As popular as Mr. Show, Pee-Wee's Playhouse, the Upright Citizens Brigade, and Kids in the Hall are in San Francisco, the San Francisco Sketchfest, with performers from all of these groups, still squeaks by unnoticed by many in the area. The festival isn't in any danger whatsoever; now in its sixth year, it's more successful than ever. In fact, you'll be lucky to get a ticket to any event day of show. However, there is still time to get tickets for many of SF Sketchfest's upcoming events (the fest runs through January 28th). Get ticket information (at sfsketchfest.com).
Since last Friday, when the festival started, I've attended one show and worked the door at three more. I've noticed the same people in line for multiple events and have seen more of the $200 festival passes than I thought I'd see. What we have here is a festival that is quickly becoming the Sundance of alternative comedy, and so far it's mostly the hardcore comedy fans that are paying attention.
Some of you may not know what I mean by "alternative comedy." The origins of alternative comedy go back to LA in the early '90s. Otherwise successful comics, after stints on shows as prestigious as Saturday Night Live, left the stability of the comedy clubs to put on shows in other venues that were self-booked, self-promoted and performed by comedians. This was an "alternative" to both the business and the content of the comedy clubs.
Most comedy clubs have a structure that doesn't waver -- certain styles of comedy and content will go over in your standard club. In the tiny theater spaces, comics developed new styles and experimented with the form itself. The theater spaces also lent themselves to the then-barely-breathing art of sketch comedy.
With room to grow, sketch groups and a new school of comedians emerged into what is now thought of as the best era in American comedy. Along with new distribution methods of comedy such as MySpace and YouTube, there has never been this much access to this quality of comedians, and the top tier are here in San Francisco through January 28th.
The most unusual show I've seen thus far was Match Game Live. If you're familiar with the '70s game show of the same name, it's exactly what it sounds like. Filling in for the celebrity guests were David Cross, Maria Bamford, Doug Benson, Scott Aukerman, Paul F. Tompkins, and Danielle Koening. In the Gene Rayburn role was comedian Jimmy Pardo, whose crowd work and banter with the audience was top notch. As with other celebrity games such as Hollywood Squares, it was more about the comedians than the contestants, who were picked randomly from the audience and were, at times, the dullest imaginable. I caught earlier live performances by most of the featured comedians, but it was a different kind of treat to see them in a more candid setting.
No show on the lineup will disappoint. Here are the ones I wouldn't miss:
Monday, January 22
SF Sketchfest Tribute: Paul Reubens in conversation with Ben Fong-Torres
Paul Reubens is better known as his iconic character, Pee Wee Herman. While you're likely familiar with Pee Wee, Paul is also a fairly interesting character who rarely does interviews, much less live candid interviews such as this one with the one-time editor of Rolling Stone.
Wednesday, January 24
Emerging Night: Richter Scale/ Rice and Beans/ Free Hooch/ Drennon Davis/ Local Heroes/ hosted by Moshe Kasher
A Tribute to Mitch Hedberg
This is a regular Sophie's Choice of comedy!!! Both events start at 8pm. Emerging Night will give you a chance to see these groups before they break big, with talented local solo acts Drennon Davis and Moshe Kasher. But over at Cobb's it's A Tribute to Mitch Hedberg.
Mitch Hedberg was the king of the non sequitur. There's really no one else like him, and his jokes were decidedly his own. He died of an overdose at the age of 37 in 2005. I'm not sure what exactly will be at the tribute, but expect un-aired footage and anecdotes from other comics who knew him.
Friday, January 26
UCB ASSSSCAT: Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, Sean Conroy with guest monologist Bob Odenkirk/ Straitjacket
The Upright Citizens Brigade only ran a few years on TV, but the episodes still stand up today on DVD. Since then, UCB members have started two theaters, one in New York, the other in LA. With them is Bob Odenkirk, who made his mark with Mr. Show. What you'll see is the UCB style improvisation, which is its own animal. Forget all the bad improv you've seen. UCB will blow that away.
Saturday, January 27
The Bruce McCulloch Project/ The 30 Cent Players
Bruce McCulloch, of Kids in the Hall, has his hand-picked crew to debut new sketches and writing. I'm thinking this could be the next group to hit television, if the chemistry gels. See them now in their early stages.
SF Sketchfest runs through January 28, 2006 at various San Francisco locations. See the full schedule (at sfsketchfest.com)