We know funny

If off the map is the new outside the box, maybe Sac’s actually ahead of the comedy curve

<a href="http://SacActors.com/">SacActors.com</a> producing artistic director Evan Nossoff (left) and comedian/impresario Keith Lowell Jensen at Midtown’s Geery Theater, hub of the city’s alt-comedy renaissance.

SacActors.com producing artistic director Evan Nossoff (left) and comedian/impresario Keith Lowell Jensen at Midtown’s Geery Theater, hub of the city’s alt-comedy renaissance.

SN&amp;R Photo By Larry Dalton

Sketch comedy is like the cultural life of Sacramento: way too easy to pronounce dead. Funny how that works. “Oh, I gave up on Saturday Night Live and all those shows, like, years ago,” the old bromide goes. Or: “This town’s so lame, it’s even 10 years late to things that never mattered in the first place.” Yeah, yeah. So what’s your suggestion, captain hilarious?

Well, how about this subversive idea: Comedy is good again, and so is our city, and maybe right now the two just happen to be good for each other. What’s more: You not being able to fathom such radical concepts just reinforces their element of surprise. Timing’s everything, right?

With that in mind, consider the prognosis for this weekend to be quite optimistic. That’s when the critically adored, L.A.-based comedy duo Ten West plays the Geery Theater. The plotless, wordless, anarchic, acrobatic, commedia dell’arte-influenced duo, here making its Sacramento debut, comes highly recommended to us—as the city does to it: Lately Sacramento, and the Geery in particular, has become a sweet spot for all manner of artfully refined silliness. Due props to the dutiful rompers making rounds at the Punch Line and the Comedy Spot and Laughs Unlimited and so on, but there is alt everything else, so why not alt comedy? Well, it lives here. Or visits regularly, at least.

Right: Who’da thunk it? That would be Keith Lowell Jensen, a local comedian, occasional SN&R contributor, co-founder of the 5-year-old sketch troupe I Can’t Believe It’s Not Comedy (of which Nothing Ever Happens columnist and former SN&R arts editor Becca Costello is a member), Sammies emcee and various other things too tedious for a lazy journalist to disclaim. Suffice it to say that Jensen’s experience has afforded him a unique understanding of what this city is about, funny-wise.

“Being on the way between important cities, Sacramento’s not a career-launching town,” he says. “A review from SN&R or the Bee doesn’t help us as much as one from San Francisco—even if it’s only from some guy’s ’zine. One time we sat at a sketch comedy festival where they called off the names of the cities all the troupes came from. Never once was there a Poughkeepsie. No Fresno. Certainly not Sacramento. Yeah, career-wise, it’s really a dumb move not to head down to L.A. But I like it here.”

He must, because under such conditions it takes real vision to see the potential of the place, let alone find it funny. But Jensen has also proven a shrewd impresario, so skilled at cherry-picking great out-of-town talent and helping it shine here that Sacramento’s non-on-the-map status one day might actually start to confer, well, status.

Duos of comedy dudes run rampant at the Geery: Andrew Connor and Mike Mathieu of the Cody Rivers Show.

Photo By Barbara Pedrick

Within reason, of course. “There’s one club in Sacramento, the people who work there refer to it as hackramento,” says Bay Area comedian Brent Weinbach, who is, to understate it, the weirdest, smartest, herniatingly funniest son of a bitch in the history of weird, smart, herniatingly funny sons of bitches. “People have this idea that the audiences there can be lame about what kind of comedy they appreciate.” But Weinbach, who’s also performed at the Geery in recent months, both solo and with his sketch-trio, Boomtime, has not gone unappreciated. “The Geery was really great,” he says. “The people coming to see the shows were really on board with weird, creative stuff. Yeah, that’s my go-to venue if I want to try something more experimental.”

Weinbach’s not alone. Another Jensen find, an experimental sketch duo from Bellingham, Wash., called the Cody Rivers Show (accurately if reductively described by somebody or other as “Cirque de Soleil meets Monty Python”), found its brief Geery tenure this April to be not just supportive but instructive. “I think Sacramento was the last stop on our tour, so we’d been doing that show for two and a half months,” recalls Cody Rivers’ Andrew Connor. “We were feeling pretty confident. We did two shows on one night, and I think we were a little slap-happy when the second show came around. Really loose and willing to play. And the audience really dug it and really went with us. And that emboldened us. That was a lesson that we can feel comfortable going even further into weird, unpredictable territory, and it’s not gonna be a disaster. It took that double-header at the Geery to unlock it for us.”

At least a few of those shows’ audience members took a chance on Cody Rivers specifically because they’d been so bowled over by Weinbach. And when Cody Rivers bowled them over too, they told friends. “I had people on Saturday who said they came because somebody called after the Friday show and said, ‘You have to go to this,’” Jensen recalls.

Connor says Sacramento hadn’t been on the Cody Rivers radar at all until Jensen, having seen the pair at a sketch festival, got in touch. “I can’t think of any other city where that exact thing has happened,” Connor says. “Now we’re extremely eager to go back.”

So it would seem that a very special set of ingredients is required for a comedy renaissance. Not just a tireless—OK, manic—producer, and a grateful—OK, starved—audience, and word of mouth, but also, importantly, a just-right seeming performance space, where weird-creative or weird-unpredictable experiments may be conducted with relative impunity.

Here, in accordance with the city’s low profile, just right equals intimate and unpretentious. “It’s just a 49-seat house,” says Evan Nossoff, producing artistic director of Sac Actors, the Geery’s resident theater company. “That can be an advantage. Normally when you see performers of this quality, you’re sitting in 2,400 seats.” Of the space’s owners, Jon and Diane Heintzer, Nossoff says, “They’re tolerant. The cost is reasonable, so we can take chances.”

Nossoff, a veteran of Chicago’s Second City who got started in Sacramento’s theater scene with an improv group in 1978, has no shortage of considered opinions on comedy. “I think there’s a real need for people to laugh without getting drunk,” he says. “It’s much tougher, though, without a two-drink minimum. Because you’ve really got to get the audience to resonate with it. What these performers do is classical. And in some sense it’s a dying art, because film has robbed us of a lot of craft. To do a film, you’ve got to be able to be real for about 45 seconds at a time. That’s a little different from being able to sustain something for an hour and a half.”

Jon Monastero and Stephen Simon of Ten West.

Photo By Blake Gardner

For groups like Cody Rivers and Ten West, that means pushing the boundaries of sketch to the point that the boundaries themselves seem to curl with glee. “I think most of America thinks of comedy as really being two things,” says Ten West’s Jon Monastero, “either sketch or standup. We’re more of a clown show, vaudevillian. Of course it’s given a 21st-century spin. We definitely don’t go out and make balloon animals, and wear white-face. Some of the themes of our pieces have a more modern bent. There’s a lot of pathos.”

Seriously. Which explains Ten West’s easy kinship with Cody Rivers. “They came up to us and said, ‘We thought we were the only people doing this kind of stuff,’” Monastero recalls of the two duos’ first meeting. “Then they told us about this guy in Sacramento who’s putting on these shows.”

“It should be stated clearly,” says Connor, “that for sketch groups to get to go to another city and have great audiences and get paid really well and have a show produced like that is still regrettably rare in this country.”

“Fuck, I’m awesome,” says Jensen. “Of course, I’m always in the show myself, somehow. Yeah, I’m that guy.”

This weekend, Jensen will open for Ten West with his own One Man Sketch Comedy Show in a Box, a “fast-paced combining of Catskills-inspired standup, sketch comedy and the dastardly influences of The Gong Show, The Muppet Show and California’s pathetic public-school system.”

At the Geery in August, Jensen will debut the Coexist? Comedy Tour. Its tagline: “Five comedians. Five sets of beliefs. One hilarious show.” A sample, from local self-described Indian comedian Tapan Trivedi (Hindu): “Religion is like a big cock: It’s a great thing to have, but you can’t just go shoving it down people’s throats all the time.” It’s even funnier in his voice because he’s, you know, Indian.

These and other laff-riots, or presumptions thereof, will lay the groundwork for Sacramento All Sketch, a festival Jensen and fellow ICBINC performer Sid Garcia Heberger have planned for next February. The time, and the place—where standup, improv and sketch have safely and wildly combined into category-shunning DIY combinations thereof—couldn’t seem more right.

“Live theater is an exchange,” says Ten West’s Monastero. “You’re openly receptive to what you see on stage. You walk out with a piece of what you’ve experienced.”

Jensen does, anyway, usually intending to incubate it within the laboratory that is his city. “In September I’m going up to Seattle to see if I can recruit some people because it’s my favorite sketch fest,” he says. “Except for ours, which doesn’t exist yet. Oh, but it will. It will.”