Philip Boyne warmed up the audience of an improv show by asking them to shout out suggestions of countries and occupations. When he got to the table full of kids, without missing a beat, he asked them for their favorite subatomic particle.
Their excited buzz came to an abrupt halt, and then one of them ventured a guess.
“That, by definition, is not subatomic,” said Boyne, a school teacher who also works as an improv host at the ComedyWorx theater in downtown Raleigh.
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The kids – and their parents – dissolved into giggles.
The main show at ComedyWorx is family-friendly, a bit of a rarity in the world of comedy clubs, which often cater to the 18-and-older crowd.
“We appeal to a broad demographic,” said Richard Gardner, owner and founder of ComedyWorx, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
When Gardner started the theater group in 1989, there was nothing else like it in the city.
“We’re the original improv club,” he said.
The format of the main show distinguishes it from other performances: Two teams play against each other in improvisational games, competing for points by making the audience laugh.
Gardner was inspired to start his own comedy club after seeing a similar show called Comedy Sports in Kansas City. Although the then-engineer had no experience with comedy theater – “other than the fact that I’m a very funny person” – he wanted to recreate it in Raleigh.
It began as a branch of the Comedy Sports operation, with performances in the back of the now-defunct New Yorker restaurant.
The troupe remained there for several months before the restaurant went out of business. Without a home theater, they performed all over Raleigh.
“We were just kind of roaming around,” Gardner said.
Finally Gardner wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter to former Raleigh mayor Smeades York asking for help. He included a group photo of the actors in ridiculous poses.
“I know you’re very civic-minded,” Gardner wrote. “You’d be doing a great public service if you’d help me get these people off the street.”
The troupe was hired to perform in an open space in City Market, a property York managed at the time.
‘Big happy family’
ComedyWorx made its home in City Market for 12 years before moving to its current space on West Peace Street.
The location isn’t the only thing that has changed. The company broke ties with Comedy Sports and changed its name to ComedyWorx to allow the troupe to expand its performances.
Currently, the troupe has about 60 members. Gardner estimates that more than 500 actors have participated in ComedyWorx over the past quarter-century.
One of best aspects of it all is the close-knit nature of the group, he said. He recalls the lasting friendships that have been made on set and the weddings he’s attended of couples who met through the company.
“It is a big happy family,” Gardner said.
The group’s longest-running and most popular show is the family-friendly ComedyWorx, but the theater has hosted a variety of rotating shows, including an improv musical and an all-female act.
A current late-night offering called “The Harry Show,” billed as “improv without boundaries,” plays to a mature audience and even brings some people onstage.
Bryan Cronk, who has been a member of the troupe for 25 years and who helps lead “The Harry Show,” says the energy is different.
“Things are a little bit less structured than they are in the earlier show,” he said.
The company is made up of actors who have graduated from the theater’s improv classes. Aspiring comedians sign up for beginner sessions and move up through the ranks. After mastering advanced-level classes, they can be gradually incorporated into the regular shows.
The venue, which seats about 120 people, is often full, according to Gardner. A recent Friday night brought in an audience of roughly 40 people.
Gardner said the theater’s attendance numbers have suffered as a result of free entertainment offered by the city.
“They’re promoting downtown Raleigh at our expense,” he said, adding that city-sponsored events create competition.
But Gardner and Cronk don’t see ComedyWorx going away any time soon. Even as the troupe has evolved over the years, with an increase in female members and a growing tendency toward politically correct comedy, members of the company say they love being a part of it.
“Everything gets old, except for this,” Gardner said. “This remains fun.”