ComedySportz back in action in San Jose

Like many theater companies that tried to find new footing in 2020, ComedySportz San Jose moved to Zoom to stream its shows. But the longtime improvisation troupe had a problem: It’s show, which pits two teams against each other to compete for laughs, is heavily reliant on direct participation from the audience, which supplies the topics, feedback, massive guffaws and eventually picks the winner of each contest.

It’s tough to replicate all that on camera.

Jeff Kramer, who founded the company in 1987, was prepared for the potential epic failure of Zoom comedy. Yet any anxiety he possessed beforehand vanished as more than 100 fans entered the digital room to take in a show on March 28 of 2020. It was a number he could have never imagined.

Once the show concluded, Kramer’s wife Cyndi delivered the review.

“She was watching in another room of the house and she came in with tears streaming down her face,” Kramer recalled. “She said, ‘You all just saved the business.’”

The San Jose branch of CSZ Worldwide, an organization located in 25 United States and European cities, has been saved many times over in its 35 years of providing comedy to the South Bay. Yet this latest peril, a haymaker delivered by a global pandemic that knocked out the show and many corporate partnerships, just might lead to the latest, greatest and most secure chapter in the company’s wild and wacky history.

After turning down an opportunity to renew the lease at its previous home in downtown San Jose, a repurposed movie theatre at the Camera 3 Cinemas, the company has built out a new space in South San Jose across the street from Westfield Oakridge Mall. The building, which was formerly a drop-in daycare center, now features a 120-seat theatre with concession, reception and meeting areas and classrooms for various levels of improvisation training. Outside is a plethora of parking, restaurants and a mall full of potential customers. The company enjoyed a near sellout on its grand opening, with lots of “loyal fans” taking in some improv comedy on Black Friday evening.

ComedySportz San Jose’s return from the pandemic wasn’t guaranteed, but some timely grants came through, which included two that focused on venues. Because Comedysportz is not a nonprofit, grant applications are very limited, but receiving a few allowed for the buildout of its new venue.

Nabbing a secure home base in a highly populated locale has always been a challenge over the years. The San Jose troupe would often snag any empty restaurant banquet room available until the restaurant itself shuddered or changed management, interspersed with some lengthy stretches of operation in Santa Clara and downtown San Jose.

Patrick Short and Kramer were transplants from the University of Wisconsin back in 1987. Short served as general manager of the fledgling company for 5½ years before building his own company in Portland. During that San Jose stretch, the company called 11 different venues home.

Short still marvels at what Kramer has done to keep his foot firmly entrenched in the crowded Bay Area theatre scene.

“He knows how he wants this to work, and knows the framework,” said Short. “It’s important to have a space you control as opposed to renting a room you’re in a couple of times a week. It just gives you much more flexibility and he’s always wanted to control his own destiny.”

One of the many success stories of ComedySportz San Jose is Courtney Pong, who spent 15 years under Kramer’s tutelage as an improviser before leaving to start her own branch in Boston in 2016. Pong still maintains deep ties to Kramer, and is thrilled by what’s in store for his company at their new venue.

“They are really cementing themselves as the staple that it is, and it’s so much more than people doing comedy,” said Pong, who will return to San Jose to play in a December match. “Here’s a place that is community driven, and there’s such a rich history of 35 years. They can really just let it shine in a huge venue and do all the things they’ve wanted to do. A space like this allows them to do more of what they were already good at, but with just more bandwidth now.”

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