I've been on jury duty this past week, secluded in a series of rooms, eating pizza and Chinese food. Before you feel sorry for me, let me admit that it was a jury for the ninth annual Seattle SketchFest, and I was sitting with five other angry men (and women) watching 28 entrants give their best 10 minutes of sketch comedy, live or on video.
That's roughly five hours of sporadic funniness.
Now you can feel sorry for me.
Actually, it was sort of fun. The entrants were about as hit-and-miss as they've been in years past (I have the dubious distinction of having been a jury member since SketchFest's beginning in 1999), and I always enjoy the comments, quips, and occasional groans of my fellow jurors.
Sketch Fest's artistic director, Val Bush, has developed a useful sheet for the jury, with a one-to-five rating in four categories: Laugh-O-Meter, Creativity/Uniqueness, Writing Quality, and Performance Quality. I've also come up with four additional categories: Comedy You Laugh At; Comedy You Smile At; Comedy You Neither Laugh nor Smile At; and Comedy That Causes the Sort of Morose Hatred that Some Children Have Toward Clowns.
You wouldn't guess it from listless, derivative crap like Saturday Night Live, but sketch can be very, very good. The best sketch groups, like Chicago's Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City—and Seattle's own Bald Face Lie and the Habit (now, alas, both deceased)—produce tiny, hilarious masterpieces that combine the absurdism of Ionesco and Pinter (who wrote sketch pieces early in his career) with the comic genius of Durang or Woody Allen.
In 2000, around the time of the last big local sketch boom (whatever else you can say about Sept. 11, 2001, it really was a damper on funny), more than a dozen companies routinely performed late nights at virtually every fringe theater in town and a few bars, too. Now sketch is mostly eclipsed by stand-up, though the People's Republic of Komedy recently sponsored a "Sketch Invasion!" at their Laff Hole stand-up evening at CHAC. (This month they're moving to Chop Suey.)
The performers that evening also competed in SketchFest, so I will withhold my opinion until the winners are announced later this month. But I will admit that there weren't any entries this year who made me laugh as much as Bellingham's the Cody Rivers Show did in 2005, or who gave the sincere thrill of Chicago's Defiant Thomas Brothers, a black-and-white duo who visited in 2003, and whose unflinching comedy tackled not just race but the nature of what is, and isn't, funny. (A classic skit of theirs has two improv performers open their envelope to discover that the word they're supposed to transform into a yukfest is "abortion.")
One welcome development was a healthy number of all-female groups. My favorites included the Apple Sisters, an all-singing, all tap-dancing trio who create a sweet nostalgia for the great music of the 1940s while chirpily sneaking in a few double entendres. Another is returning company Karla, a two-woman troupe from L.A. who combine closely observed social comedy with absurd ideas. (One of my favorite pieces from this duo involves a woman who decides she's going to have her wings removed because, while she can fly, she can't wear cute T-shirts.)
Groups like this raised a few weary cheers from the jurors. As we finished the last of the Chinese food and clicked off the DVD, there was a feeling in the room of a job well done, of people who felt that we know funny, and have done the best we can to find some of it for this year's audiences. (SketchFest will take place in September.) It gave me a warm feeling. Or maybe it was the MSG.John Longenbaugh