Is It Art Or Is It Snark?

Last season, Tina Fey reminded us that sketch comedy could be pretty sensational; Fey as Sarah Palin was a revelation. But it was the "interview" with Katie Couric (Amy Poehler) that comes to mind on the eve of SF Sketchfest, the annual comedy festival, which starts tonight and runs through February 2.

A key component to the awesomeness of that Palin/Couric sketch was that a giant chunk of the dialogue was verbatim Palin. Those words spoke for themselves. You can't make this stuff up! (as they say, somewhere.) But you can mount it as staged performance.

SF Sketchfest, now in its ninth year, showcases improv, stand-up, sketch comedy and cult film screenings. In recent years, many of the events have been inspired by "found" material, which is culled, swiped or appropriated from real life sources.

This year, the festival pays tribute to some established muckety-mucks -- like Conan O'Brien and Dick Cavett and some classic film comedies (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Waiting For Guffman). John Hodgman (The Daily Show's resident expert) will receive the SF Sketchfest Comedy Writing Award and will converse onstage with Dave Eggers on January 30th. And scads of comics (including Michael Cera, Neil Patrick Harris, Rachel Dratch, Julia Sweeney, Dave Foley, Fred Willard, Ileanna Douglas -- to name but seven) will appear in what I'll call "found comedy."

Like found art -- from Marcel Duchamp's readymades to Found Magazine, a scrapbook of discards from other people's lives -- found performance repurposes its source material. Found comedy takes the accidentally hilarious and shines a spotlight on it. That is, Tina Fey's Sarah Palin is funny ha ha. Sarah Palin's Sarah Palin is funny yikes!


Consider Celebrity Autobiography (January 30 and 31). You would no doubt be amused at the poorly-written naval-gazing if you bothered to read a Loni Anderson memoir or a Mr. T tell-all. But when Rachel Dratch reads to you from the intimate musings of Miley Cyrus or Will Forte reads verbatim from the erotic philosophizing of Metallica's Tommy Lee, it's no longer drivel; it's theater. (The writings of Mr. T, Mr. Lee and Ms. Cyrus were read by these actors in previous iterations of the show (in LA, NY and here). Which guest orator will read whose C-list memoir at this year's Sketchfest is part of the surprise.)

Like the implied quotation marks that are often a part of satire (and camp), refried transcripts cue the irony. When Fey does verbatim Palin, she's putting the two-fingered bunny ears behind the former Alaska governor's head. When Michael Urie (Ugly Betty's Marc St. James) reads from David Cassidy's memoir (C'mon Get Happy, 1994), he is -- lovingly -- putting a two-fingered "loser" sign on the former teen heartthrob's forehead.

Comedic readings of the confessions of Keith Partridge (he had nailed his TV half-sister) or of Vanna White (the secret of her letter turning is all in the wrist) are found prose -- a sub-category of found performance. They are enhanced only by tone of voice. But SF Sketchfest also features a series of found footage humor -- forgotten movie rubbish screened for public mockery.

Cinematic Titanic, brought to you by the professional smart alecks of Mystery Science Theater 3000, scavenges through the septic tank of celluloid sludge to unspool the stinkiest movies for our mocking pleasure. This year at the Castro, they'll provide running quippery during the February 2 screening of Danger on Tiki Island (a shlocky 1968 sci-fi horror flick involving virgin sacrifices and mutant monsters).

"Laughing at" differs from the "laughing with" solidarity that you can feel in the audience at Mortified, performed monthly (not part of the festival, but terrific -- the first SF performances of 2010 are this weekend at the Make Out Room). Here teen artifacts (journals, letters, poems) are read by their original authors (Adult Survivors of Adolescence) before total strangers. Since these diarists and poets are putting the two-fingered L on their own foreheads, the laughter is usually tempered with condolences.

This comedy of hindsight is also on self-display at SF Sketchfest's The Shit Show (January 24), a collection of the worst (and yet real) TV pilots and movies that never came to light. They'll be presented by the actors who regret doing them -- and can laugh about it now. It's a cross between Cinematic Titanic's unbridled ridicule of bad movies and the self-inflicted comedy of Mortified. Actors in the The Shit Show reveal what they accidentally stepped in.

Facebook Improv (January 23) takes the utterly virtual inter-web of online living and repurposes it IRL for laughs. Here, the Facebook pages of audience volunteers are projected onto a big screen and comics make hay of the subjects' status updates, group affiliations, wall postings etc.

"A great deal of comedy...has always been in response to its respective current climate," says Janet Varney, one of the co-founders of SF Sketchfest. "It comments on culture, politics, trends, issues... so this hard-to-define, sort of post-modern way of tweaking existing entertainment is probably a good reflection of our times."

Indeed, Facebook Improv was originally My Space Improv -- the 8-track tape of social networking. The show re-branded itself to continue its ride on the coattails of the current zeitgeist. Back in the distant 1980s, VH1s Pop-Up Videos tailgated the then still-novel music video format. It was the Mystery Science Theater of music videos (except hardly ever actually funny).

Facebook may be here to stay, but when it loses its novelty, it'll go the way of Segway and Y2K jokes. ("My computer is so slow it hertz." Anyone?)

SF Sketchfest runs January 14 through February 2, 2010 at various San Francisco locations. For tickets and information visit