Last weekend was the first time Bob Kelly had performed on a ComedySportz Quad Cities stage in about three and a half years.

But for the friendly realtor and bassist for Wicked Liz and the Bellyswirls, Kelly felt right at home.

“It was very fun to be on stage and just let go of all those worries and just go,” he said Saturday, now as new owner of the revived QC ComedySportz franchise. “My job now is to be present in the moment and to improvise off of whatever suggestions people have.” 

After three years, the family-friendly improv comedy troupe came back earlier this month, to a new venue — the Spotlight Theatre’s new Spotlight Studio (on the lower level), 1800 7th Ave., Moline.

The leaders of the revived ComedySportz QC are (L-R) Rick Davis, Brent Tubbs, Monta Ponsetto and Bob Kelly.

ComedySportz is a fast-paced, all-ages improvisational comedy show that uses audience suggestions in a highly competitive “game” between a red team and a blue team. The teams compete for the most laughs. There is no script or plan prior to each performance.

CSz is a global brand with locations in 25 cities around the world, and was first brought to the Quad Cities in 1990 by Denny Hitchcock (owner/producer of Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse). Hitchcock gave ComedySportz its first home in what is now The Speakeasy, next to Circa ’21, in Rock Island.

Jeff Adamson, one of the earliest performers, managed and eventually owned the local license, helping to make it a household name in the QC. In 2010, ComedySportz moved to The Establishment Theatre in Rock Island (today’s Center for Living Arts, 220 19th St.). Jeff and his son, Patrick Adamson, owned and successfully ran ComedySportz Quad Cities until late 2019.

Kelly began performing with the troupe in 1999. Rick Davis, Director of Operations and Creative Development, has performed with ComedySportz since 1993. Monta Ponsetto, Communications Director, began performing as an original roster member in 1990.

There are 24 veterans who returned and 24 players new to CSz, from a wide range of backgrounds. No previous improv experience was required before September 2022 auditions.

ComedySportz members Andy Koski, left, and Ryan Hurdle.

“We’ve got some college students, we’ve got somebody that’s a minister of a church,” Kelly said Saturday. “We’ve got people with a background in Quad-City theater, and we’ve got some people that just thought it looked like a lot of fun and showed up and knocked it out of the park.”

They divide their time performing each weekend (every Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m.), as the two teams have three players each and there’s a referee. Performers get a stipend, but Kelly said you won’t get rich from it. He was floored by how many people came to audition for new spots.

An “outpouring of interest”

“I would hope that the enthusiasm was there, but I didn’t predict this,” Kelly said Saturday. “I think this kind of an outpouring of interest is a little bit unusual. As I’ve asked some of the owners of ComedySportz in different cities, they’re like, oh my gosh, you guys are lucky that you had so many people audition.”

When he had first auditioned in 1999, Kelly had no acting or improv experience; the last play he had done was 6th grade.

“What you’re looking for is an ephemeral thing, it’s hard to put a finger on,” he said. “You’re looking for somebody that looks like they can learn is the biggest thing — because I think improv is something that you can learn. It’s a muscle that you can flex.”

“It’s also somebody that looks like they could have fun. And somebody that the idea of ‘yes, and…’ is such a powerful idea,” Kelly said of making things up on the spot. “There are people that get it and it changes their lives almost immediately. And there’s people that you could teach for a year and they won’t get it. And trying to find those right people is the challenge and the joy.”

Improv performers don’t need to be extroverts or the life of the party, just someone who is willing to be goofy and be in the moment.

Brooke Boldt, left, Brendan Sears, and Dave Levora during a match at Spotlight Studio.

“I’m supposed to walk around the room and look like a dog, I’m gonna look ridiculous,” Kelly said of a sample scene. “If you can let go of that idea and just go well, what would a dog look like if you’re stuck on a spaceship and run with that.”

It was paramount for the new kids to get trained on improv before their first performance.

“Especially with our new players, there’s a lot of training that takes place before they ever set foot on stage because it is scary,” Kelly said. “I think it’s the scariest thing you can do in live theater, that you’re really performing without a net and by a net, we’re talking about a script or a structure.”

Even if people were outgoing, they made sure they didn’t lean on “inappropriate material,” since CSz is family-friendly and all ages entertainment, prohibiting any profanity or vulgarity, Kelly said.

The Spotlight audiences so far (seating capacity is 150) have been great.

“Audiences have been really receptive and it is really a mixed bag of people that are ComedySportz fans and we’re dying to see it come back and we’ve got people that are have never heard of ComedySportz or that their kids are just old enough that they’re like, I wanna go see what this is about,” Kelly said.

“It’s great to have them both there. But I really think the Quad Cities deserve something like ComedySportz,” he said.

Kelly’s start

In 1999, Kelly came back to Davenport after teaching English in Japan for two years, because his father was sick and then passed away. Bob was working at River City Sound then and saw an ad for ComedySportz auditions.

“I had always loved ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ‘SCTV,’ all of those kinds of things. And I knew that all of those guys had a background in improv,” he recalled. “So I went to the audition that night and I went through all of the exercises they had and I thought it was really fun, but there were a couple of guys that were at the audition that were exactly what you’re describing. They were the life of the party. They’re wearing a Hawaiian shirt.” 

The first name they called to pick new players was Bob Kelly. 

“I’m not kidding. I was sitting in the room and I thought, I can’t believe there’s two guys named Bob Kelly,” he recalled. 

He was very nervous for the first shows, but around the same time, joined the new band (still going) Wicked Liz and the Bellyswirls, and Kelly became more confident.

Kelly (center) playing with the QC band Wicked Liz and he Bellyswirls.

“All of us have an anxiety. I think when somebody asks us a question that we don’t know the answer to and it’s definitely freed me from that as a realtor,” he said of his full-time job with Ruhl&Ruhl. “I’m very comfortable telling somebody, I don’t know the answer to that, but I can find it and let me get back to you.

“As a performer, one of the things that can make you very anxious is silence, but it’s usually the silence that makes something beautiful as a musician or powerful as a performance piece,” Kelly said. “Those are lessons that can only be learned, through the pit of your stomach.”

Patti Dee Lager

One new member, Patti Dee Lager, started doing stand-up comedy 15 years ago and fell in love with ComedySportz after seeing her first show 13 years ago. A mother of three children (12 to 25), Lager owns the Vaporosity Shop and Twisted Bo-Kay on 16th Street in Moline.

“It was my kids’ favorite thing to do,” she said Saturday of ComedySportz. “So I ended up actually taking some improv classes at ComedySportz when they were the at The Establishment (Rock Island).”

Lager never really liked the comedy club scene – “it’s very dirty and vulgar and just not a place that I could take my kids to,” she said.

Brooke Burke, left, Jessica Merritt. and (seated volunteer) Jim Loula, who was an original ComedySportz performer that volunteered and was chosen during a match.

“I just fell in love with the atmosphere of ComedySportz — I mean it’s fun, energetic, truly an art,” she said. “You get to meet so many different people with different perspectives, and all of that is embraced in that environment.”

It’s been a challenge for Lager to learn and exercise this new muscle, and keep in comedy shape.

“It’s getting out of your adult brain to think like a child again, but do it with some control and that’s tricky,” she said. “But what they encourage you to do is to just play the game and be in that moment. And I think that’s what’s so hard is, because we’re all so busy, that it’s really hard for us to just be in that moment right then and there nothing else matters.

“And so when you whether you’re a spectator or whether you are performing, you all get to be in that moment together and it’s just really cool to connect in that way,” she added.

CSz specifically wanted to assemble an eclectic group (age, gender, color and background), Lager said.

“And I think that they achieved that, because everybody has brought all of the new people mixed in with the veterans and everybody together has been just a wonderful orchestra,” she said. “It’s coming together, I think beautifully and building a really strong team.”

Lager got to perform the second weekend, and will be up next Dec. 9. Kelly told her before the first show that she’d be great.

Brendan Sears, left, and Ryan Hurdle during a match.

“And I said, are you sure? Because I feel like my heart is gonna beat out of my chest right now,” she recalled. “Once I get up there and I got on that stage, all of that went away. It was like, I’m in the moment I’m here with my friends, my teammates.”

Lager doesn’t feel limited in a G-rated show.

“It’s quite the opposite because I was the only clean comic that I knew. I was the only one that didn’t use profanity,” she said. “I was the only one that wasn’t making provocative and suggestive jokes.” 

“I didn’t realize that I wanted to do this until it was an option and now that I’m doing it, I don’t care if I ever do a standup comedy routine again. It’s not just about doing improv, it becomes a way of life that is already becoming ingrained in me, as far as paying attention and listening to what people say.” 

Brooke Boldt

A bartender for Mississippi River Distilling Company and 32-year-old native of the Chicago area (who did some theater in high school), Brooke Boldt was often told by friends that she should bring her outgoing personality to the stage.

“I was so happy when I made ComedySportz because it was funny — I still had never seen a show and I opened on opening night,” she said Saturday of auditioning in September, then performing in mid-November after doing weekly CSz workshops.

Dave Levora, Jessica Merritt, and Brooke Boldt (right) at the Spotlight.

That first night, Boldt was one of two newbies performing, with four veterans.

“It just was like, I’m gonna go out there, I’m gonna trust in my other players that they’ll help me if I need it and they totally did and I’m just gonna go out there and give it my all and I think I did and I just loved it,” she said.

“We all work together so great and we’ve all just become such good friends and like have so much fun together that it’s like just hanging out with your friends on stage, it’s just been such a fun thing,” she said.

Being a bartender has helped Boldt hone her improv chops.  

“Because it’s just like you’re talking all day, you’re talking to people,” she said. “And not just the same kind of person. It’s 40 different personalities today and you kind of have to be a chameleon, you know, into their personality to kind of play.”

Brooke Boldt, Jimmy Sederquist, and Andy Koski during a match.

After the auditions and the group was set, they all met in a big circle (before getting to know each other), and Kelly split them up, instructing half to be cats and half to be dogs. Boldt was supposed to be a dog and make the sour cats laugh.

“I was like, what am I supposed to do? Like I remember like being like in my head like – I am a 32-year-old woman. I really don’t know how to act like a dog.” 

“Then all of a sudden these people just started going and barking and like moving around and I was like, OK so this is allowed here,” she recalled. “So we’re gonna be a little silly and funny and kid-like here and play. I guess that’s how you would describe it is what they always say — play and have fun.” 

Boldt’s husband and kids (7-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter) came to see her opening night.

“They loved it. They were very shocked,” she said. “They’d never seen me perform on stage. My husband was there. He’s always heard stories, like my husband’s used to me, I’m running around the house singing, always being silly or doing something. He said, OK, this is just a Brooke thing, I can’t wait to see it. And he was like, wow, that was so great.”

“I love it, I’m so happy because like when I do talk to my kids about what I’m doing or even my friends have the opportunity to bring their family,” Boldt said. “It’s not just for adults, it’s for children, it’s for grandmas and grandpas and everybody can enjoy it.” 

She also was very nervous before her opening night; she is next up on Dec. 16.

“But then it was like practice again and I’m hanging out with my friends and we’re playing,” she said Saturday. “I just had so much trust in all my other players. So it was really great and that’s what helps.” 

Kira Rangel

A 2016 Rock Island High and 2020 Illinois Wesleyan University alum, Kira Rangel has more theater experience than probably any new CZs member, but she’s still nervous about actually doing improv for the first time tonight, Nov. 26.

“I love to perform, but I am nervous,” she said Saturday. “As soon as I get up there, I’ll freak out. I’m so excited, but I’m also going on with people I know from before. It’ll never feel like I’m by myself.”

Kira Rangel (center) as Riff-Raff in The Circa ’21 Speakeasy’s October 2022 production of “The Rocky Horror Show.”

Rangel was a musical theater major in college, and did sketch comedy there. In summer 2018, during a Mississippi Bend Players internship, she met the late CSz veteran George Schulz doing “Big River,” and he recommended she check out ComedySportz. Rangel had seen Second City in Chicago but never got to see CSz before trying out.

“Everyone wants to have a good time, everyone knows their role,” she said Saturday. “It feels like a social experiment. Theater is different every night, but this is legit, infinite possibilities — which is the exciting part, and you get to make people laugh, which is always great.”

A Circa ’21 veteran (performing in “Beehive” and the recent “Rocky Horror Show”), Rangel also directed Mockingbird on Main’s first show, “The Mountaintop,” and was in their holiday show last year.

A friend of Rangel’s asked her to audition for CSz, at the time she was rehearsing “Rocky Horror.”

“I needed some funny in my life. I didn’t have anything lined up after it,” she said Saturday. “Comedy makes me happy.”

Of the CSz group, she said: “I thought this was very supportive, no one was trying to be the best person in the group. It was a diverse amount of people, different ages, which I thought was really cool.”

Her full-time job is as server at 11th Street Precinct Bar & Grill, but she didn’t see her theater experience as an advantage for improv.

“You thought it would be, but I went in there, and it kind of gave me a handicap,” Rangel said. “I thought I should know everything, but people who have the most fun were not even thinking about it. That makes it a breath of fresh air. Those are performers I enjoy. I like to watch ones who are off the wall.”

She also likes the diversity of audiences, young and old.

“For dinner theater, you mostly see one type of audience,” Rangel said. “It’s cool to break out of that.”

The CSz veterans act as mentors, she noted. “I’m a perfectionist. I will say I totally stunk, and they say this is what you could do, and instead of a note, it feels like a friend giving you a tip.”

Spotlight co-owner Brent Tubbs (an improv and CSz veteran) is scheduled to perform in tonight’s show. For tickets or more information, visit ComedySportz on Facebook or the Spotlight Theatre site.