The Laughs Are All About The Lunacy

From The SF Bay Guardian

January 15, 2004
By James Sullivan

In “Live From New York,” the mammoth oral history of “Saturday Night Live,” former cast member Jon Lovitz recalls the joy that the late Phil Hartman brought to the show.

Performing one of the program’s recurring sketches featuring Tarzan, Tonto and Frankenstein, Hartman, playing the monster, suddenly burst into uncontrollable laughter on live national television.

The absurdity of the sketch just got to him, Lovitz told the authors: “And then, he said, he was sitting there thinking how funny it must have looked to see Frankenstein laugh like that. And then that just made him, like, lose it.”

Sketch comedy operates in a parallel universe to stand-up comedy. Stand-up comics, for all their madness, are really the sober logicians of comedy. In their world, A plus B usually has to equal C.

Sketch comics, on the other hand, are the real fools, in the most honorable, socially constructive sense of the term. Their silliness — sheer inanity, even — often kills without the benefit (or need) of an explanation. And when it doesn’t, well, that can be mighty funny, too. The best part of watching the old “Carol Burnett Show” was watching Harvey Korman and Tim Conway try, usually in vain, to keep it together.

At the opening-night cabaret of this year’s SF Sketchfest at the Eureka Theater Friday, the San Francisco State-bred comedy troupe Totally False People drew some bewildered belly laughs for their mock interview with the Beatles, minus John. Without comment, Cole Stratton, playing Ringo, lumbered onstage on his knees, making himself appear half the size of Paul and a still-breathing George. (Perhaps making up for the height challenge, Ringo was the only one who got to wear a Sgt. Pepper jacket.)

The sketch was based on the idea that the surviving Beatles have resorted to a nonsensical, completely unhelpful arsenal of cliches, delivered in their Liverpool accents, in dealing with the never-ending questions about their legacy. (“We were the Beatles, man!” David Owen’s Paul keeps repeating, ever more ridiculously.)

The bit went nowhere fast, but that was sort of the point. What more is there to say about the Beatles? Except that their universally familiar characters can be shaped into some easy, very rich comic fodder.

The monthlong Sketchfest, now in its third year, is fast establishing itself as a haven for ensemble humor from around the country. This year’s schedule, continuing through Feb. 1 at the Eureka and the newly relocated Cobb’s Comedy Club (info:, features visiting acts with ties to “The Simpsons,” Second City, the Upright Citizens Brigade and, of course, “Saturday Night Live,” the Valhalla of sketch comedy.

The current proliferation of sketch-comedy troupes — the Bay Area alone is home to at least 10 appearing this year, including such mainstays as Killing My Lobster and Kasper Hauser — might be entirely attributed to the existence of “SNL.” Many of this year’s Sketchfest performers aren’t even old enough to remember the show’s original cast first-hand, but they’ve seen them in reruns. Irony, unlike George Harrison, is not dead. The show has taught us all an invaluable lesson: If the world gives you lemons — and it will every time — you make lemonade, and then you spike it.

“The magic to me is, it’s show business,” says Conan O’Brien in “Live From New York,” recalling his days as an “SNL” writer and the ways the experience prepared him for his own deliriously goofy show. “It’s ostrich costumes, people dressed as Civil War soldiers smoking cigarettes out in the hall, dance numbers.”

Anything, in other words, absolutely anything for a laugh.

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