Archive for the 'Opinion' Category

Ed Toolis, Writer

While I was at Chicago Sketchfest, I met Ed Toolis.  I noticed him quickly.  He was one of the few people to show up alone to Sketchfest early, like me, just hanging around the lobby.  And he had a laminated festival pass on a lanyard around his neck (my pass was just a printout).

Well, he spoke to me on the last day.  He asked if I was a reviewer.  I guess he’d noticed that I’d been around for the entire weekend, too.  And I was alone.  Anyway, we got to talking and afterwards he sent me a link to his blog:

http://web.mac.com/edtoolis/TheHumorOfEdToolis/On_Humor/On_Humor.html

I suggest y’all take a look at it.  Many of his posts relate to the kinds of things I’d like to put on this blog, if I weren’t so lazy.  And if I had a better grasp of my thoughts.

It is another blog written from the perspective of someone, like me, who likes some sketch comedy but doesn’t like all sketch comedy, and is exploring why he doesn’t like what he doesn’t like.  And he’s sharing his thoughts on how to be better at sketch, particularly writing.

Even though I’m somewhat active in the Seattle sketch community, I haven’t met many people who seem to have given a lot of thought as to what some sketches (or troupes) lack.  Do they not detect the poor quality of some of the work around here?  Do they not care?  Are they just trying to be nice by not saying anything negative?  Are they of the (mistaken) belief that you shouldn’t analyze comedy?  Do they just not want to talk to me about it?

So it’s refreshing to meet someone who also would like to try to make things better.  For himself.  And by sharing, for others.

This is not the last you’ll hear me mention Ed Toolis’s blog.  I intend to comment here on some of his posts.  Stay tuned!

Great Shows “Lately” (since 9/2008)

Back in 2008, I listed a bunch of the sketch shows I’d seen and rated some troupes.

Today, I just want to mention the better sketch shows I’ve seen since 2008.

If you have the opportunity to see any of these groups, DO IT!

So, in no particular order:
1. The Cody Rivers Show – I was only somewhat of a fan in 2008, but their shows since then have really really really kicked ass, especially the stuff I saw in 2010. I think they’re currently on hiatus, but when they’re back go see them.
2. Last Call Cleveland – The hit of Sketchfest 2010. Their videos, even their music videos, aren’t as good as seeing them live. I would suggest you avoid seeing their videos until you’ve seen them live. And I suggest you see them live.
3. Hey You Millionaires – I loved them when I first saw them at Sketchfest 2008 (also in 2009). In 2010 they were temporarily missing a member, and I think the quality of the show suffered a little. But I still say go see them if you can. Apparently they’ve moved to L.A.
4. Shoshinz – Not much to say about this Japanese duo. They were great when they toured in the area back in 2009. They had no English dialogue in the show I saw, but had fun dance and music numbers. I’m a sketch curmudgeon, but I loved them and I highly recommend seeing them.
5. Peter n’ Chris Show – I saw them for the first time in 5/2011 and was blown away. They are (for me) the surprise new duo (from Vancouver).
6. Charles – Currently, the best sketch troupe in the Seattle area (Bellingham is not included in “Seattle area”). The duo is funny and clever, but often you can only see them performing with (opening for) another troupe. Even if you don’t like the other troupe, Charles is worth the price of admission.
7. Second City Touring Company show – They have performed at the Edmonds Center for the Arts in February for the last few years (and occasionally elsewhere in the area as well).

“What about group X?” some might ask me. “What do you think of them?”
Well, if they’ve been to Seattle in the past few years, I’ve probably seen them. I might have even enjoyed the show. But the seven I listed here are in a class above that group (at least).

Don’t forget that comedy is subjective

Ken Levine (writer or producer for shows like MASH, Cheers, and The Simpsons) uses an example from his career (of a bad writer codenamed “Shecky”) to bring up a point about comedy writing:

But the big question is this: How do you know when something’s funny? Especially since humor is so subjective. The standard answer is “it’s funny if it’s funny to you”. I disagree. And I use Shecky as an example. If you’re attempting to become a professional comedy writer you need to gage what strangers will find funny.

Amateur comedy writers should also pay attention.

One problem I see over and over again in amateur sketch comedy is that of oblivious comedians creating sketches that they find funny but the audience doesn’t. A few members of the audience may laugh, perhaps giving the illusion of success to the sketch comedian, but the response does not compare to that of the jokes that actually work.

If you are a sketch writer, don’t delude yourself into thinking your sketches always work. Study comedy, see what works. Work harder. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t.

One of my favorite quotes from episode 18 of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”, a show that wasn’t that great but meant well:

“You’re too hard on yourself.”
“You know who isn’t too hard on themselves? Amateurs.”
– Lucy and Tom

Work on writing what strangers will find funny. Actually make an effort of it. And be honest about how good your comedy actually is. I’ll thank you with my laughter.

Context matters, and Last Call Cleveland is awesome

If you had asked me two days ago whether it was a good idea for a sketch show to include a 30-second video of a kitten riding on a roomba, I would have thought you were an idiot.  Of course not.  That’s stupid!

On Saturday, I saw Last Call Cleveland show a video of a kitten riding a roomba.  I loved it, and I loved them for putting it on.

The video is what it sounds like.  Kitten rides a roomba.  Sounds like one of the more boring vids from America’s Funniest Home Videos.  There is no writing.  There is no twist.  It is just cute.  In lesser hands, it is a video that DOES NOT BELONG ANYWHERE NEAR SKETCH COMEDY.

It worked.  It was brilliant.

I don’t want any other sketch troupe to look at that wildly successful bit and learn the wrong lessons from it.

Sketches do not exist in a vacuum.  What comes before affects a sketch, and what comes after is affected by a sketch.

In 2001 I performed at Seattle SketchFest as a part of the Pork Filled Players.  I performed a sketch that was mostly a monologue, where I told some disaster Christmas story.  I think it was written by Dave Kobayashi.  At SketchFest, it did pretty well.  Far better than average laughs.  I was pretty happy about that.

A week later, the Pork Filled Players opened the show Crouching Elves, Hidden Packages.  Many of the same sketches we’d used at SketchFest were in our show.  The laughs on this particular sketch largely disappeared!  What happened?  Where were my laughs?

The problem was our order had changed.  At SketchFest, this sketch followed what is probably the best sketch PFP has ever done, Emerald City Clinic.  It was definitely the highlight of our late 2001 performances.  Our reviewer from either the Stranger or Seattle Weekly hated our show except for that sketch.  My little monologue got to ride the clinic’s coattails.  The huge laughs from Emerald City Clinic put the audience into a good mood.  We won them over.  And so my monologue got a lot more laughs than it deserved.  And because of that, I was kind of unprepared for the lack of laughs in our final order.

Last night, I also saw a set from Seattle troupe Killer Donut.  I did not like their first sketch.  It was a sketch where the first two performers broke the fourth wall and told the audience they were doing something different, and established some rules.  Then, after a short start, a third performer entered and broke the previously established rules.  Then the first two performers pretended to break character, expressing mock outrage.  I hate it when sketch comedians pretend to break character to “argue” in a sketch, and perhaps many others disagree.  But it turned me off.  I did not laugh at their second sketch.  I started to laugh a little during their third sketch.  And when their set was over, I realized their second and third sketches weren’t bad.  They were actually pretty good.  But because they lost me with their first sketch, I was thinking “Pretending to break character is lame.  This group is lame.” And so it took two good sketches before I was at a point where I was ready to laugh at them.

Context matters.  Keeping an audience laughing is easier than getting the audience to laugh in the first place, and getting a hostile audience to laugh is quite difficult.  Obvious, right?

What makes Last Call Cleveland sketch comedy gods is that they blatantly put in something different, something that would be weak if taken out of context, and knew that it would work because what came before was so strong.  PFP accidentally had a weak sketch appear to be strong because of the greatness of Emerald City Clinic before it.

Maybe we could have put a 30-second video of a kitty riding a roomba after Emerald City Clinic.

SketchFest Seattle 2010

The 2010 edition of SketchFest Seattle ended yesterday, so I thought it might be a good time to try to revive this blog.  Plus, I’ve been thinking hard about getting back into sketch comedy, so the subject has been on my mind a bit lately.  Don’t know if I’ll have anything to say a month or two from now, but for the time being I’m full of opinions!

The Cody Rivers Show is something you ought to experience as soon as possible.  They’ll be in Seattle in November and December, and tickets are available at brown paper tickets.

Last Call Cleveland put on an awesome show.

Hey You Millionaires were great, as expected.

The quality of the rest of the groups was a mixture ranging from “good” to “so bad I wished I had the balls to just walk out of the theater”.

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