Escape to Sketchfest

Good God! Reporters are a chatty bunch. At this weekend’s Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN) convention in San Francisco, every writing seminar went overtime, as reporters grilled the workshop presenters on the finer points of journalism. You couldn’t shut us up.

Ironically, when we got to the convention’s Friday-night cocktail mixer, no one had anything to say. Many resigned themselves to standing near the buffet, making comments like “They have tortilla chips and potato chips. Yum!” A few attendees skipped out to the lobby to read the competitors’ newspapers.

Escape was a must. The bellhop summoned a cab, and $14 (plus tip) later, I was at the Eureka Theatre minutes before the late show at the SF Sketchfest—the annual San Francisco Sketch Comedy Festival. The crowd around the theater was killing time chatting and looking at the Sketchfest posters to see which comedians had appeared already. This year’s big names included Dana Carvey and Bruce McCulloch, but the roster also held a number of sketch and improv troupes from around the country.

The doors opened, and everyone filed in for that night’s bill: a double feature by Los Angeles’ ImprovOlympic West Mainstage Sketch Show and staple San Francisco sketch troupe Kasper Hauser. Nearly every seat was taken, and, at first glance, the crowd resembled the AAN attendees: fashionably unfashionable people reading newspapers in lieu of talking. A closer glimpse at the newspapers’ headlines—“Supreme Court to Break Up if Rehnquist Leaves,” “Waitstaff Tired of Sleeping with Each Other” etc.—revealed that the news source of choice was The Onion. (Onion writers had performed at the Sketchfest earlier that week.)

Both the ImprovOlympic West Mainstage Sketch Show and Kasper Hauser subscribed to a fast-paced show format that catered to short attention spans. The ensemble casts had few props or costumes and usually didn’t leave the stage between skits. To signal a skit had ended, the lights would dim, and the troupe’s DJ (each had one) would play a short blast from some popular radio hit. The speed kept the audience laughing but left no time to absorb what was happening. Both acts performed for about 25 minutes each—racing through topics like Burning Man, drug use, dating and partying.

The next day, it was hard to recall specific skits or remember who had done what. However, one skit stood out: ImprovOlympic’s recurring scene of an office birthday party in which co-workers stand around a cake, making small talk. The actors lean on conversational crutches like Seinfeld plots, whose birthday is next and how moist the cake is (all delivered with painfully slow pauses). Although the skit contained few cymbal-crashing punch lines, it perfectly captured the awkwardness that occurs when people with nothing in common but their occupation are forced to socialize. Swap the cake for chips, and it could have been the AAN mixer. It was funnier on the stage.