From The Press Democrat
January 13, 2005
By Patrick Sullivan
It’s not stand-up. It’s not theater. And it’s not improv. Meet the mutant that is live sketch comedy.
Once upon a time, this peculiar hybrid tickled funny bones across America. These days, the art form spends a lot of time just explaining itself, according to Cole Stratton, co-founder of the San Francisco Sketch Comedy Festival.
“Sketch is a term a lot of people really don’t understand,” Stratton said. “Sometimes it takes a reference to ‘Saturday Night Live’ or ‘Kids in the Hall’ for them to get what you’re talking about.”
But once people get it, they seem to like it. In 2002, when Stratton and his collaborators cobbled together the first patchwork of performances by six local sketch comedy troupes, expectations were modest. The results were anything but.
“We ended up selling out every show but one,” Stratton recalled. “And the show that wasn’t full only had maybe 10 tickets left.”
The monthlong festival has helped spark a sketch comedy renaissance in San Francisco. Sketchfest has also attracted some big-name national talents.
Last year, Amy Sedaris of “Strangers with Candy” fame took the stage. This year’s festival, which kicks off tonight, includes Bruce McCulloch of “Kids in the Hall” and Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson. Perhaps the grand poobah of all sketch comedians, Bay Area native Dana Carvey, will be honored on the festival’s closing day with a tribute. Carvey will appear “in conversation” with veteran comedy producer Mark Hershon on Jan. 30 at Cobb’s Comedy Club.
During his tenure on “Saturday Night Live,” Carvey helped elevate sketch comedy to new heights with such characters as Garth, Massive Head Wound Harry and the Church Lady. His local-boy-makes-good interview with Hershon is sure to be one of the festival’s highlights.
Local acts continue to be the festival’s mainstay — and audiences keep packing the house for San Francisco-based outfits like Killing My Lobster and Kasper Hauser.
“I think people keep coming because they get a great show for their buck,” said James Reichmuth of Kasper Hauser. “And it helps that the market isn’t saturated. People can see a bad stand-up comedian anytime they want, but live sketch is something different.”
The uninitiated should not be fooled by the unpalatable versions of the form that are all too common on television. Sketch works best when it’s live, up-close, and personal — hardly surprising for an art form with roots in old-time vaudeville.
“You really have to be there and connect with the performers live to get the full effect,” said the 28-year-old Stratton, who is a member of the troupe Totally False People. “That’s when the energy is strongest.”
One thing that distinguishes sketch comedy, of course, is the presence of a plot, even if this story line is completely absurd. Following even a flimsy narrative requires more patience from an audience than is called for by, say, a Martin Lawrence show.
“In stand-up, every 10 seconds there’s a joke,” Stratton said. “Sketch comedy is more of a slow burner. Sometimes the laughs are right up front, but other times they take a while to develop.” The four-man Kasper Hauser team, for example, often offers relatively cerebral sketches — even when the central characters are the clueless denizens of an Oregon trailer park.
“We’re certainly not catering to the lowest common denominator,” Reichmuth said. “It’s amazing how much work it takes. A lot of writing goes into it, and our sketches are very detailed. Probably a little too detailed.”
Reichmuth’s cohorts include his twin brother, John, which gives the Kasper Hauser an edge when it comes to achieving the onstage chemistry needed to keep an audience waiting for the comedic payoff.
“We were unofficially an act all the time we were growing up,” Reichmuth said with a laugh. “And because we’ve known these other guys for so long, I think that dynamic extends to them.”
The other major challenge facing an aspiring sketch troupe is pretty simple: Coming up with original material.
“We see a lot of tapes, and there are a lot of groups that are nearly interchangeable,” Stratton said. “There’s a lot of ‘I’m a crazy character, so look at me being crazy.’ People living thousands of miles apart from each other are doing almost exactly the same material.”
Acts like that don’t make the Sketchfest cut. “We don’t want to water it down or dumb it down for the audience,” Stratton said. “There are a lot of groups that are really smart and edgy. They take chances, and people here appreciate that.”
That appreciation has limits, of course. At the 2003 Sketchfest, the New York-based Upright Citizens Brigade raised eyebrows with a skit about racial identity that involved the troupe heckling someone in the audience. The victim turned out to be a plant, but at least one ticketholder stalked out before the joke was revealed.
But such controversies are rare. Instead, the relaxed atmosphere and intimate venues tend to create a feeling of community among performers and audiences. Some attendees have been so inspired by what they’ve seen on stage that they’ve gone on to form their own sketch acts.
For Stratton, such stories capture the spirit of Sketchfest.
“It’s kind of a Cinderella story,” he said. “A bunch of kids got together and said, ‘Let’s put on a show.’ And it’s been a hit. It’s so surreal that it’s actually successful and that we’re the ones who do it.”
IF YOU GO
The San Francisco Sketch Comedy Festival begins today with an opening-night cabaret at 8 featuring performances by Kasper Hauser, Killing My Lobster and three other troupes.
The festival continues through Jan. 30. Shows run Thursday through Sunday at 8 p.m., with special late-night shows beginning at 10:30 on Fridays and Saturdays.
Most performances, including tonight’s, take place at the Eureka Theater, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. For details or a full schedule, go to www.sfsketchfest.com. Tickets range from $10 to $25. To purchase tickets, call (866) 468-3399 or go to www.ticketweb.com.
Friday-Saturday: Bruce McCulloch (“Kids in the Hall”)
Jan. 22: Dan Castellaneta (“The Simpsons”) takes part in “Totally Looped,” combining old movies and live comedy.
Jan. 23: The Sklar Brothers
Jan. 24: The Onion Live with Dave Eggers 8 p.m., Cobb’s Comedy Club, 915 Columbus Ave., $15.
Jan. 26: Four new acts strut their stuff at the “Emerging Cabaret.”
Jan. 30: Sketchfest Tribute: Dana Carvey in Conversation with Mark Hershon, 3 p.m., Cobb’s Comedy Club, $25.