A Laughable Feast

26. January, 2012 Theater No comments

Once a humble assemblage of local sketch comedy acts, SF Sketchfest now brings a staggering number of comedy heavyweights to San Francisco every year. The 11th annual comedy fest opened last Thursday, and the last week has already seen performances by John Hodgman, Ann Magnuson, Bruce McCulloch, Phil LaMarr, Eugene Mirman, Bobcat Goldthwait, Ben Gibbard, Molly Shannon, Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, Paul Rudd, David Cross, Amy Poehler, Judy Greer, Will Durst, Bill Corbett, Kevin Murphy, Kevin Pollak, the Groundlings, Stella and the original Upright Citizens Brigade, including a radio-play reading of Wet Hot American Summer and a table-read of its unproduced sequel. The next week will bring Drew Carey and the Whose Line Is It Anyway? cast, Wil Wheaton, Adam Savage, Barry Bostwick, Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman, Fred Willard, Rachel Dratch, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Florence Henderson, Laraine Newman, Oscar Nunez, Will Forte, Mary Lynn Rajskub, W. Kamau Bell, Dan Harmon, Kevin Smith, Will Franken, Bob Odenkirk, and… well good lord, isn’t that enough for you? Apparently not, because that doesn’t even cover half of what’s going on.

Ann Magnuson performs The Drawing Room Apocalypse at SF Sketchfest.

What’s great about Sketchfest is that a lot of the performers are thrown together into sketch comedy or improv combinations projects that they may not normally be part of or might just be one-time experiments; the festival is fertile ground for cross-pollination and trying stuff out, which is half the fun for participants and audiences alike. Despite its high-profile visitors, Sketchfest tends to be off the radar of much of the local theatre community, attracting its own crowd of comedy aficionados. It doesn’t help that it falls at the same time that most theatre companies are opening shows after the post-holiday dead period. This year, though, I managed to catch several of the shows opening weekend.

First up was Bruce McCulloch, who’s performed at Sketchfests past both on his own and with his old sketch comedy compatriots, the Kids in the Hall. The Pink Dot Stories is a book of short pieces that he’s working on, and Friday’s show has a chance to read some of them in front of a live audience at the Eureka Theatre. His opening act was Knuckles and Tits, a duo made up of Stephen Brophy and Ebbie Parker, half of a Los Angeles sketch comedy group I’ve never seen but think has the best name ever: Oh, You and Your Bone Spurs. Almost every one of their sketches had to do with a horrific date, each involving a stalker, a demon or gunplay. They were borderline disturbing, but amusing nonetheless.

McCulloch’s performance was a mixture of stories and songs, accompanied by Marc Capelle on keyboard. “It’s a series of stories I may or may not write,” he explained. “I don’t know, it was a fucking bluff to get here.” All the stories had a madcap, stream-of-consciousness style, though for my money the bits delivered in a seemingly off-the-cuff standup style were more hilarious than the ones he read, about “waking up with a crazy chick” or going into Taco Ball and trying to score free food because his dad died. He talked about how terrible his show was the last time he was here in a string of florid similes that would put Raymond Chandler to shame. He described coming to San Francisco and “partying down” with the mayor, who kept saying things like “you want to drink from a puddle of bus driver’s tears? I can arrange that.” or “C’mon, Bruce, I know where the guns are kept. Let’s fuck shit up.” McCulloch didn’t name the mayor, but somehow it’s all the funnier picturing the current mayor talking like that. In the course of talking about what a good read the Bible is, he said, “I love religion. It gives stupid people something to do besides buying lottery tickets, which really is kind of the same thing.” His boyish demeanor and deadpan delivery  made whatever he had to say all the funnier. Sometimes he even couldn’t help but crack himself up, such as in his closing musical number, “Angie the HIV Unicorn”

I was particularly excited to see The Thrilling Adventure Hour at Marines Memorial Theatre Sunday afternoon, because I’d caught the show last year and it was hilarious. Cocreated by Ben Acker and Ben Blacker, it’s a series of scripted comedy shows in the style of 1940s radio adventure serials, with star-studded casts and priceless theme songs and commercials for Work Juice Coffee and Patriot Brand Cigarettes. The actors perform with scripts in hand at a row of mics, just like they would if it were an actual radio recording. Because of the large casts and guest stars that vary from show to show, I’d been under the impression that the installments in the ongoing serials were written for the occasion, but the episode of Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars we were treated to on Sunday clearly took place before the one I heard last year (this one introduced Sparks’s faithful Martian companion Croach the Tracker, who was already his sidekick last time around), so it may be that they keep older scripts in the rotation.

Whatever the case, the show’s just delightful. The Saturday evening installment had some guest stars I didn’t see on Sunday, including McCulloch and Andy Richter, but it was hard to mind much. A narrator sits off to the stage manipulating sound effects on a Macbook, usually Hal Lublin in a variety of styles from booming nobility to dusty old prospector. After a hilarious Work Juice commercial featuring Paul F. Tompkins as the imperious King of Coffee, the players went into a rollicking space Western adventure of Earth-born, robo-fisted Marshall Sparks Nevada (Mark Evan Jackson) and noble Martian Croach the Tracker (Craig Cackowski), with The Daily Show’s John Hodgman as the infuriating voice menu of the lawman’s ray gun and  Garret Dillahunt as genteel robot outlaw John Steelhands, the Gentleman Thief. The superhero romp The Adventures of Captain Laserbeam featured John DiMaggio as the blustery, befuddled hero, Lublin and Cougartown’s Busy Phillips as kid sidekicks the Adventurekateers, Joshua Malina and Colin Hanks as supervillains the Difficult Man and Kid Ragnarok, and John Ennis as a former Adventurekateer turned criminal henchman.

The Cross-Time Adventures of Colonel Tick-Tock, a Victorian-era time traveler in the mode of Doctor Who (only much more plummy), had the titular adventurer (Cackowski) sent by Queen Victoria to rescue Neal Armstrong (James Urbaniak) and Buzz Aldrin (Samm Levine doing a priceless Shatner impersonation) from time piranhas. Perhaps the funniest segment this time around was Beyond Belief, a Thin Man style quasi-horror show featuring Frank (Tompkins) and Sadie Doyle (Paget Brewster), socialites turned supernatural detectives, or at least people who encounter otherworldly forces at random and banter wittily about them. This one involved a hapless goat (Community’s Gillian Jacobs), a chupacabra unconvincingly disguised as a farmer (Matt Gourley), a snooty prince (Hodgman) and a cynical hipster witch (Annie Savage) interrupting the Doyles’ morning cocktails. The whole show was only 80 minutes or so, but in terms of laughs per minute, it felt like a feast.

Saturday night was The Black Version back at the Eureka, one of two shows by the Groundlings in this year’s fest. This one’s an improv show in audience members shout out classic films, and the cast of African-American comedians improvises “the black version” of that movie, with character types and names suggested by the audience. Apparently one past show was The Silence of the Lambs, retitled Why You Eatin’ People? This time the movie picked was The Breakfast Club, despite some bellowers’ loud and repeated insistence on Star Wars or Steel Magnolias.

The opening act this time was 7th Grade, the Awkward Musical, which certainly lived up to its name, both in capturing the wrenching anxiety of junior high and in the awkwardness of its own humor, which tended toward the sophomoric. Having the Period Fairy show up to explain pubescent changes through “a menstrual show” in redface was a cute touch, but it really was just a musical about 7th grade, the songs were grating and it felt awfully long for an opener.

The Black Version’s Breakfast Club parody was also generously proportioned, packed with “DVD extras”: cut scenes, blooper reels, and particularly hilarious audition footage from imagined actors who didn’t make the cut. Newly dubbed Gonna Eat Some Breakfast, it opened with a meandering R&B theme song made up on the spot by actors Keegan Michael-Key, Cedric Yarbrough, Daniele Gaither and Gary Anthony Williams, replete with sections for each to vamp with a rap or bit of mid-song seductive patter. For each scene, director Karen Maruyama would call out which actors she wanted onstage and which bit from Breakfast Club she wanted them to reinvent

Michael-Key was cast as an aspiring rapper, Ice Kool-Aid, who kept getting tangled up in search of a rhyme. Yarbrough was the jock, a member of the swim team who kept punching the Dungeons & Dragons-obsessed nerd perhaps inevitably named Obama (Jordan Black). Gaither was given the “diva whore” role of Shaquillitia, and Williams played Trixie, a shy girl with an unspecified eating disorder. Phil LaMarr played the hardass, OCD-plagued principal Richard Head, and Maruyama gave Yarbrough the last-minute extra role of the janitor, who he interpreted surreally as an ex-slave from a last American plantation that somehow survived into 21st century Oakland, adding a whole new level to the story. The story was predictably all over the place, but some of the ad libs were hysterical—and because ultimately it was all ad libs, that was good news indeed.

Tuesday I was at Yoshi’s in Oakland for Ann Magnuson’s show The Drawing Room Apocalypse, a cabaret evening loosely based around the Mayan hysteria about the world ending this year—or, as the show was billed, “a salon des beaux arts for the fin du monde 2012.” Looking for all the world like a gracious Victorian hostess in a glittering gown with opera gloves, the singer/actress/performance artist staggered around as if in an earthquake, then tottered gingerly to the mic in her heels to read a section of Jack London’s somber account of the 1906 earthquake before launching into a delicate, trilling rendition of the ‘60s Skeeter Davis hit “The End of the World.” The evening veered between charmingly frenzied rants about the doom awaiting us when Quetzalcoatl comes and the planet Melancholia collides with the Earth on December 24, 2012 and a delightfully off-the-wall selection of songs, whether her own or by Jacques Brel, Bessie Smith, Kurt Weill, David Bowie, Jobriath, the Doors or the Rolling Stones. Stripping down to a corset, she even did a medley of her old cult duo Bongwater, pulling from “Talent Is a Vampire,” “The Power of Pussy,” “Chicken Pussy,” “Obscene and Pornographic Art” and “Nick Cave Dolls.” (I say “even” because I understand that partnership ended badly, but maybe that’s all bongwater under the bridge by now.) Mixed in were originals from her past performance The Luv Show such as the saucy “Sex with the Devil,” plus a heartrending song about loved ones lost to AIDS and a duet written by her pianist Kristian Hoffman (whose sheet music totally fascinated me looking over his shoulder, with big block letters of the notes in lieu of traditional musical notation). She sang a lovely rendition of Weill’s “September Song” and provided her own fake echo on David Bowie’s “Five Years” (“I knew he was not lying…lying”). The whole evening was thoroughly charming, generous, lovely and amusing, if not particularly sketchish and anything but sketchy.

I finished up my week at the fest Wednesday night at the Palace of Fine Arts, where British actor and comedian Eddie Izzard was being interviewed onstage by comic Greg Proops. For years now, the SF Sketchfest Tributes have been a great way for the festival to attract high-profile artists such as Amy Sedaris, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, Dana Carvey, Paul Reubens, the Kids in the Hall, the State and Conan O’Brien, some of whom have stuck around to play in subsequent Sketchfests. After an excited introduction by festival cofounders David Owen, Cole Stratton and Janet Varney, the evening opened with a tribute reel of clips from Izzard’s various standup shows and film roles. The rest was just Izzard and Proops sitting in comfy chairs drinking wine and talking about Izzard’s career, from developing his voice as a London street performer in a double act to trying to weed out his comedic habits as a serious actor (including playing Long John Silver in a recent TV version of Treasure Island in the UK). He’s even avoided comic roles, he says, to avoid getting pigeonholed, arguing that even in comedies like Mystery Men or My Super Ex-Girlfriend he’s played his parts straight.

Izzard talked about the challenges of street performing and the brazen confidence that had to go with it. He related getting his first West End stage role, in David Mamet’s The Cryptogram, without even having to audition because Alan Rickman had turned down the role and recommended him instead. He described what a bizarre experience it was to play Lenny Bruce and have to learn to inhabit the voice and style of a very different standup act from his own.

As his mile-a-minute, stream-of-consciousness style might indicate, Izzard said that he’d never been able to write out his routines in advance, preferring instead to record himself when he’s on a roll riffing on the street or in the pub, and using that to shape his act. As someone who’s been performing in French in Paris in recent years, Izzard debunked the whole idea of different nations having different national senses of humor, saying that in any country you’ll find people who find different things funny, just as you do here, and as long as he kept the culturally specific references to a minimum he found the same jokes went over in one country about as well as another. He talked about performing in drag after coming out as a transvestite, and some of the questionable fashion choices that went along with that. “I am a straight transvestite,” he explained. “We have no fucking design sense whatsoever.”

Proops proved a charming, witty interviewer, and Izzard a generous, forthright subject. At the end of the two-hour event they opened it up to questions from the audience, in which fans got a chance to ask after whatever obscure, unavailable-in-the-US projects they’re particularly into, or about running 43 marathons in 51 days a few years back. “I have the legs of a Greek god,” he said. San Francisco clearly knows its Izzard. When one woman asked, “My only question is, would you like a cup of coffee?” Proops quipped, “Well, that was brazen.”

Nary a one of these particular shows is still running, but there’s a whole other week of still more shenanigans to come, notwithstanding the usual trickle of Sketchfest-related events after the festival itself. (Not that I know of any offhand this time around, but they usually pop up.) Seriously, take a peek at the schedule once you have your dazzle-proof glasses on.

SF Sketchfest
Through February 4
various venues

Pink Dot Stories: Show #4 of 2012, attended January 20.

The Thrilling Adventure Hour: Show #6 of 2012, attended January 22.

The Black Version: Show #7 of 2012, attended January 22.

The Drawing Room Apocalypse: Show #8 of 2012, attended January 24.

Eddie Izzard in Conversation: Show #9 of 2012, attended January 25.

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