June 3, 2005

Gotham Gets Its Sketchfest

Six years after the first national sketch-comedy festival, New York gets its turn. Gelf interviews the organizer about the city's evolving comedy scene and what to expect from the out-of-town troupes. Plus, see a photo gallery of 15 SketchFest NYC troupes and their responses to Gelf's comedy questionnaire.

Keith Huang

Next week, New York's first-ever national sketch-comedy festival finally arrives. SketchFest NYC will feature three nights of skits, musical revue, and subconscious drudgery.

Elephant Larry
Meet the Troupes

Please give an example of something you think is funny.
Elephant Larry: Cavemen. Ninjas. Some robots. Astronauts. Cowboys used to be funny, but not so much anymore. Pirates.

See a photo gallery of Elephant Larry and 14 other SketchFest NYC troupes, and their responses to Gelf's comedy questionnaire.

Six years after Seattle hosted the first national sketchfest, the east coast finally has gotten its proverbial act together to showcase not only homegrown sketch troupes, but also well-known talent from Chicago, Los Angeles, and Wisconsin.

And if the antics of annual sketchfests held in other parts of the U.S. are any indication, New York's Upright Citizens Brigade Theater will have its own pit over which to roast sacred cows, play "Cowboys & Indians," and even headbutt a girl or two in the face. The madness spans from Thursday, June 9, through Saturday night, June 11.

In a recent phone interview, Gelf discussed the upcoming festival with SketchFest NYC co-producer Alexander Zalben. Here's an edited transcript of the conversation:

Gelf Magazine: Why has it taken this long for a sketch comedy festival to reach New York?
Alexander Zalben: Sketchfests in the U.S. started about six years ago. The first one was in Seattle in 1999 and was started by Mike Daisey, who you might know as the author of 21 Dog Years. He started that in Seattle, and from there it's grown across the country. So that's one part of it—to have these sketch festivals is a relatively new idea. The second part is that we're starting to get to a place in sketch comedy where there is some sort of community building—there are groups that have been around for a while and have established some sort of identity. And you kind of need that community and support to be able to put something together like this.

GM: Can you describe the selection process for Sketchfest NYC?
AZ: We asked everybody to apply. There's me and three other producers of the festival who do sketch comedy around the city [who did the selecting]. Everybody sent in a 10- to 15-minute tape, and that's pretty much what we based the selection process on. If we'd seen them live, that definitely helped. There's a couple of groups that all of us [producers] have seen live, so we were able to make a determination there.

GM: How long have most of the groups to be featured in SketchFest NYC been performing together?
AZ: I've had a longstanding belief that in order to be a successful sketch-comedy group, you need to be around for at least two to three years to establish some sort of identity and gain some sort of audience. I was with another group—before the current group that I'm with [Madame Funnypants]—for about 3-1/2 years called "Three Jews and a Persian." And during my time with "Three Jews and a Persian," I don't think I saw any groups—maybe one—that lasted two years or three years. So this is the first time that we have four or five groups that have been around for two years or more, and so these groups have started to become friendly, and create some sort of community.

GM: Can SketchFest NYC lead to bigger things for performers?
AZ: I can say from having been to all the other sketchfests across the nation that, generally, it's more about the community and being able to see other groups. That's pretty much the driving force. However, the big thing about coming to New York is that it's a hotbed of industry and press and whatnot, so there's at least a little bit of expectation on that part—that hopefully people will come out.

GM: How would you describe the New York comedy scene in the past few years?
AZ: There's been a huge realigning. Upright Citizens Brigade hasn't been around that long, but it's had an incredible influence in terms of the entire span of the comedy scene in New York. It's definitely brought improv to the forefront and that has a lot to do with the fact that they're turning over so many students, and they've got so many students excited. And from UCB you've got The Pit, you've got Juvie Hall, you've got the Magnet Theater now. So there's been a realigning in terms of going from just stand-up comedy to alternative comedy. And I've been feeling in the past couple of months to a year or so, a realigning of perceptions toward sketch comedy and more respect for sketch comedy. If you look at UCB's schedule or any of the other theaters' schedules, you can see they're putting on a lot more sketch shows.

GM: What kind of sketch shows can people expect to see at the Sketchfest NYC? Will these be well-tuned skits or will they be trying out new stuff?
AZ: I know I don't do that [try new stuff at a festival], but some groups do and sometimes it's really successful. You certainly have a lot of friends in the audience in terms of other groups, so it's a very supportive audience for trying out new material. But the large majority are doing 'best of'-type sets.

GM: Were you surprised by any troupes that don't hail from Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York?
AZ: We had heard about a lot of the groups. But then we got a ton of submissions from groups we'd never heard about, so that was really exciting for us. The big group that came out of absolutely nowhere for us was "Free Love Forum." They had a great tape, and as far as I know, they were performing for a while in Madison, Wisconsin, but haven't really done much from there. It's also kind of exciting because they are all moving out to New York at the end of August, so this is a nice little introduction for them to the scene.

GM: What are the ages of most of the performers? And what's the male-to-female ratio for most of the troupes?
AZ: It's a little unclear. We don't ask for age on the application, but I think they're mostly just-out-of-college age. We're very lucky for this festival because we have two groups that are all female: "Meat" and "Triplette." And they both bring incredibly different styles; they both do some of the most unique sketch comedy I've seen. And then most of the groups have very strong female presences and very strong male presences.

GM: How long have you been working on putting SketchFest NYC together?
AZ: I have been personally involved in the process of talking about this for almost two and a half years now, from when I began talking with the guys in Chicago about doing this in New York. And as a test run, for two years in a row I produced an event called "Big Red Comedy Festival," which brought together a bunch of performers from Cornell University—which is where I went to college—and that was really successful and geared me up for wanting to bring a sketch festival to New York. And then as I was getting ready to go about this, I get an email from two of my friends saying, "Hey, we had a crazy idea last night—what if we had a New York sketch comedy festival?" and then we brought in another producer and started putting it together. So the four of us have been slowly building up for this for almost a year and people have had separate ideas for a while. It's bubbling up and its time has definitely come.

GM: Can we expect any surprise guests at the festival?
AZ: Not right now. We talked about it at the beginning. I chatted for a while with [the sketchfest organizers] in San Francisco. They have a really interesting balance; they're very different from the other sketchfests because they have really big celebrities and then mix it in with the younger sketch groups. They did not do that for their first year, and recommended for your first year to try to make the festival about your sketch groups. And we agreed with that because the groups sell the show by themselves. And so maybe next year—in fact, definitely next year we'll probably try pitching to bigger-name sketch groups. But for right now, it's all about these groups and how awesome they are.

GM: Which troupes are you looking forward to seeing? Or can you give a brief description of the ones to watch for?
AZ: I don't want to play favorites or anything like that, but I can look down the schedule and give you some thoughts on the out-of-town groups:
There's "Hypnogagia," the first show at 7 p.m. on Thursday. They're really cool and kind of trippy sketch comedy. It's this one guy's ideas from dreams, or when he was falling asleep and would quickly write something down. It's very surrealistic but also straightforward sketch comedy—if that makes any sense. So I'm excited about seeing their full show.
"Killing My Lobster" is a group I've been looking forward to seeing for years. They just put out a really nice big slick show and they're a very good example of San Francisco style, which tends more toward the surreal and kind of avante garde, while still being very accessible.
Then on Friday, "Flaming Box of Stuff" does a really cool show because they write theme shows. Their last show was all about cowboys. And this show is all set inside a blue-collar brewery, so it's sort of slow and kind of sad but at the same time ridiculously hilarious. When audiences saw it in Chicago they were literally gasping for breath, they were laughing so loud.
Then there's "Cupid Players." They're great because they kind of bridge the gap between sketch and revue. All of their sketches are musical, which is really cool, but they're very smart and they're very clearly sketches without being, "Hey, come out and see I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change."
"Third Floor" I love. They did one of the best sketch shows I've ever seen, which was their set in Portland Sketchfest last year. They have really big-budget, high-concept sketch comedy, while also being really incredible actors.
"Ten West" is Saturday at 7 p.m. They're totally different from anything at the festival. They're very vaudeville-inspired, they're very clown-esque, but again, they're still just doing sketch comedy. They come out, they're very silent, they do some slapstick-y kind of stuff but it always has a point and an idea, so that's very cool.
I'd like to stress that one of the things we were looking for in putting together this festival was showing people what sketch comedy is, and how it's different from improv and standup. But then also sketch comedy can be a huge range of different things, as well.
"Animal Club" are really just great, goofy sketch. They just did a show at Caroline's Comedy Club in New York and pretty much sold out the place. So they have a pretty big following in New York, which is pretty cool.
"Troop!" is the sketch group's sketch group. Every single person I've ever talked to absolutely loves "Troop!" and just looks up to them. They're the nicest people and hilarious and have been doing it for about seven years and are, I feel, on the cusp of breaking through to bigger reknown. If you want to see what sketch comedy is supposed to be, you go see "Troop!"

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Article by Keith Huang

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