Sketchfest comes to Chicago: do not miss it!

The Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival - Storytown

by Ian Epstein

Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival:

  • Lasts only 8 days
  • erupts with nearly 150 performers
  • consists of nearly 100 troupes
  • is calling your name

sketchfest-logo“We’re creating comedy,” says Brian Posen, the founder and Executive Producer of the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival.  With a head full of curly hair, Posen wears a neatly trimmed beard, a spotless labcoat and a pair of white angel wings, swaying slightly.  He’s standing on a stage in a cloud of fog.  Black horn-rimmed glasses frame his face, giving him the distinguished air you’d expect from a mad, comedic scientist.  A fellow actor, also clad in a labcoat, holds up the machine emitting all this fog.  This is Bri-Ko, one of the sketch comedy troupes participating in the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival.  It’s 4:30pm on Thursday, January 7th, and they’re putting the finishing tech touches on their show.  In three and a half hours the curtain rises simultaneously on three stages to kick off the 9th Annual Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, or  SketchFest for short.  And Bri-Ko is one of the troupes that Executive Producer and Founder Brian Posen himself will perform in. 

Sketch Comedy – a history course

Hundreds of years ago and late at night, a writer fumbling over a desk with a dim lamp couldn’t think up the right word for an elusive thought.  Blindly, the writer scratches down a word on the page — a word that is not English at all — that is, in fact, Dutch. 

That elusive idea that the writer wrestled with? Lost to history. It definitely wasn’t a perfect drawing or a final draft, “what the Dutch Painters call a schytz” or a “hasty piece.”  No, this was something else .  An idea too flighty for familiarity.  It needed to be lean and light like a single shriek of laughter.  The “first schetse of a comedy,” perhaps.  From its first uses in English, a sketch is something intimately connected with the person who created it.  It is practically incapable of life outside of that person.  And from its first instance, a sketch has always been about the ability to get across a lot of ideas using a combination of speed and variety – it’s a quick bit of ingenuity or an outline traced in midair. 

What is sketch comedy?

Is it improv?  In a word: no.  Sketch Comedy involves reams of paper full of words and tons of ideas put forward in these things that you might call scripts.  You’d be mistaken, though, since these scripts, animated by the writers who wrote them and appreciated by the audience that views them, become what they call sketchs

Sketches of what, though?  Of movies?  Sometimes.  A TV mini-series?  A full on farce à la Moliere with costumes?  A song cycle or an extended piece of silent, physical comedy?  Commedia dell’arte for the new decade?    A made for TV movie performed live with two people playing ten roles?   Are these sketches just blueprints for knock knock jokes?  Does each maybe contain some shard or kernel from the source of all knock knock jokes ever?

The sketches, Posen explains, differ as widely as the troupes that perform them.  He continues, adding that sketch is the comedic form that is all the rage in the comedy scene these days.  Talking quickly, he runs through history, stopping here and there to point out trends in American comedy with insight and nonchalance. The 80s were all about stand up, he observes, and the 90s saw the rise of improvisation as the ruling form well  into the recently closed out naughts, where the sketch takes off around the time as SketchFest’s 2001 inaugural year.

The Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival - Bri-Ko Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival - Buffet Shark

SketchFest comes to Chicago

Back in 2001, Posen, working as a producer, booked a stage at Theatre Building Chicago to put up a musical by the Chicago writing duo Philip LaZebnik and Kingsley Day .  The musical was an ambitious production called Aztec Human Sacrifice.  But the bottom fell out and Posen was left with a reserved stage at Theatre Building Chicago.  There were no other takers for the stage and nothing was waiting in the wings.  So Posen hopped on the phone and sent emails to his sketch comedy friends and about a month later the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival met with huge success.  Posen possesses that rare, inspiring combination of an actor’s energy, a comedian’s wit, a teacher’s patience, and an off-hand eloquence that allows him to talk about the traditions of comedy and connect them to complex theories about how theater should work, theories that an academic might trace back to Brecht or far beyond. 

Over its elongating history (who knows what’s in store for next year’s 10 year anniversary…), there have been a variety of trends in what SketchFest emphasizes.  2010 marks an explosion of kid-centric sketch offerings for groups of kids and by groups of kids spilling across the stages by day.

But be sure not to go to a late night show expecting family-friendly content.  Posen warns that sketch, a theatrical form that draws its energy from aggression and hostility before turning it into satirical gold, is largely rated R or PG (depending upon the parent or the rating organization).

In a lot of ways, SketchFest resembles a professional conference — where comedy is the currency of choice and the CEOs appear in clown noses or costumes.  Posen and the SketchFest staff bring together a select panel of performance professionals (only half of the groups that apply make the cut) who gather to discuss and workshop the finer points of their craft.  And a huge part of sketch comedy’s beauty is that the craft is so self-effacing — the better its done, the harder you laugh.  You don’t marvel at the delivery of a particularly difficult line so much as you crumple to the floor crying hysterically.  The countless hours spent slaving over the placement of punchlines in a script or perfecting what is too often perceived as the innate mystery of comic timing fall by the wayside; comedy’s most audible byproduct isn’t applause, it’s laughter. 

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(Don’t be afraid to read about the groups or check out the schedule.  Take a look at the Kids friendly offerings!  And remember — they all passed the preliminary inspections so any group is a safe bet!)

Kanellis & Armstrong
1/8/10 @ 9pm
1/9/10 @ 9pm

Hard Left Productions
1/8/10 @ 10pm
1/9/10 @ 10pm

Bri-Ko 
1/8/10 @ 11pm
1/9/10 @ 2pm (kid friendly!)
1/16/10 @ 2pm (kid friendly!)

The Cupid Players
1/9/10 @8pm
1/16/10 @ 8pm

Animosity Pierre
1/15/10 @ 8pm
1/16/10 @ 9pm

In Yo Face
1/15/10 @ 8pm
1/16/10 @ 8pm

Rabbit Rabbit
1/15/10 @ 10pm
1/16/10 @ 10pm

BriTANick
1/15/10 @ 11pm
1/16/10 @ 11pm

The Backrow
1/16/10 @ 7pm

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