Comic Fred Willard Does Smug Best / Actor’s Troupe Tackles Sketch Festival


From The San Francisco Chronicle

January 13, 2003
By James Sullivan

Stereotyping has earned itself a bad name, but it’s a cornerstone of comedy.

Done well, types are both funny and inherently absurd.
Fred Willard is, or at least plays, a classic, old-fashioned comic type. In the age of irony, he is essentially his own straight man, an unctuous Everyman who plays endless variations on the theme of the decent Midwesterner who has things under control. He’s a clueless know-it-all.

Willard, one of the stars of Christopher Guest’s cult comedies “Best in Show” and “Waiting for Guffman,” brought his sketch comedy troupe, the Hollywood Players, to town for four shows over the weekend. The group anchored the second week of the monthlong San Francisco Sketch Comedy Festival, which continues through the 26th with performances by Killing My Lobster, Kasper Hauser, Totally False People and others.
Part stand-up, part theater, part improvisational workshopping, sketch comedy is a conceptual art. For some groups, it can be high, bewildering concept. For Willard’s Players, it was straightforward, small-town repertory stuff — with a broad grasp of the goofy.

Bounding onstage during the first of Saturday’s two shows, the 63-year-old Willard declared his affinity for every kind of comedy where someone says, ‘Ah, that might not work,’ he joked. The audience laughed, loudly and a little uneasily. What to expect? Would the Hollywood Players’ sketches land with a series of heavy thuds, or would they prove light on their wits?

As the name implies, much of the Players’ material revolved around Tinseltown tropes — an odious producer, a pair of vapid soap opera stars. The group’s best bit featured that film noir standby, the dying man gasping to reveal the name of his murderer.

Frustrated by the man’s inability to spit out the name, a detective and an associate strike up a banal conversation that soon evolves into movie trivia. Neither can recall the actor who shoved a woman down the stairs in a wheelchair.

“Richard Widmark!” the dying man heaves. “In ‘Kiss of Death!’ ”

Another sketch featured Willard playing one of his best recurring roles, the smug television personality. (Willard’s first real stardom came in the character of Jerry Hubbard, Martin Mull’s daft sidekick, on Norman Lear’s mock talk show “Fernwood 2-Night.”) In the bit, a rapid-fire talk show host tactlessly juggles interviews with a gourmand from a trendy restaurant and a hysterical plane crash victim who had to become a cannibal to survive.
For the host, it was simply “good conversation!” Though he never lets on, Willard, who will next appear in another Guest farce, “A Mighty Wind,” knows perfectly well that the combination of overindulgence and cannibalism describes Hollywood in a nutshell.

Nearly stealing the night was the Latino Comedy Project, the opening act from Austin, Texas. The nine-member troupe made mincemeat, or chili con carne, of Mexican American stereotypes.

Sparking with chaotic energy, the group was also extremely well choreographed. One sketch satirized the standard slow-motion action footage of “Mod Squad”-style righteous vigilantes. Another, this one a video segment, featured a dead-on Steve Irwin that found the Crocodile Hunter tracking the native Texas Latino on his own turf.

The Project’s centerpiece was a hilarious time line of married life, with four couples representing the four stages of togetherness: newlywed paradise, first-baby anxiety, married-with-children contempt and twilight-years inertia and incontinence.

The couples were played as Mexican Americans, but they spoke for everyone. When the smitten newlywed groom cooed his everlasting support — “Honey, I will always listen to everything you have to say” — all eyes turned instinctively to the murderously funny married-with-children couple, who did not disappoint.

Premiering last year, SF Sketch Fest was a local affair. Its instant success attracted talent such as Saturday’s from across the country. With two full weeks remaining, there are plenty of laughs left.

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