off for them. They made it to the final round where they really kicked it into high gear and really dominated in the final round. They made some bold choices and stuck with them. It paid off since they were the winning team.

And… Go! was pretty good, although I don’t feel their second performance warranted them getting into the final round. While they had some great moments and some really funny jokes, I think they got walked over in the final round. I just don’t think they were up to the caliber of the Quick Wits.

The last team I want to make mention of is Off the Wall. I think that their first game was stellar. They borrowed two cell phones from audience members and randomly read text messages as lines in the scene. It was pretty impressive the speed with which they could find, read, and interpret a text that was perfect for the situation.

So all in all, the host was good, the idea for the show is great, but the execution needs some revision. When this comes around next year I recommend you go and see it. Even with those minor snafus and the scoring confusion, it’s still a fun show that has a lot of potential.

The Utah Battle of the Improvs was a one night event (September 18, 2010) at the Grand Theatre.