Sure, “School House Wrong,” created by Indianapolis-based Three Dollar Bill Comedy, was the runaway hit of the 2011 Indy Fringe Festival. But how would the show do in Chicago, land of a thousand comedy troupes?
That’s what I hoped to find out at the 11thannual Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, where more than 100 groups vie for attention on four stages. Like Indy Fringe, each show is under an hour. Unlike Indy Fringe, there’s very little chance for word of mouth to spread. Most groups only get one slot in the schedule. Three Dollar Bill had two.
Of course, I wanted some context, so I arrived in time to see three other groups before the Indy crew took its stage.
Before I share, I should clarify something: Sketch comedy is not improvisation, although many performers overlap the two genres. In improv, there’s a certain amount of leeway that an audience gives to performers. After all, the material is largely made up on the spot. When it really catches fire, it’s like watching a great sporting event.
Sketch comedy is more deliberate. There’s less forgiveness for a bad night—or for a sketch that wildly misses. A bad sketch lingers in a way that a bad joke from a stand-up comic doesn’t.
First up on my four-show visit to Sketch Fest: Barretta, a tireless two-person team from Chicago. The he half of the duo, Kevin Sciretta, is a member of Second City’s National Touring Company. The she, Carisa Barreca, is a dancer and Second City performer. Both performers popped, which made strong sketches better and lesser scenes tolerable. Still, the gimmicky bribe of a bowl of Skittles for every audience member didn’t sway me in thinking that this terrific duo deserves sketches with stronger endings. There were a few home runs, though, including an “I Love Lucy”/“Can I be in the show?”-like piece that takes on political and social heft in unexpected ways. Barreca’s performance, here, is a gem.
Minimal information is given for the groups in the program, so I didn’t know until I sat down to write this that Barretta’s show has a director who isn’t one of the performers. That seems obvious, in hindsight, since the brisk show runs smooth and sure.
The next group, Portland-based Sweat, played to a sold-out-and-beyond packed house. There were positives, including the Robert Downey, Jr.-esque playfulness of Andrew Harris, an inspired Martin McDonagh-like gore fest involving a family of feuding Irish bank robbers, and a joyfully silly running joke in which a not-very-funny woman believes here Justin Bieber wordplay is hilarious.
But the Sweat sketches tended to start off well and then taper off dramatically. A wonderful seafaring opening, with pool-float sea life leaping as if in a low-rent “Lion King,” fizzles. And while there’s obvious laughs in having the heavyset guy play a young girl at her quinceanera, how about doing something—anything—with the premise and the character?
Philadelphia’s Camp Woods comedy group clearly basks in the absurd, which means its 50-minute program had equal parts laughs and “did they just do that?” head shakes (usually accompanied by a smile).
It offered the odd love store of Eduardo da Crab and his human host/lover, a domestic sketch about the return of a mother’s first husband—the space shuttle Endeavor—and a detective who had an unfortunate reaction every time he hears Mariah Carey sing. In between, a pair of actors did pickleback shots (whiskey chased by pickle juice) and a video called “Sick Door,” featured, well, a door that gets sick. I’m not convinced that a short, live show should feature this much video, but, for the most part, it worked.
And then came Three Dollar Bill Comedy, playing to half a house in one of the smaller theaters.
The problem, I think, was largely a marketing one. The name of the group doesn’t distinguish it from The Alliance Sketch Comedy Group, Acid Reflux Comedy Troupe, DonkeyCrunch of any of the dozens of other companies plying their trade at Sketch Fest. The anticipation-building title of 3DB’s show, though, “School House Wrong,” wasn’t mentioned in the program or on the lobby directory.
Marketing aside, the show was a near-exact copy of the show I raved about her in Indianapolis. That’s a good thing—and a bit of a let down. I had hoped the company would take what was very good and make it every stronger. As I said in my review of the Fringe production, “School House Wrong” has the potential to be a nationally touring show—but the work isn’t done yet.
Still, it was fun watching an out-of-town audience won over. The premise-setting intro voice over and the opening, punchline-light song was met with indifference. But as the meat of the show kicked in, the small crowd was literally pounding the walls and cheering, responding strongly to the history of America being told by a parade of musical outsiders, a tuneful celebration of multiple-purpose profanity, and a musical run-down of real-life story problems.
On any given weekend, you can find dozens of comedy groups in Chicago. Any given Friday is, in essence, a sketch fest. But having them congregate in one place certainly indicates a passion for the form. Fest honcho Brian Posen, who tirelessly introduced every show, believes that the stand-up craze gave way to the improv craze which is now giving way to a sketch comedy craze.
I’m not convinced that’s quite true. But I do know that it takes talented performers, available stages, and risk-taking audiences to bring out the best. A mere $14 per risk seems pretty reasonable.