Sketchfest Honors Landmark HBO Comedy “Mr. Show”

From The San Jose Mercury News

January 11, 2006
By Mark de la Vina

You can’t please all of the people all of the time, but the organizers of SF Sketchfest are getting close.

Since it started in 2002, the 18-day comedy festival built around groups performing brief comedy scenes has added stand-up comics, variety shows, musical guests and even the sort of act that a high-brow presenter would tag as a performance artist or monologuist. The comedy festival that has something for almost everybody kicks off at 8 p.m. Thursday with Dead Diva, hosted by Dave Foley of “Kids in the Hall,” at the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco.

Perhaps SF Sketchfest organizers’ biggest achievement has been combining up-and-coming acts with some of the most respected performers in comedy. This year’s lineup includes cast members of “Saturday Night Live” (Frede Armisen, Rachel Dratch, Horatio Sanz); the much-lionized Upright Citizens Brigade; Naked Babies, featuring Rob Corddry of “The Daily Show”; and a tribute to the beloved HBO sketch comedy series “Mr. Show,” Relative newbies such as stand-up comedians Eugene Mirman and Aziz Ansari are peppered throughout the schedule.

“We’re trying to strike a balance between being a major entertainment festival that appeals to people’s tastes,” says Sketchfest co-director David Owen, “while also presenting a showcase for newer acts.”

Sketchfest also has brought in some of the most acclaimed performers of sketch comedy from Fred Willard of the movie “Best in Show” in 2004 to Dana Carvey of “Wayne’s World” fame in 2005. The “Mr. Show”-related events, which includes a discussion with creators and hosts Bob Odenkirk and David Cross at Cobb’s Comedy Club at 2 p.m. Sunday, have been in the works nearly since the festival started, says Owen, co-director of the event.

For many die-hard comedy fans, “Mr. Show” was the Monty Python of its generation. Fiercely intelligent, shamelessly absurd and always provocative, the series on HBO from 1995 to ‘98 was developed by Odenkirk and Cross, who were part of the Emmy Award-winning team of writers and performers on “Saturday Night Live” and the short-lived “Ben Stiller Show.”

Other “Mr. Show”-related events include the Paul F. Tompkins Show, featuring the former “Mr. Show” regular; and Tinkle, a New York City-based variety show hosted by Cross, Todd Barry and Jon Benjamin, with Odenkirk, Tompkins and former “Mr. Show” regular Brian Posehn.

Inspired by Monty Python, and to a lesser extent “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live,” “Mr. Show” bundled sketches with a larger theme as each scene flowed into the next. It was a drastic departure from what viewers had become accustomed to on “Saturday Night Live,” with its jumble of disjointed and often underdeveloped sketches.

“I don’t want to appear too vain,” Odenkirk says, “but when we did ‘Mr. Show,’ we thought we were making something that was potentially a really powerful American sketch show that had real value to it over a longer time.”

One of the strengths of “Mr. Show” was the way it spoofed everything from TV newscast formats to hackneyed hip-hop acts while trying to also look at them in broader terms. In one episode, Odenkirk plays a country singer whose tunes pander to an American public outraged over objections to a plan to blow up the moon. Though it was shot three years before Sept. 11, the sketch’s mock jingoism predicted the kind of flag-waving songs that the likes of Toby Keith have since made into hits.

“The media and how it manipulates information and responds to itself was a big theme for us,” Odenkirk says. “We asked ourselves, ‘What’s the bigger story?’ A lot of the time, it was how the story is being presented. At the time, I always expected we would be invited to something like Sketchfest. I thought we’re making really good stuff and somebody out there would find it.”

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