A flurry of punchlines with the Punch Club

A flurry of punchlines with the Punch Club

LiQM_Mar2017_CoverThis article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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By Farnell Morisset

It’s a sellout crowd on the top floor of La Sala Rossa in Montréal’s Mile End neighbourhood. People pack into every seat, and those who couldn’t get a seat lean against tables or the bar at the back of the room. Coats and bags are sprawled in between. Groups of friends mingle, as everyone seems to know someone else in the crowd.

The room lights dim and the stage brightens. A heavy hip-hop beat blares over the speakers. Two figures appear draped in silk boxing robes; behind them, a rag-tag lineup of twenty-somethings surrounds the back of the stage, breaking into cheers and shouts. In the room, the audience follows suit.

In the audience, it’s a newcomer’s first time. “Oh, I get it,” she says, leaning into her date. “So it’s like a rap battle?” “Something like that,” he says, the anticipation audible in his voice. “But instead of rapping, they’re going to do improv.” A bell rings, and Québec’s hottest improv show, the Punch Club, is in session.

Improvisational theatre (improv for short) has taken on many forms across the world, from the commedia dell’arte of Renaissance Italy to modern-day skit shows like Whose Line is it Anyway?, but over the years Québec has developed its own style of improv.

Québec’s improv style, known simply as l’impro, walks the line between competitive sport and performance art. Players join teams with relatively stable rosters, and teams are organized into leagues with pre-set calendars of matches pitting one team against another. A team of performers will face off against another team for a series of skits that follow a set of rules enforced by a referee. Skits are either compared, where both teams have the same theme and skit-specific rules and perform their skits one after the other, or mixed, where players from both teams play out a skit together after a short planning huddle. After each skit, the audience votes for the team that performed best, and points are tallied at the end of the night.

The Punch Club represents the latest evolution of made-in-Québec improv. “We’ve taken on elements of rap battles and boxing matches to emphasize the confrontation between players,” explains Punch Club co-founder Ogden Ridjanovic, better known by his rap-battle stage name Robert Nelson. The decorum (inasmuch as it can be called that) is inspired by the hip-hop underworld and prize fights, with MC Robert Nelson hyping the crowd up, and winners being awarded oversized championship belts and cold hard cash. The emphasis is on humour, physical gags, and hard-hitting punchlines that get the crowd roaring with cheers and laughter. “The players who do well are the players who are lively, fast on their feet, and able to flip a situation on its head in a heartbeat,” Ridjanovic says. “You have to be quick, and you have to be funny.”

For Arnaud Soly, one of the two figures under the boxing robes that evening in Mile End, the Punch Club has hit on something special. “I think the organizers have been able to build hype around these nights,” he says. “Word gets around, people look forward to it, and the Punch Club has faithful fans.” He credits the format itself for drawingLiQ_Sub_Dec2015 crowds: “People want to come because they know it’s unique, it’s ephemeral. If you’ve missed the show, you’ve missed the show – we’re not going to re-do those gags.” That night, Soly would go on to defend his title as champion of the Man-to-Man, a Punch Club trademark event where instead of teams of three, players play solo against a single opponent… for two hours. Despite the gruelling ordeal, Soly’s energy never faltered and his gags never flopped.

Though the Punch Club has managed to assemble some of the top names in the world of Québec improv and draw the biggest crowds for improv matches this side of the Atlantic, Ridjanovic says he never set out to create an elite league. “The improv equivalent of the NHL already exists, and it’s the LNI,” says Ridjanovic, referring to the Ligue nationale d’improvisation, one of Québec’s oldest and most renowned improv leagues.

The idea for the Punch Club first came when Ridjanovic and his friend Dominic Lapointe, a former improv coach at St. Lawrence College in Québec City, tried to come up with their own vision of improv. “We were chilling and thought, ‘Why don’t we drop the rules and let the most competitive players just go at it?’” Ridjanovic explains. Ridjanovic, Lapointe and several other improv champs developed the idea around that, until Ridjanovic decided, “Why don’t we just do it?”  Early iterations of the Punch Club, which began in 2012, quickly laid down the bare-bones structure: 3, and money on the line. The gritty style, different from the refereed, hockey arena model popularized by the LNI, has led the Punch Club format to be called street impro.

Lapointe’s network of contacts within the improv world made it easy for the Punch Club to identify and approach the top-calibre players who they thought would best fit the format. Québec improv is a small universe, and since players start in high school or CEGEP and meet regularly at tournaments and league matches, they quickly develop a tight-knit sense of who’s who. Ridjanovic and Lapointe had no trouble recruiting top players, many of whom already played in multiple leagues.

One of these players is Suzie Bouchard, who started her improv career as a student at CEGEP Garneau. Now a lawyer for a Montréal law firm by day, she’s active in a few improv leagues and notably plays on one of the Punch Club’s rare all-women three-person teams. “I don’t think, if you’d asked me when I was 18, that I would have believed I’d still be at it when I’m 30,” she says. “I really just still enjoy doing it.” The Punch Club, she says, attracted her for its unique potential. “You get to pick who you play with. It’s rare that you get to play with teams of three, and you play a lot of compared skits. You don’t often get that opportunity in more classic formats.” She also gets a kick out of the general Punch Club environment. “It’s a major happening… semi hip-hop, something that’s not really part of my world, but I find it very fun to play for large crowds.” The Punch Club is also a great fit for Bouchard because it doesn’t require the time commitment of other improv leagues, which works well with her busy professional life.

Looking to the future, Ridjanovic hopes the Punch Club continues to grow, while staying true to the source of its success. “A crowd of 500 or maybe 1000, that’s as big as you can get. More than that, and the people at the back won’t get to see the players well enough.” Still, he sees the potential for improv to explode. “I think professional improv is as funny, if not funnier, than a lot of professional one-man [stand-up] shows.” Can improv tap into that market? “I think it’s realistically possible,” Ridjanovic says. “It’s not crazy to think that.”

Looking around the crowd assembled that evening at the Sala Rossa, there’s no doubt that behind the Punch Club’s success lies even more potential. The audience is riveted to the stage and players command full-throated laughter at the drop of a hat. With each show, the crowd continues to grow through word of mouth.  Adding to monthly shows in Québec City and Montréal, the Punch Club has taken its show on the road, hosting show-matches in cities and towns across Québec. The Punch Club may well be on the cusp of breaking into the next big wave of Québec-brand humour, unique to our little corner of the world.

Ridjanovic, for his part, is a believer: “I’m ready to make the bet that for anyone who comes, it will be the funniest evening they’ve ever had.”
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About Author

Farnell Morisset

Farnell Morisset is passionate about discussing (among other things) the issues of modern social identity for many Québécois who, like him, feel deeply connected to the Québécois nation and culture yet do not identify with the traditional francophone non-practicing Catholic nationalist image. He has an engineering degree from Université Laval and is currently a law student at McGill University.

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