No Joke: I Invested In an Improv Comedy Theater

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Nearly three years ago, I decided to give improvisational comedy classes a shot. A year later I was not only a graduate of the five levels taught at Just the Funny in Miami but also a member of the performing cast and one of the owners.

Yes, one of its owners. It's been an interesting ride. A great improv scene begins in the middle of the action, but I'll betray that tenet to provide a little color first.

Laughing Matter

One of the perks -- or burdens -- of financial reporting is that you sometimes attract the attention of news broadcasters. I've been on CNBC (CMCSA) more than a half-dozen times, and I've also had a few stints on Fox Business (FOX), PBS, CNBC Asia and CNN en Espanol.

I always left the sets feeling as if I could have done a better job, so I explored my options. I narrowed down my choices to Toastmasters -- the educational organization that specializes in improving public speaking -- and improv.

I had long been a big fan of improvisational comedy, whereby comedic actors create scenes based on audience suggestions. I made it a point to check out the now sadly defunct Comedy Warehouse shows at Disney's (DIS) Pleasure Island whenever I was in Orlando. I had also made it out to a couple of shows at Just the Funny closer to home in Miami. I wasn't sure what I would get out of the seven-week introductory course, but like most of my classmates, I became hooked. Most of us wound up sticking together through 35 Monday nights in 2012 to complete all five class levels. Along the way, I successfully auditioned to join the cast.

Yes, and ...

By the end of 2012 the theater wasn't on very firm financial footing. The two owners -- one a founding troupe member and the other who had joined shortly after its inception -- decided to open up ownership opportunities. They made a financial presentation before nearly a dozen of its most active members, offering to sell half of the company.

The price was fair and the opportunity was juicy, but just three of us stepped up to invest. When the legal eagles finalized all of the documents, I had a 22.5 percent stake in the place that had become like a second home over the year prior.

As in a good improv scene, we new owners were dropped right into the action. The theater had just $976 in the bank and our monthly $3,200 rent payment was due in a few days. The money that we had just invested had gone to the two original owners, so we had to scramble to make sure that we had enough improv students and well-attended weekend shows to bring in the money we'd need to stay afloat.

We opened up the management ranks, assigning owners and some active cast members to nine leadership positions. As VP of finance, I was tasked with keeping the books and paying the bills, but everyone was encouraged to pitch in where and when they could.

It worked. A couple of favorable tailwinds materialized in 2013. "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" returned to the airwaves, giving mainstream TV-viewing audiences a fresh taste of improv that resulted in a spike in our student registrations. Coconut Grove's Miami Improv -- an iconic stand-up venue -- shut down in November, sending comedy-starved patrons to our shows for a different spin on comedic entertainment.

The Show Must Go On

Our pre-tax operating profit in 2013 was nearly as much as the entire company had been valued at a year earlier. Having a larger ownership group helped us tackle more tasks as we pursued incremental outlets for monetization and promotional activity. Unfortunately, it wasn't always harmonious. The two original owners were clashing all along the way, and one of the three subsequent owners -- the one with the smallest financial stake but tasked with the most laborious VP of operations role -- had had enough.

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-It was challenging as a friend, improviser and business owner.%Instead of toasting to our success in early 2014, we were busy cashing out two owners. There was drama. There was uncertainty. It would have been programming gold as a reality television show (remind me to pitch studios or documentary filmmakers next time), but it was challenging as a friend, improviser and business owner.

Just the Funny is strong again. We expanded our management team, and ownership meetings are more productive. Show attendance has been solid, even during the seasonally sleepy summer months. Our culture has improved to the point where we have to split rehearsals into different rooms as a result of our growing active cast. We had the largest summer class of improv students in our history. We're bringing back the Miami Improv Festival in three months, an annual event that had been discontinued for years. We're dreaming again, aiming even higher for 2015.

Running an improv theater is no joke, but for now this side business that started as an accidental hobby for many of us is allowing us to get the last laugh.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney, and he naturally also owns a piece of Just The Funny. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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