"It's sort of like going to see a tightrope walker. The audience appreciates that you're taking a risk."

Senior Regional Director for the Office of Admissions
Length of service: 3 years.
Other stuff: If it's got an audience, he'll be on stage.

At 25, Penn alum Tom McManus (C'94) so liked his work study job in the Office of Admissions that he found a way to stay at Penn after graduation, first working in Alumni Relations for a year, and then working in Admissions.

The other thing he loved as an undergrad was performing. He found a way to keep that up too. Many Saturday nights you can find him with ComedySportz, a comedy group that does improvised skits.

He loves Shakespeare, "The Simpsons" and "Seinfeld," which coincidentally all start with the letter "s," as does his favorite singer, Paul Simon. His favorite comedian, however, is Robin Williams.

Q. How would you describe what you do?
A. Improv is a form of comedy where you make up scenes based on suggestions from the audience.

Q. So how did you get involved?
A. ComedySportz (in Philadelphia) was founded by four Penn graduates six years ago. (The group is part of a chain that started in the Midwest.) One of my friends told me about the auditions. One-fifth of the people in the group are affiliated with Penn. One-third are professional actors. Penn his its own undergraduate improv group, Without a Net. (I wasn't a member.) The current president of Without a Net, a senior, is also a ComedySportz member.

Q.Do you have to rehearse?
A. Because it's improv, there's no script. But we do get together once a week to play some games. Working with each other is the most important thing. We have to establish a lot of trust in order to take a risk. You present an offer, or an idea, with the expectation that your teammates are going to let go of their preconceived notions and they are in essence going to support you, make your idea more valid.

We're going for the thing that makes the scene move forward. We're not going for the easy laugh.

The scenes are played in three to four minutes, usually.

Q. What was your worst moment?
A. There's always a worst moment. It's all right to fail. It's best to take the biggest risk you can. Many moments, something will not work out the way you thought it would. The audience will not react. Folks who come realize that. It's sort of like coming to see a tightrope walker. They appreciate that you're taking a risk.

Q. Would you say Penn prepared you for this career?
A. I would like to give my sincere thanks to English for giving me the facility to use obscure language at the spur of the moment. Also, my performing experience, Penn is an incredible place for students who want to perform. I used to perform for Stimulus, Penn Players, Quadramics. the collaborative one-act festival (I wrote and directed a show), and I performed with Penn Singers and Chord on Blues.

Q.Do you perform every weekend?
A. The real blessing of ComedySportz is that it's very flexible. We have 35 cast members, but only 10 are involved in a given show in any weekend. It gives a chance for people to be there when they can be there.

ComedySportz shows Saturdays on South Street at The Brick, a playhouse upstairs from Montserrat Restaurant, 623 South Street. McManus will perform with them Jan. 31 at 10 p.m.

Originally published on January 14, 1998