Sketch fest serves up stage antics
3rd Floor makes a weekend of mining the funny line between theater, stand-up
In the holy trinity of comedy Ñ stand-up, improv and sketch Ñ sketch would be the holy ghost, everywhere but nowhere. (Since the 1980s, stand-up comedy has been god.) Aside from 'Saturday Night Live' and its appalling cousin 'MADtv,' sketch comedy has little exposure in the media and tends to lurk in tiny live theaters.
'I'd like it to get to the point where everyone knows 12 great sketch groups and six bad ones,' says Kevin Chesley of Troop, a Los Angeles-based group. 'It's a weird genre because it's not quite theater and not quite stand-up.'
Troop is one of seven outfits that have been invited here by Portland sketch comedy group the 3rd Floor for the Best of the Best Sketch Fest. The 3rd Floor's Ted Douglass, 31, says he was inspired by visiting Sketchfest in Chicago, the spiritual home of sketch comedy, to hand-pick the best groups and give them a platform in Portland. No jury, no applications, just pure subjectivity.
'Our big influences are Monty Python and the Kids in the Hall,' Douglass says. ' 'Saturday Night Live' you can't ignore. And of course, 'Mr. Show.' '
'Cheese Theater' is a good example of a 3rd Floor sketch; a 5-pound block of Tillamook Pepper Jack stands in for a character. The group did 'GoodFellas' with Joe Pesci's character played by cheese and 'Reservoir Dogs' with a cheese stand-in for the cop who gets his ear cut off.
'We've also done a fully choreographed 'Summer Nights' from 'Grease,' with a cheese Sandy. Every time it comes to her part, it's silent,' Douglass says.
It's this kind of off-kilter satire that Douglass aims to celebrate this weekend. Spoofs of politicians or obvious pop culture targets are looked down upon. 'Pop culture is an easy trap to fall into,' he says. 'We don't avoid it, we try and give it a twist.'
Another 3rd Floor sketch is based on the television show 'Smallville,' which is about a young Clark Kent before he became Superman. 'Ours is about Nazareth,' Douglass says. 'It shows Jesus at Naz High, home of the Fighting Jews, and instead of Lana Lang, he hangs out with Mary Magdalene.'
He complains that Second City's 'Curious George Goes to War' skit was 'tight and professional, but pretty easy. It's pretty obvious 'Saturday Night Live' comes from Second City.'
Sketch comedy people are theater 'luvvies' at heart. Sketch is always scripted and rehearsed and makes use of costumes, however simple. An example of Troop humor is its 'Lemon Lime' sketch, retired from the lineup after five years. Personifications of the flavors lime and sour apple stand on stage arguing over who should get to be the green candy color. Lemon, their mentor in a yellow jumpsuit, mediates. In this case, surrealism alone isn't enough. Chesley says the sketch works because the three 'characters' have personalities that come out in their arguments.
He jumped at the chance to visit Portland to play a 45-minute set in a proper theater.
'L.A. is built on people who want you to come and see their show, but they're always in tiny spaces,' says Chesley, 28. 'Four of us are coming up in my leased Saturn and staying on Ted's floor. It feels like a vacation. With stand-up, you're on your own. Improv people are fun loving but often undisciplined. But when we rehearse we laugh all night; we laugh at our worst stuff too.'
Chesley toils by day as assistant to screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs ('Chocolat,' 'The Shipping News'), but he displays an equanimity rarely found in the mercurial world of stand-up comedians or the frantic world of improv.
'I don't mind being part of an art form that hasn't been named yet,' he says. 'Maybe there'll be a sketch boom in, like, 2007. I'd like to be part of it.'