Tag Archives: The Comedy Spot

Anti-Cooperation League 10 years

Improving Improv • The Anti-Cooperation League Celebrates 10 Years of Serious Laughs

With bad chemistry and personality conflicts, it’s not uncommon for an improv comedy troupe to fold soon after it starts. Add to that the challenge of finding places to perform and keeping a crowd coming week after week and it’s an even more daunting task. That’s why the 10th anniversary of The Sacramento Comedy Spot’s flagship show Anti-Cooperation League is kind of a big deal.

A fixture of the MARRS building on 20th and J, The Comedy Spot’s 90-seat theater has been home to comedy shows and classes ranging from improv, to sketch, to stand-up since 2005. They have the longest running weekly comedy open mic in Sacramento, and have brought in performers ranging from the beautifully awful Neil Hamburger to legendary Kevin McDonald of The Kids in the Hall. However, the improv classes and shows that consistently have proven to be the biggest draw, and none are bigger than Anti-Cooperation League.

Every Saturday at 9 p.m., Comedy Spot founder and head honcho Brian Crall leads a team of gifted comedians in what likens to “Saturday Night Live without a script.” Each show features a guest who’s interviewed on stage about interesting things that have happened in their life. After the interview, the troupe takes over and performs sketches based on what they’ve learned. With no plans in advance, an earlier discussed story can pan out exactly as told or some fringe element of the tale can become the focus. It can get pretty wild, which is the inspiration for the troupe’s slogan, “Welcome to Crazytown!”

I first met Crall and the ACL crew back in 2012 when I was invited to be a featured guest to talk about my website, retroCRUSH. I didn’t know a damn thing about the show, and they got me talking about my thoughts of superheroes having sex, dirty nursery rhymes and breakfast cereal. After the interview on stage, the crew of improv actors turned out an array of sketches loosely and directly based on the discussion, and it was hilarious. One member acted out the complexities of Mr. Fantastic stretching his fingers to become multiple copies of his wife to have sex with. It’s an image that haunts and amuses me to this very day.

So what does the name Anti-Cooperation League even mean?

“When you’re naming an improv group, you want it to sound cool,” said Crall. “Groups that have puns for their name, or they’re too cutesy are … I don’t know. I had a group called The Improv-a-maniacs and I regret that. I wanted to punch myself in the face afterward. We wanted to have a cool sounding name that sounded edgier or anti-establishment, so we ran around trying to find names, and Aaron Cheesman, who was a local guy in different comedy groups, came up with it. I didn’t know what it meant, but it was perfect.”

ACL has roots going back to a group founded in 2001 called The Free Hooch Comedy Troupe, a sketch comedy group that did short form, game-based improv and performed regularly at “shitty bars,” according to Crall. Those venues included The Stony Inn on Del Paso Heights, where the troupe experienced challenges with a noisy koi pond, and the lobby of a hotel on a hooker-populated stretch of Auburn Boulevard. Soon they opened the first Comedy Spot location on Broadway, before moving to their current home at 1050 20th Street in 2009.

Chris Emery is a five-year veteran of ACL and a triple threat at The Comedy Spot, performing in improv, sketch and stand-up comedy shows.

“I really enjoy getting to know the local people, the different professions and celebrities,” explained Emery. “And we get to learn a lot about the city.

“One of our guests had talked about how their mother had holiday traditions from another country that were different, so we did a scene where someone took their date home for the holidays,” said Emery of one of his favorite onstage recollections. “We kept piling on with all of our weird traditions, like incantations, and I was a crow that they weren’t allowed to look at or they’d get their eyes poked out. We had a guy, Brian Reid, who went to the WWE training center to be a pro wrestler and he had a lot of stories about what that was like. He was on the news for leg pressing the most weight. Anything can happen on that stage. I’ve got into many kissing scenes with Brian [Crall]. At least a baker’s dozen, but it’s always consensual!”

With few exceptions, most cast members from ACL are plucked from a Comedy Spot development program that involves taking classes and being chosen to join a Harold team.

“Harold is the industry standard for longform improv,” explained Crall. “Every theater like ours across the country usually has a Harold team. So we have Harold teams, then you perform on 8 p.m. shows, then you graduate to ACL. It can take a couple of years, but everyone’s learned the same method, and everyone’s on board with how we construct these scenes. And I want to be clear, I want you to mention to DJ Sandhu [Sacramento stand-up comedian] that we don’t have pre-planned bits. A lot of times when you watch short form improv, there’s devices that you know are going to work every time because you play the same games every time.”

Justine Lopez joined the cast of ACL in 2016 after serving as an intern at The Comedy Spot, and honing her skills in improv classes and the Harold Team.

“I was online searching for theater internships so I could get my foot in the door,” recalled Lopez. “The funny thing is that they denied me the first time. I tried one more time and a spot opened up and that’s how I got in. Before that, we had started a theater troupe in summer 2014 and put on free shows at bookstores and the schools. We were practicing in backyards and parking lots. Then The Comedy Spot happened and I was full-time from then on.”

Lopez also writes sketch comedy for the weekly 9 p.m. Friday show called The Friday Show, which mixes stand-up, sketch and improv. She stresses that the thrill of performing improv in ACL is unique and unlike sketch where you can reuse bits that work.

“We never return to these scenes, so they just come out,” said Lopez. “It’s hard because right after that scene’s done, you have to throw it out of your head and make something new. Once I did a scene where we were Tetris blocks and we were morphing into different pieces on stage along with a song. That’s part of the group dynamic that makes ACL special.”

The teamwork and anything-goes atmosphere of the ACL shows are what make every show different and exciting.

“You really have to be in the moment with listening and going on what the person did before you,” said Crall. “I like longform because it’s more grounded. It’s not just getting on stage and yelling, selling people out and going for the cheap joke. It’s a style that builds on itself. Then it gets super funny. We always talk about going to Crazytown by taking a simple idea that the audience can sink their teeth into and taking it to a weird, strange place.”

In the last 10 years, Crall estimates that they’ve had more than 30 people in the ACL cast. The current roster is comprised of the aforementioned Lopez (not pictured) and Emery, along with Corky McDonnell, Greg Sabin, Jason Casey, Jesse Jones, Mel Gelbart, Michelle Daubner and Ryan King.

“We’ve had a ton of really good shows through the years,” reminisced Crall. “Becca Habegger from ABC10 is going to be our guest for the 10-Year Anniversary show, and she’s been on before. She’s a really great guest. We’ve had some good shows with Mark S. Allen, but it was for different reasons. He was really fun because he talks with celebrities, and he got arrested so we can talk with him about going to jail and his friend ‘Outlaw’ he met there that would protect him. We had the Sudz by Studz guys, who are two married guys who make soap. They’re just everyday fun people.

“We tend to have better shows when it’s just regular folks that aren’t trying to make people laugh. We always tell our guests during our pre-interviews, just show up, and tell us some stories about your past, that’s all you need.”

Though, sometimes the irregular guests are equally entertaining. When recalling the time when Sacramento Bounty Hunter Leonard Padilla was a guest, Crall said, “He came out with a long black trench coat and his signature hat. Then on stage he actually whipped out guns. He was fully ready to roll!”

The 10th Anniversary Anti-Cooperation League Show will be held at The Comedy Spot Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017, at 9 p.m., and runs every Saturday at 9. You can also check out their calendar for a wide variety of classes and events focusing on improv, sketch, and stand-up comedy as well at Saccomedyspot.com.

**This piece first appeared in print on pages 28 – 29 of issue #254 (Dec. 4 – 18, 2017)**

Behind the Curve

W. Kamau Bell on America’s Racial Tourette’s
Words by Vincent Girimonte

W. Kamau Bell reassures me in our conversation last week that yes, I read the fine print correctly: if you bring a person of a different race to his show, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour, slated for two performances Aug. 20, 2010 at The Comedy Spot, you will be rewarded with a two-for-one discount. This bargain first struck me as some sort of revealing trap, or maybe just a joke I wasn’t quite in on–“people are so cynical.” My next question: who’s in charge of this…profiling of a racial nature?

“We have a strict ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy at the door,” says the San Francisco-based comedian, who, in addition touring with the Curve, released his second stand-up album, A Face Full of Flour, earlier this year. “You don’t want to put some door person at the forefront of telling somebody ‘you two are the same race!’”

The show’s moniker is as unambiguous as Bell himself, a “race-ist” commanding attention through a blunt dialogue on our racial States, and his build even–6-foot-4 with an afro. Digital slides, video clips and various other media are used as part of Bell’s shtick, striving to stimulate and invigorate the atrophied, “post-racial” conscience, white, black, brown or Polish (remember: no asking or telling).

It seems as though your show employs some didactic techniques; are you giving us a race lesson, in a sense?
I definitely like people leaving the show thinking “I didn’t know that,” but it’s a comedy show. If people want to learn, there are people way smarter than me to learn from–it’s not a funny lecture. I’ve always liked comedy that left you with something afterwards, though. I’m a big fan of Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce, people who were comedians first, but also want to change the way you think about things, change the air in the room a little bit. I’d be stupid to compare myself to two of the greatest comics in the history of mankind, but I think that’s the school of comedy [under which I perform]. I think that’s also true of Chris Rock; he wants you think differently when you leave the room.

How did race first manifest itself in your material?
Like a lot of things, it’s the fault of your parents. My mom was a Ph.D. student at Stanford back in the ‘70s. She was trying to get her degree in African-American literature, but at that point Stanford didn’t consider African-American literature to be a field of study. She withdrew from the program rather than take a Ph.D. in a program she didn’t want…so that’s my mom. My dad has always been the kind of black person who was either the first or “I’ll be better than everyone around me.” He’s been a super successful businessman because he refuses to be defined by his race. Being raised by those people sort of puts you in the way I see the world. I’ve always struggled with how the world sees me versus how I see the world.

You spent much of your youth in Chicago. How did your time there influence your views on race?
Chicago is one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States. There are probably still places in Chicago where black people shouldn’t go. The difference in Chicago is they might tell you when you walk in, “Oh no, black people shouldn’t be here.” Oh thanks, I’ll see you later. Coming out to San Francisco, which has the reputation of being super liberal, there are places where black people shouldn’t go, but they just don’t talk to you. That’s true of every racial group–I’m only speaking from the black perspective. The racial dialogue in San Francisco isn’t usually talked out loud, because people think we solved it by virtue of our area code. In Chicago, I feel like you can tell somebody, “You’re being racist,” and they’d be like, “You’re damn right I’m being racist,” which is a different problem. In the Bay Area it’s, “What? How could I? There’s no way. I have a black friend. I order my burritos in Spanish.” I think living in San Francisco is what pulled the show out of me.

You’re a language guy. Give me an accepted word or phrase pertaining to race that you find annoying.
We’re two years into the era of the first black president, and there’s still this debate about whether or not we’re living in “post-racial” America. That was solely an invention of the media. It doesn’t even make sense. I looked it up in the dictionary and found out it’s not in the dictionary. It doesn’t mean anything. In the show I talk about how I can disprove the idea of post-racial America in two words: Cleveland Indians. I show the logos for the Indians, for the Redskins, the Braves: We still have sports teams named after races of people.

The last six months of news has been fraught with racial tension–I’m thinking Shirley Sherrod, the Tea Party, Arizona SB 1070. What did happen to that “post-racial” society of November 2008?
When I started doing this show, people thought this guy Obama could maybe be vice-president for Hillary Clinton. How quickly things changed. It’s interesting to me, because America having their first black president has become a lightning rod for racists. It’s almost like having racial tourette’s. And the right has done a really good job of making people believe that their problems are the fault of [Obama]; not that we, the rich people, have destroyed the economy. It’s easy to blame the black guy. I’m also not there to cheerlead Barack Obama. The show is hyper-topical; there are things that come in and out of the show based on how topical they are.

Why can Americans laugh about race but not talk about it seriously?
Well a lot of race humor–and this is what I try to steer clear of–is just making fun of other races. A large part of humor settles on making fun of people; not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not the same as when Chris Rock talks about race, or Dave Chapelle talks about race. The thing I’m trying to do with the show is use jokes to indict stuff I don’t like, but I’m not just making fun of it. It’s easy to make fun of other people, you know, “That’s true! Chinese people do blah, blah, blah.”

Catch The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour at The Comedy Spot, Aug. 20, 2010 playing back to back at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.