Dispatches from Sketchfest 2018: Volume I

Through two weeks, the 2018 installment has featured some wonderfully bizarre show concepts, immaculate improv, and one very out-of-touch moderator.

On Immodest Moderators

When the crowd arrived on Sunday afternoon to celebrate Lady Dynamite — comic Maria Bamford’s delightfully surreal Netflix series i t’s possible many didn’t even know who Dana Gould was. By the end of the tribute, they were cursing his name.

Being a moderator is a fairly thankless task. Your job is more or less to come up with some insightful questions and quickly cede the spotlight to the featured talent. In this case that meant Bamford, co-star Mo Collins, Bamford’s actual agent, Bruce Smith, and show runner Pam Brady. Those familiar with Gould know he’s quick with a one-liner, and he quickly took to flexing that talent, even when it meant interrupting Bamford and company.

Midway through the 90-minute show, members of the audience were actually booing at Gould and yelling, “Let her talk!” when he once again spoke over Bamford as she raised her microphone. When it came time for the audience Q&A, the first question came from a young woman who said simply, “I’d just like to ask Maria if she has anything to say?” Thunderous applause quickly followed.

Gould is not a villain – he’s a talented comic and, on paper, a solid choice to engage Bamford, a self-proclaimed introvert, in a public discussion. Unfortunately, Gould made the fatal mistake of taking the audience’s animosity as a challenge to play the heel instead of keeping quiet. At one point, he went on a tangent about why Twin Peaks sucks, clearly not what an audience who came to hear Bamford discuss her own show was hoping for.

Coming literally the day after women across the U.S. and beyond joined together to demand equality and respect, Gould’s antics were more than tone-deaf – they were insulting and infuriating. If Sketchfest is looking for moderators who can help guide a conversation without hoarding and ultimately tainting the entire show, they can certainly do better than Gould’s asinine efforts.

The Weirder, The Better

True comedy nerds are always delighted when beloved features like Paul F. Tompkins’ “Spontaneanation” or the annual gathering of Futurama’s voice talent appear on the schedule each year. However sometimes the festival’s true treasures are the things that sound the oddest.

Take, for instance, “Stinker Lets Loose.” Billed as a live reading of an audiobook of a novelization of a forgotten 1970s trucker film, the event gathered Jon Hamm, Andy Richter, Busy Philipps, and more to read excerpts of this mysteriously re-discovered work. The truth (although no one will openly admit it) is that the whole thing is an invention of comedy writer Mike Sacks, although it quite frankly doesn’t matter.

Hearing Hamm as the titular Stinker as he raced towards Washington, D.C., to deliver a six-pack of beer to President Jimmy Carter with a crazed chimpanzee and his best buddy Boner in tow was every bit as ridiculously fun as it sounds. That Kevin Pollak played his role (The Big Man) in his pitch-perfect impression of Christopher Walken was more than we could’ve ever hoped for.

Another wonderfully insane creation took place on Saturday afternoon, as Paul Rust (Netflix’s Love) and Neil Campbell (Comedy Bang Bang) staged an 80 minute improvised play featuring supporting turns from Mary Holland (Wild Horses) and Mike Hanford (The Birthday Boys).  Riffing on stuffy theatrical conventions like ghosts, childhood memories, and siblings at odds, Rust and Campbell would’ve broken the fifth wall if they’ve could’ve found a way.

Keeping an improv going for that duration is no easy task, but this elite quartet of talent was up for the challenge. While some in the audience did appear to not entirely know what they’d signed-up for, the majority were fully on-board. If you can’t laugh at Campbell’s character finally getting his first kiss from the ghost of his dead father, I’m not sure there’s much hope for you.

Animal House (Tommy Lau)

Animal House Stories

Over the years, the curators of Sketchfest have done an incredible job reuniting casts for anniversary screenings and discussions of beloved films, television shows, comedy troupes, and more. They may have outdone themselves on Sunday night when they brought many of the original actors and director John Landis together at the Castro Theatre to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Animal House.

Simply seeing the film on the big screen in a packed house was a joy on its own, but hearing Landis and cast members like Tim Maheson and Mark Metcalf recall stories from the set was the true reward. While Karen Allen was ultimately unable to attend, she was fondly remembered for a fight she tried to start at a party one night, while others told the story of a piano that was repeatedly stolen from the hotel they were all staying at so they could host impromptu sing-alongs after the day’s shoot.

The specter of John Belushi’s absence will always linger anytime Animal House is discussed, but hearing Landis recall how the film’s breakout star would fly to New York every week to shoot Saturday Night Live and then return to set on Sunday was a true testament to his passion for his craft.

Shows to See This Week

Audible Presents Hold On with Eugene Mirman
Friday, Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. at Swedish American Hall. $30.
Stand-up comic Eugene Mirman (and voice of Gene on Fox’s “Bob’s Burgers”) brings his Audible series — in which he invites his talented friends to tell true, funny stories and then plies them for missing details — to Sketchfest. Submitting to his will this time are Paget Brewster, Thomas Lennon, and Paula Pell.

The 420 Show with Matt Besser
Saturday, Jan. 27 at 4:20 p.m. at Swedish American Hall. $25.
Well, pot is legal in California, so why not celebrate with Upright Citizens Brigade Theater co-founder and master improviser Matt Besser? Joined by Seth Morris and Shane Torres, this afternoon should go up in smoke fast.

Facebook Improv
Saturday, Jan. 27 at 10 p.m. at Marines Memorial Theatre. $35.
Most people have Facebook profiles that essentially a punchline already, but “Facebook Improv” ups the ante by having audience members log into their accounts on stage to provide the fodder for incredible improv performed by a cast featuring Nick Kroll, Jack McBrayer, and Charlie Sanders.

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