Chicago Sketchfest | Comedy reviews

Sunday, January 13

EVIL is a promising duo with youthful energy, whose Sunday afternoon set offered a nice balance of one-off throwaway jokes and longer, more story-driven scenes. They peppered their set with a few recurring bits, like a series of sketches following David Crockman: Lawyer of the Wild Frontier, which were 95% theme song, 5% dialogue, (Crockman's familiar refrain was sung by EVIL's Amy Thompson, who was accompanied by a banjo player seated in the back corner of the stage for the entire show). The show was well-paced and cleverly written, with a strong dynamic between Thompson and her teammate Sam Roos, especially in the show's most prominent storyline, about a pair of rivals with too much in common. —Matt Byrne

I didn't know much about The Good & Crazy going in, but from what I could tell from footage of a promisingly experimental live show posted on local filmmaker and improvisor Jared Larson's Vimeo page, it was going to be weird. What The Good & Crazy ended up being was a self-referential, deconstructionist clusterfuck featuring Larson, as well as Ted Tremper, director of two excellent improvised webseries, Break-ups and Shrink, and Paul Jurewicz, another Chicago-based improv dude, whose appearance in Break-ups is a highlight of the series. Every aspect of Unnecessary Defiance: The Story of the South Boston Race Riots, the formal name for The Good & Crazy's show, from the transition music (several different cover versions of Outkast's "Hey Ya") to the props (in a scene featuring three cowboys drinking together, two drank from tin cups, one drank out of a DVD copy of Tin Cup), served the sort strident absurdism that comes from three very funny guys messing around onstage. —MB

With the same energy as the Beatles and Rolling Stones (but with slightly less crowd fanfare), sketch duo the Pop Tarts (in their words the offspring of Flight of the Conchords and Spice Girls) hit the stage in Union Jack frocks and go go boots for a night of musical parody. These ladies flexed competent comedic chops and exuberant energy as they bolted out 8 or 9 numbers in numerous musical styles. One suggestion is that they create a more flushed out backstory. I kept trying to imagine the ages of their characters and just couldn't place them. Are they meant to be twentysomethings, in their thirties, middle-aged? I kept racking my brain trying to figure their story out. Nevertheless, in both song and snappy dialogue, they gave me a few chuckles. —Jason A. Heidemann

Saturday, January 12

The Playground's Matt Barbera turned me onto The Business at last year's festival and sufficed to say this team of youngsters has no business being this good this soon. Their scenes have a well-rehearsed spit and polish that lots of groups simply can't claim. For example, they deftly created a movie set complete with director, actors and tech people and it was all in service of a blink-and-you'll-miss-it blackout scene. Their mastery of language is a sight to behold. In a sketch set at an Olive Garden, we see both English and Italian unravel right before our very eyes (with a prop-heavy twist that was simply exubuerant). In another scene, the quintet showcases their pop-culture savvy as a couple uses Netflix recommendations to decide which movie to stream. My favorite scene was a fast-paced, whip-smart game of patty-cake that left me breathless. A couple scenes disappointed, but overall this group killed. —JAH

The four members of Chicago's Phat Beethoven opened their showcase in a pile, sort of vertically spooning, one on top of the other. "We hope you brought your thinking caps because we were recently voted the most cerebral group in town!" they said, and then made a bunch of dick jokes. This funny-stupid opening scene set the tone for a series of bizarre, well written sketches that were perverse and dark without trying too hard. That weird darkness crept up on the audience in the show's early scenes, becoming more apparent as things progressed before completely eclipsing everything in the David Lynch-meets-Godzilla final scene. Phat Beethoven had one of the few sets I can recommend without reservation; they were hands down one of the strongest teams I've seen at the fest. —MB

I never know what tricks Tim Soszko and Micha Philbrook of the tim&micah project will have up their sleeves, but I'm rarely disappointed. Last night was a reprisal of their latest revue Quinary in which the duo is unabashedly self-referential and exuberantly meta. Looking like a couple of svelte, avante-garde spelunkers (these guys always wear their trademark black and at one point were outfitted with tiny lights so they could see in the dark) they read fan mail aloud, moved about the stage with mirror-image precision, perfectly acted out a scene with stitched together stock dialogue from every action, gangster and noir flick known to man and even performed their first interdimensional sketch. There's always a sketch or two that has me scratching my head, but these "purposely pretentious" absurdists are longtime Sketchfest favorites of mine and I suspect always will be. —JAH

Heavyweight is something like a retroactive supergroup, a team whose members performed together for years but have all separately achieved notoriety on their own. This year's iteration of Heavyweight featured Mark Raterman and Nick Vatterott (the team's other two members, Brady Novak and TJ Miller couldn't make it) performing the entire sold out show dressed as Southwest Airlines flight attendants, who were tasked with entertaining passengers with a "skit show." This clever conceit opened the door for some goofy throw away jokes, the duo poked fun at the jokey attendant banter that everyone who's flown Southwest has rolled their eyes at, and the sporadic blackouts between scenes were apparently caused by turbulence and in-flight power issues. The team settled into a rhythm early on, Raterman mostly played the straight man to Vatterott's unhinged parade of animated weirdos in an ultimately enjoyable collection of scenes. —MB

Kerpatty's Pat Dwyer and Erin Pallesen are well known in the city's sketch scene as talented physical comedians, but the most interesting aspects of the show were more intellectual. Like Heavyweight, some of the biggest laughs came from the team's tweaking of sketch conventions; their home-recorded a capella versions of overused pop nuggets like "Gangnam Style" and "Call Me Maybe" acted as interstitial music, to the delight of the audience. A mysterious box sat far stage left for the entire show, its mere presence torturing Erin Pallesen, who'd turned it down in favor of $300 in a game show sketch early on. Near the end of the set, Pallesen gave into temptation and opened the box, which emitted a strange glow, Pulp Fiction style. I was hoping there'd be some sort of payoff beyond that, perhaps the knowledge of the box's contents could have somehow effected the shows finale? Unfortunately, that wasn't the case, the nearly-there concept mirrored the enjoyable yet unmemorable showcase from a pair of undoubtedly talented performers. —MB

Showing promise at this year's Sketchfest was Drew's Tumbler, a trio of women who have the acting chops and right amount of nuttiness to be a force to reckon with in festival's to come, even if some scenes did fall completely flat or felt not fully flushed out at times. A morning talk show devoted to crafting made perfect fun of women's programming while another on health insurance was achingly dull. A sketch set at an improv class hit a bullseye in its parody of our local comedy scene even if it struggled to find an ending while another featuring conjoined twins was skillfully executed and delightfully ridiculous. In the tradition of highly physical comedians who excel at lowbrow concepts, these funny ladies are on a roll (just like their skates in the show opener). —JAH

Friday, January 11

I picked my first show of the evening using the scientific method of "the show with the coolest name that TOC Comedy editor Jason Heidemann isn't going to see" and ended up at Super Kudzu, kind of hoping they were from the South. They aren't. Super Kudzu is based out of iO West in Los Angeles. Many of their sketches had good concepts—an insult restaurant that takes things too far, the dangers of sleepwalking, an upper class murder mystery dinner—but a lack of emotional punch and timing problems undercut each one. I really only laughed out loud once, at a delicious pause and then the uttering of the single word "underscore" indicating that a terrible wifi password had even more embarrassment to come. The group showed a single video, "Job Interview Job Interview", that got a good reaction from the audience, but reminded me too much of Chicago's Fuck Diamond's "Interview" from last summer. —Fuzzy Gerdes

Toronto-based duo British Teeth, were a random festival pick on my part and also a wonderful and lucky discovery. So many sketch groups want to follow in the Second City tradition of creating patient, character-driven scenes that are smartly written, perfectly acted and deliver laughs in spades and this group actually succeeds. British Teeth's Filip Jeremic and Allana Reoch are playing in the style of Elaine May and Mike Nichols and they are doing it well. They play consistently at the top of their intelligence whether they are feuding Aussie newscasters, A young North American on a blind date with a Finnish exchange student or a wee British lad and lassie who've just committed a heinous crime they haven't quite thought through. There was nothing "meta" or genre-busting or aburdist in their set, this was good old-fashioned sketch comedy performed to perfection. —JAH

Much in the same way Executive Producer Brian Posen and his gang of oddly costumed producers start every show of the festival by bursting into the room, barking out some stats (this was show number 100), introducing the act and then running out, Seattle's Drop the Root Beer and Run likewise hooted and hollered. It was a refreshing level of energy that I thought boded well. Indeed, the group carried that enthusiasm through a set of 15 absurdist sketches. (I know the number because they counted them down by popping balloons on either side of the stage.) There was a lot of oddly stylized movement and word play that was puzzling, but before I could dwell too much on it, the group would sweep out on stage, yell "Sketch!," pop another balloon and we were on to a new scenario. One scene consisted solely of four characters spelling out their palindromic nonsense names, carefully avoiding noticing that they mirror each other but instead constructing even more absurd names by combining them, and then playing patty-cake while spelling out their names again. That shouldn't be funny, but it was. There were occasional timing hitches to the show, as when people struggled to get their pens out of their pockets to pop balloons, and I wouldn't even point it out if their bio in the festival program didn't point out proudly that the show is "well-rehearsed." —FG

I was happy to be able to catch Urlakis and Cusick at Sketchfest since I had missed their November run at Stage 773. (Full disclosure: Sean Cusick is a friend and, among other things, loaned me his loft apartment to get married in.) But if I praise the show I'm not going to say anything about them that other Time Out Chicago reviewers haven't said in the past. With Dave Urlakis, the two performers look sharp in their classic black suits, and there's a precisely mannered movement that they bring to all their sketches. I like that they're not afraid to get brainy nor stupid: a long sketch between JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis has a breakout moment with a delicious joke about Corky from Life Goes On. And they're delightfully dark. "That took a turn" is a note I took on their final sketch that shed a new, disturbing, light on an old nursery rhyme. —FG

Returning favorites Reformed Whores delivered a perfectly pleasing set. In the style of Garfunkel & Oates or local duo Gretchen & Regina, this musical duo delivers sly ditties with skilled musicianship and stage polish and always in character as a couple of Dixie chicks of dubious origins and with a naughty side. The New York-based duo (despite their comic conceit, they do in fact hail from Gotham) stuck mostly to songs from their iTunes release Ladies Don't Spit including tracks like "Drunk Dial" and "Girl Crush" but I laughed hardest with their anthem to womanhood, "Girls Poop Too." —JAH

For once, New York shock crew FUCT didn't open their show with the phrase, "Are you ready to get fucked?!" Instead, their set opened with a trio of dudes in drag as the Kardashians pedaling a new cosmetic line called KKK. In true FUCT tradition, they were buck naked but with their genitals tucked between their legs. It killed. In truth, most of their set killed this year and was an improvement over last year which paled in comparison to 2010. FUCT is always shocking, but they never rely soley on shock value. In one scene, two cancer patients duel over who has it worse and the sketch is hilarious because the stakes are consistently raised throughout. The same is true with Barnabus the Puppetter, a solo sketch that relies heavily on audience interaction to make a point about how far we've come as a country in understanding same-sex attraction. An R-rated version of the children's game Simon Says provided good old-fashioned filth and sketch about Dixieland racism was as pointed and hilarious as it was shocking. God bless FUCT. —JAH


Thursday, January 10

Cell Camp formed in 2006, when the founding members were tasked with producing a sketch show as their final project in the Second City Training Center's writing program. They've continued on since then, and with an interesting tonal approach of adding a layer of dark humor to the sort of accessible premises seen on SC's main stages. The group is at its best when things get pitch black; the most memorable scene of the show featured a grieving mother, played by Marla Depew, who accidentally exposes herself during her son's funeral, which offered an interesting take on the desexualized, comedic (partial) nudity that's usually left to the dudes during these sort of mainstream-friendly shows. The rest of the show was adequately performed and written, but doesn't quite hold up when considering it in context of Sketchfest as a whole. —MB

Looking over my notes after seeing Butch LaRue, I struggled with deciphering something I'd scribbled at some point during the show. I don't remember writing "a sketch team for the Wrigleyville crowd," but it sure is a apt description for the team's fratty, Family Guy style penchant for safe button pushing. Their apparent lack of preparation resulted in stilted acting and confusing scenes (one sketch ended with unemployed character getting busted by his wife for sleeping with his secretary?), as well as tech issues both backstage and in the booth. Over the last week, I've repeatedly found myself empathetically frustrated for anyone who attempts to use Stage 733's horrible wireless microphones, which have, without fail, cut out every single time they've been used in a show. In an especially egregious scenario this time around, a character was frozen in place for nearly 30 seconds while actors struggled backstage to make the mic work properly for an overhead announcement that would wrap up the scene. Sure, they could have rolled with it a bit more nimbly, but they shouldn't have had to.  —MB

You either walked out of Two Bunnies Eating Flowers after the first ten minutes last night or you stayed for the entire performance and it maybe changed your life. How best to describe this trio of nutty absurdists and the ridiculous, explosive, shocking, confrontational, glitterbomb of a show they dropped on Sketchfest audiences last night? I don't even know where to begin. Two Bunnies Eating Flowers are comedy studies camrades Alex Hanpeter, Kyle Reinhard and Jude Tedmori and while I want to divulge every last detail of their expertly executed sketch revue Horses Aren't People, Fishes Aren't Dogs, I'm going to hold back in hopes they'll do a run here in Chicago this spring. Sufficed to say they are high energy, high integrity and 100% committed to their craft. Aside from cracking themselves up a couple times on stage, they were flawless. But if you must know what it is we lucky few witnessed last night at Stage 773's Cab theater, let's just say it was a fearless, bloody, full-frontal assualt on all senses that makes you want to leap out of your seat and start a revolution. I loved it hard. —JAH  

I may or may not have witnessed a prank marriage last night. Wildcard's rocky set was intruded upon by reality twice during their 45 minute performance, once early on by a group of vocal, drunk idiots in the front row who had no idea that everyone's pretty tired of reading about hecklers at this point, and again when a wedding scene climaxed with a recently ordained ensemble member breaking character and informing members Rachel LaForce and Greg Worsley that they've been legally wedded in real life, repeating "this is not a joke." While I want to believe it was just a well executed piece of sketch comedy, the palpable tension onstage, the frustrated tears from LaForce and absence of the team from the lobby after the show had me wondering if I'd seen something genuinely fucked up, or was just played by a clever scene that was twice as well acted and conceived as anything else the team had performed up to that point. —MB

Sunday, January 6

There were some genuinely funny lines and screwball inventiveness present in Mick & Weege Hit the Movies, but at times it got buried in material that was flavorless or done to death (I'm getting tired of parodies of movie trailers). The very competent Sherra Lasley was joined by Chris Blake in a two-person show that was augmented by supporting players. In one smart scene, Blake is very funny as the family dog and in another, Blake and Lasley break into joyous song in the back of the cab. But too often it felt like characters were weird for no reason and while there were several funny and pointed jabs at the movies, this was mostly low-brow schtick. —JAH

In a very promising early scene from Acid Reflux, a game of Super Password becomes the device through which a mother and father accidentally reveal family secrets to their children including cringe-worthy sexual escapades and the fact that their daughter is adopted. I wish all scenes had been this good. Mostly, this young ensemble leaned too much on heavy-handed acting and over-the-top premises and often the comic payoff just wasn't there. But there were some bright spots. A sketch about a blind date included a funny jab at Roosevelt University and a scene in which a boyfriend is put off by the open displays of affection from his girlfriend's family has been done before (Cam's mother in Modern Family), but at least it was grounded in reality. —JAH

Show #83 at last night's festival was the strange and cerebral duo Ray Bradgary. Based on their love of high-minded premises and inventive props, I would drop them into the "ones to watch" category. It's not that I loved the show, but I do think if they keep honing their craft they might have something interesting on their hands in a year or two. An opening rap number about having an average penis size included funny lines like, "Girl I'll never hurt you unless you're really dry," and a relationship scene set on an El track was full of sharp social satire. Meanwhile, a swipe at the Koch brothers included a funny appearance from Obama impersonator Patrick Rowland and a very funny Rube Goldberg device, but was muddled in its political commentary. Ditto a scene set on a space station that was inventively choreographed, but contained little point beyond that. Still, these guys were never once boring. —JAH 

Saturday, January 5

I've been following 4 Days Late since catching them at Sketchfest several years ago. A TOC reviewer loved their 2011 smash Jersey Shore: The Musical so I was curious to see what these guys had in store. In their latest revue, #show, the group is obsessed with technology, from a pitch-black opening illuminated only by iPhones to a couple that can only become sexually aroused via online messaging, 4 Days Late kept their fingers close to the pulse by poking fun at our obsession with Apple products. That's not to say there weren't a few misses, there definitely were, but as a whole this troupe embodies what's needed for good sketch, namely commitment to character, high-energy and integrity. Also, their choreographed transitions are the best, period. —JAH

Six of the eight members of The Mutiny, an ensemble of sketch and improv performers from Los Angeles that regularly appears at iO West, made the trek East to Sketchfest. After an intelligent, conceptual opening sketch which culminated in all six performers arguing in perfect unison, came a few scenes marred by weak acting and anticlimactic endings. That said, there were enough notable ideas to keep the show in the "win" column. Ross Crain was the real standout, playing a dimwitted teen who develops a dream friendship with Freddy Kreuger, and stealing a wild-west themed sketch as a hammy tumbleweed with a mean grand jeté in its arsenal. Oddly enough, the strongest sketch of the night was a pretaped video, which featured a man driven to desperate measures by an overzealous sports arena camera crew. —MB

We're Matt Weir is a two-man troupe consisting of two guys with shared first and last names and a mutual penchant for over the top physicality and ridiculous premises. The team was not shy about breaking the fourth wall; Matt B. Weir, a Naperville native, half-jokingly apologized for the group's artful dumbness: "Sorry to all the parents of people I went to high school with that came…" The show took off after a so-so opening, reaching its peak in its middle third with a trio of sketches that were among the funniest I've seen all weekend. An especially delightful and bizarre scene found the Matts posing as talking baseball caps with weak puppet arms hosting a product review show, which was somehow more insane than the description makes it sound. —MB

This was Montreal's Uncalled For first year at SketchFest, but they've been performing and winning awards for their hybrid sketch-plays at Canadian festivals for years now. For the second time this weekend, they staged Today Is All Your Birthdays, a scientifically minded collection of interconnected sketches whose knotty framework and lofty subject matter asked a lot of the sold-out crowd, which happily rose to the occasion. Among the more memorable aspects of the show was the endlessly inventive scene transitions, the group completely eschewed traditional blackouts in favor of more stream of consciousness changes evoking a sort of dream logic. A sort of sketch comedy Gravity's Rainbow, TIAYB incorporates the large hadron collider, a tear in the space/time continuum, and riffs on aging, TV news, and played-out sci-fi tropes into a singular whole.Admittedly, other sets have made me laugh more this weekend (since this was a cohesive work and not a collection of unrelated sketches, some scenes felt more like they were written in service of the plot more than anything), but the quality of the material is ultimately undeniable. —MB

Friday, January 4

I was reinvigorated Friday night at Sketchfest, following a sporadically disappointing Thursday. Brooklyn-based Boat, is a trio that boasts a slew (I refuse to sincerely write "boatload") of bona fides. They're regulars at New York's PIT and UCB Theaters, and member Amos Vernon is a contributing writer for The Onion. The polished set of plot-driven sketches lived up to expectations, particularly the scenes showcasing the gleefully anarchic Mike Lane who often recalled Martin Short at his nihilistic best. The final scene, a twisty, puerile riff on the whodunit mystery parlor games set in a mansion on a stormy night, found the group showcasing a slyness few teams can pull off. —MB

I've been a fan of Oh Theodora since I first checked out their monthly show at Pub Theater at Fizz Bar last spring. Their exuberant silliness and densely layered sketches feel tailor made for my sense of humor. Tonight's endlessly winning best-of performance found each of the four members displaying an understanding of their personal strengths as comic actors: Conor Sullivan and Lisa Dellagiarino adeptly played things (relatively) straight while Trevor Martin and Buck LePard's contrasting wild-card personas played tug of war between over-the-top cartoonishness and a more restrained madness. In a move to keep the absurdity going after the curtain fell (and to crown the "best sketch comedy team in Chicago"), a member of local troupe Exquisite Corpse shot up from the audience near the show's end and challenged Oh Theodora to an arm wrestling competition next Saturday night. What will happen next? Only time will tell. —MB

I first caught Sad On Vacation at Sketchfest several years ago and have had my eye on each of its nine members ever since. Many of them have since departed for Los Angeles where they continue to write and perform under that name and last night they reunited sans Jon Barinholtz, Andrew Payton and e.t.c. ensemble member Chris Witaske. The evening started out slow. Mark Vannier and George McAuliffe offering tips on how to make it in L.A. was a slow and plodding show opener. A scene set at Starbucks featuring Mort Burke in drag as a barista-obsessed stalker was much better. The show really hit its stride with a clever riff on Ocean's Eleven and continued to build with a strong solo performance from Conner O'Malley who brainstormed segment ideas for the Jay Leno show (including one in which Leno face fucks an audience member), a scene about a father rooting on his dead son at a baseball game that continuously upped the comic stakes until it reached its surreal finish and a sly Scooby Doo parody that was simultaneously hilarious and incredibly, delightfully icky. Continued luck in L.A. gents. —JAH

Thursday, January 3

Brian Posen and a small group of Sketchfest producers come screaming into the room, offering a brief welcome doubling as an official kickoff to the festival before ceding the room to Chicago-based improv and sketch troupe Warm Milk. The group's goofy, sporadically musical set was hit or miss, but the hits were inspired, particularly a pair of scenes anchored by member Jasbir Singh. Singh's proclivity for both silly accents (as a vaguely European dog trainer) and odd physicality (as a sign-language-speaking ape) were complemented by his teammates' go-for-broke approach. —MB

Musical quartet Xanadudes offered broad humor that I would argue is beneath the standards of the sophisticated Sketchfest audience, including a hamfisted scene about life before Obamacare and another in which a flamboyant son urges the parents he suspects to be gay to come out. However, about half the scenes from this quartet were musical and here there was more success. A woman sings an ode to her pen pal who winds up being an inmate in a genuinely funny number and in the show finale, the group upended the heavy metal genre with a lovey-dovey number called "Tasty Naps Dancing," complete with a mosh pit. —JAH

For Science! performed a ramshackle set occasionally intruded upon by tech issues. While many of the group's ideas were strong, most would have benefited from being fleshed out a bit more to distinguish themselves from the hundred-plus rapid-fire sketch groups performing over the next eight days. The most memorable sketches of their set (ones featuring a noble knight faced with the task of reconciling with his absentee father and a frustrated writer learning to deal with his t-shirt-obsessed muse) took their time in developing ideas and motivations and were better for it. —MB

Riding a wave of goodwill from a well-received set at last year's Sketchfest, Nose Complaint brought an intensely personal performance to a sold-out crowd of what, at times, seemed like predominantly friends and family, who shreiked in recognition when the performers dropped references to their personal lives or workplaces. The duo, comprised of best friends Dave Caro and Nicholas Schaefer, used the show to explore a rift in their friendship that arose when Schaefer's relationship with his girlfriend escalated to the next level. While their self-referential set at times descended into self-congratulation, a handful of well-choreographed, thoughtful scenes shone through. —MB

I had wanted to catch the youthful troupe Pretty/Windy at last year's fest and made it a point to catch them this time around. There were both misses and hits, but several of the strong scenes showcased a group brimming with promise. In one scene, as a director calls action for Star Wars: Episode VII, the actor playing Chewbacca keeps flubbing his "lines." Meanwhile, a song about heartbreak turns out to be an ode to student loan company Sallie Mae and it's a perfect fit for an ensemble comprised of twentysomethings armed with theater degrees. But the scene that roused the crowd the most (and it was also musical) was one in which a baby-faced, showtunes-obsessed dude laments getting mistaken as gay. The scene was complete with shirtless Chippendale dancers and the singer himself shaking his booty in our face and taking jabs at Wicked while crooning, "To me there's nothing great about dicks, since age 13 I've jacked off to chicks." When they were this good, Pretty/Windy was really on to something. —JAH

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