Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Comedy

June 6, 2006

Gotham's SketchFest Returns

After a successful debut last year, New York's sketch-comedy festival moves to a new home and expands its roster. But some things remain the same, like sold-out shows, out-of-town sketch groups cramming into packed apartments, and, relatedly, lots of hooking up. Plus, see a photo gallery of 10 SketchFest NYC troupes and their responses to each others' comedy questionnaire.

Keith Huang

For three nights this week, sketch comedy will reign supreme in New York. On Thursday, June 8, SketchFest NYC will launch its second annual sketch-comedy festival at the Soho Playhouse. Representing both coasts and points in between, 23 sketch-comedy troupes will throw down before their comedy peers, industry reps, reporters, bloggers, theatergoers, and everyday fans of laughing out loud.

Cody Rivers
Meet the Troupes

MEAT: What is it that you hope your audience will take away from your show?
Cody Rivers: We want the audience to leave with a notion like, "Anything is possible." But it's hard to imagine what kind of show would do that for someone.

See a photo gallery of Cody Rivers and nine other SketchFest NYC troupes. To twist things up this year, Gelf had troupes ask each other five hard-hitting questions, and recorded the answers.

Gelf, a longtime comedy fan, tried something different for this year's pre-festival interview with SketchFest NYC co-producer Alexander Zalben: We turned the transcript of the interview into a sketch-comedy script. Then we asked Zalben, a member of sketch troupes Elephant Larry and Madame Funnypants, to read it over and add a few sketch-comedy tidbits.

This is Gelf's first attempt at writing sketch-based journalism. (And perhaps its last; let us know what you think.)

AN INTERVIEW ABOUT SKETCHFEST NYC 2006—Keith Huang.

FADE IN:

INT. UNNAMED CORPORATE COFFEE BAR—AFTERNOON

We are inside an unnamed, nondescript corporate coffee bar that offers no indication of particular city, state or nation. Two men sit at a table. A tape recorder is placed between them. ALEX, a co-producer for a national sketch comedy festival, sits cross-legged and leans back in his seat. He's holding a cup of coffee. KEITH, a reporter, sits across from ALEX and holds a spiral notebook. His coffee is placed before him on the table beside the tape recorder.

KEITH

Okay, let's make this quick and dirty. This is Year Two for SketchFest NYC. Do you fear a sophomore slump?

ALEX

I'll be honest, we did. But I'm actually feeling pretty confident right now. It's a week before the festival and almost everything is done. All we have left to do now is load everything into the space.

KEITH

And the groups?

ALEX

The groups are definitely coming. We're definitely having shows. Worst-case scenario is—if everything else falls through—we're going to have 23 awesome groups coming though this week, so, really, we can't be more confident than that.

KEITH

So Team SketchFest NYC is on schedule.

ALEX

Let's just say we're definitely better off this year. We have our first year under our belts—we know how it's going to work. We know that our format does work. But you're right, there are new elements, like a different theater, more groups, more shows. There's more "fun stuff" that could come into the mix, as well.

KEITH

"Fun stuff" meaning, "Shit hitting the fan at the worst possible moment."

ALEX

Yes.

KEITH

Examples, please.

ALEX

Well, let's put it this way: We've got people working the sketchfest who know how to deal with every possibility. Like with Carter Edwards, our tech director, I don't have to worry about tech because he's always on point. If the projector explodes in the middle of a show, he'll be able to rig something up in five minutes.

KEITH

So SketchFest's front office has grown, too.

ALEX

Carter and Stefan Lawrence have been really involved and are kind of like a sixth-person on the team this year. They've been involved in every decision and everything that's been going on. So not everything is on just the four producers—it's been stretched out over six people, which has been exponentially helpful. Plus, we have a bunch of new volunteers this year.

[A BEAR enters wearing a waiter's uniform.]

BEAR

Rar, rar, rar.

ALEX

No, thanks, I'm fine. Keith?

KEITH

Do you have scones?

BEAR

Rar.

KEITH

I'll take one.

[BEAR exits.]

KEITH

So SketchFest is growing, but you're not making that many changes to the organization process?

ALEX

Everything went very smoothly last year so we just decided we should just make sure we kept a lot of things the same. We did look at areas that could be better—like getting better beer, adding more sponsors, doing more for the artists.

KEITH

Like what?

ALEX

We tried to provide them with more food and drink backstage and just keep them happy, so all they have to worry about is their performance. So that's pretty much it. Just whatever we can provide and set up for them.

KEITH

SketchFest NYC. The sketch festival that cares.

ALEX

Yes, and one of the future goals of the festival is to provide things for the artists—like get them places to stay and give them transportation, maybe pay them a little bit of money—that sort of thing—which we definitely weren't able to do in the first year of the festival since we had no idea how things would work out.

[BEAR enters, drops off scone. He leaves.]

KEITH

But this year?

ALEX

This year we came close to doing it.

KEITH

But next year?

ALEX

I'm 99% confident we'll be able to do some more stuff for them. We'll see what happens. It's kind of ambitious. I don't want to start promising things, like setting up SketchFest scholarships. I don't have the foggiest of how something like that would work.

KEITH

You're in sketch troupe Elephant Larry. You've traveled to sketch festivals in other cities. It can be pretty grueling, right?

ALEX

Yeah, I know plenty of people who are packing in. I know some people who are packing in one or two groups into their one-bedroom apartment, so that will be kind of ridiculous. The 3rd Floor, which is like a seven- to 11-member group, all stayed in one apartment last year. And Animal Club—they're really into driving long distances, so I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't pack themselves into a car and drive all the way from Chicago.

KEITH

But one of the reasons they do this, apart from the love of sketch comedy, is to get industry exposure, right?

ALEX

There's a lot of industry folks who are going to be checking it out. So obviously there will be that pressure to do the best show you possibly can. That said, any show after the SketchFest, you still want to do the best show you possibly can, right? So, we like to say that industry presence should just give you that extra bump of energy.

KEITH

Because all the sketch troupes are boosting each other, right?

ALEX

Right. The one element that connects every sketch festival across the country is this sense of community, and this really positive, excited-to-watch vibe. So we want to get as many industry people as possible to come see the shows, but not make it an industry shopping mart. We want them and everyone else to feel how fun and enjoyable it is when everyone is being supportive of each other—and from that positive things will happen.

Pirate, bear and robot
Pirates drink their coffee black. Robots take a dash of motor oil. Bears eat the barista.

[There's a crash at the window, and a pirate comes through. He is
fighting a robot and a vampire.]

KEITH

Wow, look at that! That's crazy!

ALEX

I guess.

PIRATE

Rar, rar, rar!

ROBOT

Beep! Rar, rar, rar!

[The VAMPIRE turns to speak to ALEX and KEITH.]

VAMPIRE

Just so you know, that pirate picked this fight. Vampires aren't normally violent by nature. And this robot just happened to be walking along outside the coffeebar when he got caught up in all of this.

[The PIRATE is still tussling with the ROBOT.]

PIRATE

Rar, rar, rar!

ROBOT

Beep! Rar, rar, rar!

ALEX

Clearly that guy's not a real vampire. It's the middle of the afternoon.

Alex Zalben
Keith Huang
Alex Zalben: Neither a bear nor a robot. Possibly a pirate.

KEITH

Yeah, first time out and I've got major plot holes. So Year Two definitely is bigger for SketchFest. Too big?

ALEX

I actually think it's the right growth at the right time. I am confident in every single one of the 23 groups, so I know worst-case scenario is, if we do nothing else, there will be 23 great shows for people to watch. And the groups are the basic, most important thing: We only wanted to take groups that we really, really desperately could not live without having.

KEITH

And the scheduling?

ALEX

It's tricky. We spend a lot of time putting the schedule together. A main goal is to make sure that if anybody comes on any single day of the festival, they're going to get several fabulous shows in a row. I think all the shows are fantastic across-the-board, but we don't want to do anything like, "Well, the groups that we think are really good are all going to be on Saturday, or they're all good on Thursday."

KEITH

So it's like making three great mix CDs.

ALEX

Yes. We tried to give different flavors of groups, or things that seem thematically appropriate, or just try to do: "You'll see this, and then this will be the exact opposite." So if you come on Thursday it's going to be entirely different than Friday and entirely different than Saturday. But then it's also, "Well, this group will work better earlier in the evening, or there's a group that'll work better really late at night."

KEITH

Who works well at night?

ALEX

I don't think they're going to mind me saying this, but a group like FEARSOME, who are essentially closing out the festival this year—we just thought that they would be great to do that because they're almost like a party group in a certain way. They write really smart, intelligent work, but they're also having a ridiculous amount of fun onstage. And that's the kind of thing we want at the end of the festival—just everyone having a really good time. So it was kind of a no-brainer to put them in the closing slot this year. That's an example of the kind of thought that goes into it.

[The BEAR enters and seems to reprimand the PIRATE, ROBOT and VAMPIRE.]

BEAR

Rar, rar, rar!

[The PIRATE feigns innocence.]

PIRATE

Rar!

[The ROBOT and VAMPIRE point at the PIRATE.]

ROBOT

Beep!

VAMPIRE

That pirate picked this fight! I'm not a violent person! And this robot: totally innocent!

[The BEAR, still growling, pushes all three out of the coffeebar. Then he slaps his paws together as if to say, "That's taken care of." BEAR begins to exit, pauses, turns back around, and reaches into the pocket of his apron. He removes a slip of paper and hands it to KEITH.]

KEITH

Uh, thanks. [BEAR exits as KEITH reads note.] Apparently, the producers of the San Francisco SketchFest have a couple of questions for you.

ALEX

OK. Go for it.

KEITH

SF SketchFest asks, "In our years of doing SF Sketchfest, we've had some pretty horrifying messes to clean up after a show. Who's worse—audience members or performers? Any really gnarly stories?"

ALEX

100% definitely performers. They're disgusting. Last year, there was literally a river of beer and cigarettes flowing down the back hallway. Becky and all the volunteers did a fantastic job cleaning everything up as it got destroyed, but when you have over 100 performers packed into one venue for three days, things are going to get a little bit gross. I don't have any specific stories, other than, I was hanging out in the box office for most of the festival. I had help setting up the performer hospitality room, and then didn't go backstage until much later in the night. So I got to see everything pristine and clean, and then, almost completely underwater. And when I say "underwater," I mean "under beer."

KEITH

Savages. OK, one more: "As producers, do you guys ever have to play 'good cop, bad cop?' If so, do you trade off, or does somebody always get to be the crazy mad dog?"

ALEX

We do often play good-cop-better-cop. Like, say, I'll go and give a group some candy, and then one of the other producers will give them even more candy, and some gold. For the most part, I don't think we've had to play bad-cop. The groups we invite to the festival, beyond being incredibly talented, are also incredibly nice people who are supportive of sketch comedy, the festival, and the community. We try to be aware of that when we're picking groups, because a positive, fun atmosphere is very important to us. It's really almost the backbone of the festival in a way. So if there's a problem, it's more likely that they'll ask us nicely, rather than demanding anything. That being said, if someone does act out of line, Biz will smack them down like the dog they are.

KEITH

Predictions on troupe members hooking up this year?

ALEX

I predict too much hooking up. Last year there was actually a lot more than I knew about. But the thing is that with a lot of last year's hookups, they led to relationships that are still going on this year.

KEITH

Nice. SketchFest NYC—Love the love.

FADE OUT.

Related in Gelf:

A photo gallery of 10 SketchFest NYC troupes, and their answers to each others' questions

Last year's coverage of the inaugural SketchFest NYC

Related on the Web:

Alex Zalben interviewed at Gothamist

Keith Huang

Keith is a comedy nerd.







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