Dispatches from Sketchfest 2019: Vol. I

The festival’s opening weekend featured comedy behind two-way mirrors, some truly atrocious audience participation, and some delightfully demented cartoons.

The Bill Plympton tribute, including live drawing and films, was held at the Brava Theater on Saturday January 12, 2019. The 18th annual SF Sketchfest, featuring over 1000 performers, is held in 18 venues in San Francisco from January 10 – 27, 2019. (Photo by Jakub Mosur)

Shhhh! Don’t Tell

By its nature, immersive theatre thrives on the unexpected. Stumbling upon a room you never knew was there is but one of the many ways that a performance conducted beyond the confines of a stage and chairs can seduce you.

For the first of six special performances hosted at the North Beach home of the Speakeasy — San Francisco’s open-ended, Prohibition-set immersive experience — headliners Janeane Garofalo and Jen Kirkman kept things simple in the venue’s cabaret room. The space’s intimacy afforded the two a welcoming space to deliver engaging material, with Kirkman focusing on a Thanksgiving family dinner and Garofalo serving as a Gen X Mort Sahl as she arrived with an armful of assorted adverts for things like MyPillow and a tote bag offer from the AARP.

Meanwhile, the real immersive stuff on Friday evening was occurring in the Palace Theater’s other rooms. In one area, a comic passed out fliers inviting patrons to enjoy a set in the “Comedy Closet.” Those who expressed interest were led into a wardrobe with a false wall, behind which was a room barely large enough to fit four chairs and a microphone. Over in the “Tough Room,” several rows of bleacher seating allowed the audience to watch comedians perform quick sets behind a two-way mirror. Comics like Leah Rudick and Nori Reed (both fantastic) repeatedly commented on how surreal it was to deliver jokes while staring only at their own faces. It was a brilliant subversion of the typical comedy experience and a testament to the ways in which immersive and comedy can build one another as complementary mediums.

Elsewhere, there was a private retelling of the infamous “Aristocrats” yarn for any who opted to pick up a phone and listen in, while the bar space hosted a comedy spin on karaoke in which patrons were invited to perform iconic bits from the likes of George Carlin, Sam Kinison, and more. Overall, the evening was an eye-opening and successful marriage of two art forms. Those interested in experiencing the madness for themselves can catch headliners Dana Gould and Bob Odenkirk (Jan. 18), John Hodgman and Paul F. Tompkins (Jan. 19), and Michael Ian Black (Jan. 26).

A Different Kind of Sketch Comedy

Animator Bill Plympton was once offered $1 million to work for Disney. He declined, both because he was not willing to abandon his personal projects and because he worried he might be slotted into some dead-end project.

“Years later,” Plympton informed a receptive crowd at the Brava Theater Center on Saturday afternoon, “I learned that they wanted me for the Genie in Aladdin because of my work doing transformations.”

While conceding that he still wonders if he made a mistake by turning down the suits from the Mouse House, it’s no surprise they wanted him to help develop a character that rapidly shifts his face and body. One of the many shorts Plympton screened — his 1987 Academy Award-nominated debut, “Your Face” — is a master class in anatomy distortion. The entire focus of the film is a man singing a song while his face implodes and reforms in a variety of physically impossible ways.

It’s heartening to see Sketchfest bring in someone like Plympton, who is largely known for his still work in publications like The New York Times as well as nearly three decades of short films like “Your Face.” While the festival has long welcomed voice talent from mainstream animated series like Futurama and Bob’s Burgers, the world of independent animation is an entirely different beast. Plympton’s humor is dry and surreal, off-set by a simplistic style that is actually deceptively skillful.

Members of the audience were further rewarded following the event as Plympton offered free drawings on postcards to everyone in the crowd. Overall, the tribute was a compelling and insightful look at what it takes to make it as an animator not contracted to one of the industry’s behemoths. However, should Plympton ever change his mind, it appears that Disney hasn’t finished with Aladdin just yet.

Speakeasy with Janeane Garofalo. (Tommy Lau Photography)A Masterclass in Despising Your Audience

The comedic trio of Jason Mantzoukas (The League), Nick Kroll (Kroll Show), and Seth Morris (Big Mouth) have plenty of experience dealing with less-than-ideal audience members. Aside from the countless evenings they’ve spent performing

shows at Los Angeles venues like the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and Largo, they’re basically Sketchfest regulars at this point.

Their loosely-conceived (and consistently hilarious) improv show — offered under the portmanteau Morzouksnick — has come to the festival for the past several years. The format finds all three chatting with the audience to mine material for a series of short-form improv scenes. Perhaps it was the late start time of 10 p.m. or conceivably it was the rather improv-hostile setting of the Castro Theatre, but for whatever reason, every person the three spoke with on Saturday night resulted in an unmitigated disaster.

It must be stated clearly that these are people who volunteered to share stories — in this case, the prompt was an especially memorable or awful New Year’s Eve experience. Those who requested the microphone ran the gamut from having literally nothing to say to semi-incoherently rambling their way through a shaggy dog story that Mantzoukas blessedly cut-off.

Ever the professionals, the Morzouksnick trio turned the situation (which also suffered from profound microphone issues) to their advantage, frequently incorporating the stunning failure of their audience to offer them any worthwhile material into their scenes. At one point, Mantzoukas actually broke character to gamely offer a middle finger to a member of the crowd who had, in his opinion, set the bar lowest with a promise of an epic story that turned out to be him simply enjoying some champagne with “good friends.”

“You were the worst!” Mantzoukas declared, resulting in raucous agreement from the audience. Thankfully, Morzouksnick remains among the best at what they do, even in less-than-ideal circumstances. Just remember: if you don’t have something worthwhile to say, you can always say absolutely nothing.

Shows to See This Week

Tribute to Julie Klausner
Thursday, Jan. 17 at 7:30 p.m. at Marines’ Memorial Theatre, $25-$35.

Best known as the creator, writer, and star of Hulu’s Difficult People, Julie Klausner will be joined by “Best Show” host Tom Scharpling for a conversation focused on her career. Expect mention of her beloved cat (Jimmy Jazz), her long-running podcast (“How Was Your Week”), and plenty of snide revelries.

Wild Horses
Saturday, Jan. 19 at 10 p.m. at Marines’ Memorial Theatre, $30-$40.

The improv quarter of Lauren Lapkus (Holmes & Watson), Mary Holland (Blunt Talk), Stephanie Allynne (One Mississippi), and Erin Whitehead (Comedy Bang Bang) will be joined by none other than Jennifer Coolidge (Legally Blonde, Best in Show) for an evening that starts off with a wine-soaked chat before culminating in some truly outlandish and incredible improv scenes.

Big Terrific
Saturday, Jan. 19 at 8 p.m. at the Castro Theatre, $35-$45.

What transpires at Big Terrific is hard to describe, but there’s never a shortage of laughs when friends Gabe Liedman (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Max Silvestri (The Good Place), and Jenny Slate (Obvious Child) get together. Expect silly conversations and stand-up comedy when Los Angeles fixture Big Terrific takes the Castro stage.

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