Dispatches from Sketchfest 2019: Vol. III

In which we bid farewell to another year of dynamite shows with an ode to Jennifer Coolidge, a eulogy to “Spontaneanation,” and a plea for Stephen King and Peaches Christ to work together.

SF Sketchfest hosts the “Best in Show” 20th Anniversary screening and reunion with a panel discussion featuring Jennifer Coolidge, Michael Hitchcock, Catherine O’Hara, Michael McKean, Karen Murphy, Ed Begley, Jr., Eugene Levy, John Michael Higgins, Christopher Guest, and Jane Lynch and moderated by Kevin Pollak at The Castro Theatre on Saturday, Jan. 19. (Jakub Mosur)

On the Lamb with Jennifer Coolidge

The sheer quality of talent on the Castro stage to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the canine-centered masterpiece, Best in Show, was rivaled only by the number of performers assembled. In fact, it’s entirely possible the venue was forced to scrounge up every extra chair in the place to ensure there was adequate seating for the comedy Justice League that Sketchfest was able to assemble.

Cast members Catherine O’Hara, Ed Begley, Jr., Eugene Levy, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock, Michael McKean, and director-actor Christopher Guest gamely answered questions from moderator Kevin Pollack, but it was the quick asides and lasting chemistry shared among the cast that truly made this one of the festival’s most remarkable events to date. Stories like Hitchcock assembling Lynch, O’Hara, and Levy to sing musical arrangements during moments away from the set, or the fact that Guest had no idea his character would ramble off an extensive list of legumes during one memorable scene.

Best of all was Jennifer Coolidge, who confessed that her credit card didn’t work during the film’s shoot in Vancouver, forcing her to repeatedly borrow “a lot” of money from her co-star, Lynch. While questions regarding whether Coolidge had, in fact, repaid her debt in whole went unsolved, her charisma and humor served as an accurate preview of the stories she would tell later that night as the special guest for Wild Horses. An improv team consisting of Lauren Lapkus, Mary Holland, Erin Whitehead, and Stephanie Allynne, the foursome shared wine with Coolidge as she regaled them with tales of how the Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios felt like sexual assault and that one time she may have stolen some drugs from a “really shady” guy.

Overall, these two shows were proof positive that while Coolidge may have established herself as the go-to actress for ditzy characters like the hairdresser in Legally Blonde, the gold-digging dog owner with eyes for her trainer in Best in Show — and, yes, Stifler’s mother in American Pie — she is a dynamic personality. Maybe just think twice before you lend her money or leave your drugs lying around.

 

Semper en Presente

For 200 glorious episodes, comedian Paul F. Tompkins welcomed listeners to the land of Spontaneanation, a podcast in which he interviews guests before jumping into a long-form improvised scene based on the conversation. Each show featured insightful questions from Tompkins, improv that frequently risked running off the rails, and plenty of the beloved comic’s off-mic chuckles burrowing into the background.

Sadly, Tompkins announced the end of the podcast at last year’s Sketchfest with the news that the series’ 200th episode would serve as its final curtain call. One day before that episode was slated for release, Tompkins gathered his most beloved pals — Tawny Newsome, Eugene Cordero, and “Lil” Janet Varney — for a special, not-to-be-recorded live edition of Spontaneanation featuring Newhart star Julia Duffy. The format was quickly disregarded as Tompkins invited his fellow improvisers to sit in with him for the show’s interview component, which then led to a gloriously chaotic improv. While the guests on the podcast always sound like they’re having the time of their lives, there was something especially wonderful about seeing all the rules go by the wayside for this special (and sadly, perhaps final) run of a series that has been a beacon of light in an increasingly dark world.

Every show ends the same way: with Tompkins’ Latin sign-off of “Semper en presente.” That translates to “always in the present.” Let us hope it’s a motto that Tompkins continues to take to heart. We need you Paul, now and always.

A Triumph of Drag

Only a fool would attempt to rank the many shows that local drag royalty Peaches Christ has mounted over the years. Who could compare the sight of Bianca del Rio as Beetlejuice with Jinkx Monsoon’s pitch-perfect transformation into Little Edie of Grey Gardens? Thus, with the upfront acknowledgment that everything Peaches touches turns to kitschy gold, her two-woman show with the legendary Varla Jean Merman was arguably her finest work to date.

Ostensibly a spoof of Stephen King’s The Shining, “The Whining” ultimately touched on a number of the horror master’s most popular works. Originally performed last summer in Provincetown, Mass., the show takes that popular LGBTQ vacation destination as its setting. There Peaches and Varla find themselves tasked with watching over a theater during the cold and vacant winter months — and go a little mad in the process.

If the highlight wasn’t Merman’s puppet vagina — complete with nauseatingly sharp teeth — it was surely the lapdog puppet that sat in for the story’s telekinetic young protagonist, Danny. In order to recreate the iconic scene in which Danny roams the hallways of The Overlook on his big wheel, a stuffed version of the pup was mounted to a remote-control vehicle that hilariously zigged and zagged the poor creature across the stage. The level of detail in “The Whining” was astounding, down to the periodic appearances of caretaker Penny — standing in for Scatman Crothers — as an array of clowns from the zeitgeist, including Krusty, Ronald McDonald, and of course, It villain Pennywise.

The only critique one can offer is to question Christ herself when, during post-show remarks to the audience, she confessed she was worried mounting a show set specifically in Provincetown for a San Francisco audience might not work. Come now, Peaches. Mount a show set in Antarctica — we don’t care. We’ll follow you wherever you choose to take us — even if it’s down the labyrinthine maze of P-town’s infamous dick dock.

 

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