SF Sketchfest: Absurdity Carries the Night at Pretty Good Friends


From SF Weekly

January 23, 2012
By Casey Burchby

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A group stand-up show of five or six comedians doing 15 minutes each is going to be vulnerable to the different tone and style each comic brings. The more well-established a comedian is, the more defined his or her voice, which is why group shows are most often a “split decision,” so to speak. At Cobb’s on Friday night, Eugene Mirman put on a version of his Brooklyn-based show Pretty Good Friends for an SF Sketchfest audience, and the result was mostly wonderful.

Mirman is an absurdist, but one whose sense of the absurd stems directly from everyday life: social media, reality television, and advertising fuel a view that certain basic social customs are laughably unacceptable. This perspective was best illustrated in Friday’s show when Mirman described targeting outlandish Facebook ads (“Hate girls? Good! They eat boys.”) at particular demographics (adolescent boys, in this case), just to find out whether or not they got any traffic. (They do.)

Michael Showalter appeared not to have prepared much, if any, material for his set — beyond, that is, a dramatic reading from a series of tweets between him and his friend (and State co-star) Michael Ian Black. When Black joined Showalter onstage to read his part, he was greeted by an epic audience eruption. The tweets they “performed” were funny, but they had been exchanged just a couple of hours prior, while the two comics were sharing a flight to San Francisco. And I kept asking myself, “Is ‘funny’ enough?” Shouldn’t we expect real, crafted material from performers we pay to see, instead of listening to tweets that are already floating around in cyberspace?

Previously unannounced special guest John Hodgman read a hilarious excerpt from his new book, That is All. The piece purportedly describes an illusion (“The Exploding Unicorn”) that was once a part of magician Doug Henning’s stage show. Describing Hodgman’s 15 minutes as a “reading,” however, doesn’t do it justice. It was a skilled performance that reacted and adapted to the positive energy in the room. Despite my ongoing confusion over Hodgman’s facial hair (Is it part of his Deranged Millionaire character? Please, someone, clue me in!), his appearance was one of the show’s highlights.

The climax of the evening, however, was Bobcat Goldthwait. He was greeted with a roaring ovation, which surprised me, given the relative youth of the crowd. Goldthwait’s freewheeling energy and improvisational dexterity took hold of the audience immediately and never let go. Pop-culture references and self-deprecating personal anecdotes poured forth in a torrent, building to a peerless tale that placed Goldthwait on a doomed airliner with the United States Special Olympics team and ended with the simplest and funniest punchline possible. (This bit can be seen in the clip below.)

Goldthwait also screened a short preview of his new film as a writer-director, God Bless America (it releases in April), before leaving the stage to yet more applause.

Dana Gould didn’t earn quite that kind of love from Friday’s audience. There’s no doubt that Gould, a former San Franciscan and longtime writer for The Simpsons, is an extremely funny and talented person. But his longish setups, deadpan style, and somewhat cerebral material didn’t click properly.

The besuited and mustachioed wit Paul F. Tompkins — who appears to be slowly transforming into William Powell as the years pass — closed the show with an extended bit, the premise of which is that “you” (as in a Choose Your Own Adventure story) are engaged in a locked room mystery set off by the discovery that two babies are having sex while you are downstairs at a dinner party.

This was funnier and even weirder than it sounds, propelled by Tompkins’ perverse urbanity and bizarre whimsical tangents. Suffice it to say that the story built to a high pitch of absurdity, closing just as the participants in the investigation had built a wicker man, only to accidentally repurpose its head as a magazine rack.

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