Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


June 7, 2007

Industry & Video Arrive at SketchFest

The founder of New York's sketch festival seeks continuity of comedy amid big changes in the industry and corporate interest in his baby.

Keith Huang

Since Gelf last covered SketchFest NYC, sketch-comedy troupes have jumped on the surge in popularity for online-video sites to promote their work like never before. For Alex Zalben, the founder and co-producer of New York's live sketch-comedy festival that launches Thursday, June 7, that doesn't diminish the value of live performance. Instead it means he expects troupes to deliver comedic surprises during their live performances.

Alex Zalben/Photo courtesy Elephant Larry
"We made it very clear to Lifetime Television that this is our festival and you are lucky to be part of it."

Alex Zalben/Photo courtesy Elephant Larry

"We're looking for people who are gonna put on a kick-ass, awesome live show," Zalben told Gelf about the groups picked to perform at the East 13th Street Theatre in Union Square. "While almost every group has a bunch of videos—and they'll likely show some of them during their shows—we still think of videos as supplements to a live show and not a substitution."

Gelf recently caught up with Zalben to talk about how industry's heavy presence will affect the festival, whether he'd ever sell out, and the pros and cons of celebrity headliners. Here's an edited transcript of the conversation:

Gelf Magazine: What's up with SketchFest this year? Tell me something good.

Alex Zalben: Almost half of the groups are new to the festival this year. We have an all-New York show kicking things off—A Week of Kindness and Drop Six—two younger groups that are really defining their roles in the sketch-comedy scene. We have Dance Party Newfoundland from Canada—it's been bandied around a lot that they're reminiscent of the Kids in the Hall while still doing their own thing. It's really great character-based sketches all about life in a small fishing village, which is where they're from, but somehow they still make it relate-able to life in New York…I guess [laughs]. And on Saturday night we have Karla coming from L.A. I've seen one of their first shows and I've seen them develop over the past three years, and they've gone from good to really, really great. And every other group. They're all special little flowers.

GM: What are some of the differences for the festival this year?

AZ: We have more sponsors this year. We're going to have a bigger panel of industry folks talking to performers. It'll be most of the online-video people getting together and chatting, but for groups that aren't based in New York or L.A., it's a good thing because they don't get to be in a room with all those people very often. Plus, there's going to be a ridiculous amount of press and industry this year. Yesterday, I was talking to the other producers and joking, "Wow, I hope we can actually sell tickets to people, as well, instead of just giving away industry passes." But if I'm a sketch group coming in to do this festival—even if I were putting on an all-industry showcase in New York—I'm not going to get 150 industry and press people to check me out at the same time. I think it's a pretty big benefit."

GM: But will a heavy-industry audience affect the way troupes perform? Is it necessarily a good thing?

AZ: If it does, then I haven't done my job properly. I'm the buffer guy. I talk to the industry and make sure they're all settled and they're happy and that they don't have to interact with the groups unless they want to, and vice versa. Our job as a production team is to make sure the performances, first and foremost, are fun and exciting for paid customers and performers and whoever else wants to have a good time. And it doesn't become that if it's just 50 industry people in the room and everyone's quiet. I think the nice thing about that is the industry appreciates it, as well.

GM: Do you, as one of the producers, ever worry about losing control of the festival to a corporate presence?

AZ: Oh, we wouldn't take it…[laughs] I say that now but watch Time Warner come in and say, "We'll give you a million dollars." And I'd be like, "Ah, it's yours." Last year we had Lifetime as a headline sponsor and we worked out ways to have them be a part of the festival and having them add elements, but we made it very clear to them that this is our festival and you are lucky to be part of it. We let them know we were very excited to work with them but that they should be just as excited with us. But if they were to have said, "Why don't you take one of these groups out," we would have said, "No. Take your money back."

"Our job is to make sure the performances are fun and exciting. And it doesn't become that if it's just 50 industry people in the room and everyone's quiet."
GM: During the first festival, we talked about how SketchFest NYC didn't want to bring in any celebrity headliners. Has that changed now that the festival is gaining more attention?

AZ: We talk about that every year, and what we come back to is that the festival is about the groups. With headliners you get a lot of press and talk and buzz, but all that ends up being for the headliners and not for the other groups. And the way we think about it—not to get totally cheesy—but the groups that we're bringing in are the headliners. But it's still something we discuss and we want to figure out the right way to do it so it doesn't overshadow everything else.

GM: Do you powwow with producers of the other sketch festivals about how to run the show?

AZ: Yeah, we're all friends, so we talk with them on a constant basis. Everybody wants to learn from each other and put on the best sketch festival they possibly can. That being said, we put on the best sketch festival. So there you go.

Keith Huang

Keith is a comedy nerd.

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Article by Keith Huang

Keith is a comedy nerd.

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