Festival Is A Bit Sketchy, And A Whole Lot Funny

From The Contra Costa Times

January 14, 2007
By Pat Craig

ROCK STARS get the groupies, not comics, says Bruce McCulloch.

“Mailmen have more groupies than comedians,” says McCulloch, longtime member of the Canadian sketch comedy troupe Kids in the Hall. “Comedians are always the outsiders.”

McCulloch, who will be at this year’s San Francisco Sketchfest with the Bruce McCulloch Project — “me and a group of people doing whatever sketch comedy we happen to have, all new and only for this Sketchfest” — is a regular performer at the San Francisco event who will play Jan. 27 at the Eureka Theatre on Jackson Street.

He is one of the featured attractions at the event, which includes a tribute to Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman) at the Palace of Fine Arts, Jan. 22.

“That makes me feel kind of old,” says Reubens, who is expected to begin filming a new Pee-wee Herman movie this year. “Of course, we’ve been talking about them for so long, I’m not going to get excited until I drive onto the lot, walk on the soundstage and hear them shout ‘Action.'”

Reubens, who will be interviewed by rock journalist Ben Fong-Torres at the tribute, doesn’t go in for introspection.

“That’s really the only thing that makes my job not that much fun — trying to dissect and comment on what I do; that takes a lot of joy out of it,” he says. “What I like to talk about, and what seems to interest a lot of the younger people and performers, is how lucky I’ve been with my career, because it didn’t involve any compromise and selling out.”

Reubens can say that, despite suffering career setbacks that included a couple of sexually related brushes with the law.

Building a ‘Playhouse’

His creation of Pee-wee with the Groundlings comedy troupe in Los Angeles developed onstage over a number of years, and managed to make it to network television virtually unscathed.

“So, I was able to have a very artistic career and be commercial at the same time. I had absolute, complete, egomaniacal control over it,” Reubens says, adding that the “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” years were a lot of hard work, with some incredibly talented collaborators (including the late Phil Hartman, a friend from the Groundlings), but were exhilarating at the same time. “It was actually a very relaxed set where anybody, from the caterer, grip or prop man, could feel comfortable making suggestions. And sometimes they would be part of the show.”

Reubens says the Pee-wee character has remained fresh and captivating for him. “That is a challenge, to keep it that way, but I managed to meet those challenges and keep it fresh,” he says. “I was able to do it by rediscovering the character, changing the rules and expand on what I thought the character could and couldn’t do.”

He believes the freshness will continue once the new movie begins filming. “Of course, it’s been a while,” he says, “Call me after we start, and I’ll let you know.”

Name game

Keeping the act sharp and fresh hasn’t been a problem for the writers and cast (mostly the same people) of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” What to call themselves, however, is.

Somebody else owns the “Mystery Science” title, so when they appear Jan. 16 in San Rafael and Jan. 17 at Cobb’s in San Francisco, Bill Corbett, Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy will be introduced as former cast members of “MST3K.” They will also point out that they have all taken part in RiffTrax, Nelson’s new project that has some familiar voices doing podcasts that can be mated with contemporary films for the “MST” treatment.

“The commentary becomes a sort of roll-your-own thing,” says Nelson. “With this, I don’t have to acquire the rights to the film, so we can do more contemporary movies, and really, anyone with any familiarity at all with MP3 or computers can make it work.”

But the real beauty is the availability of so many more films, says Murphy, who wrote for the show and played robot Tom Servo.

“It’s like a room full of ducks, and we’ve got the gun,” says Murphy, who would really like to see “Brokeback Mountain” get a comedy riff. “Not just because of the gay cowboys, but because, in my mind, it was a bit overrated and precious.”

The performers are keeping the title of the movie they’ll riff on live a secret, but they’re already anticipating the rush of performing for a live audience.

“The main difference is there will be no do-overs,” says Corbett.

But mistakes really aren’t that big of a deal, says Murphy, who says the riffing is really a service for the audience.

“We do what the audience really wants to do, but can’t in a movie theater, so they pay us to do it for them,” he says. “And live, it’s just that much better — you feed off the crowd, and the crowd feeds off you.”

Yet all the while, you are the outsider, McCulloch insists. “The sketch comedy troupe is the one that went on right after the folk act,” he says. “They are the outsiders.”

Which bring McCulloch to the national identity question: He, like many sketch comics, is Canadian, which creates something close to a comic birthright.

“Comedians are outsiders,” he says, “and, as a nation, Canadians are outsiders; it’s just not the same as it is here.”

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