Sunday, January 27, 2013

"Bleagh! I Think that Piano Has a Ghost!"

Sketchfest is in full swing! It always feels like an embarrassment of riches - the sheer number of talented people performing in a limited span of time can feel overwhelming, and I usually end up just picking one or two shows to attend. This year, I plan to make it out to more, and so far, it's been off to a fantastic start.

Thanks to the largesse of my wonderful sister, I scored a ticket to Paul F Tompkins and Friends Real and Fake. Paul might be my favorite comedian - his stand-up is good, but more than that, he works in an amazing variety of modes, including raconteur, character, performer, and pal. If I were to meet someone like Patton Oswalt or Louis CK, I would be delighted but incredibly nervous, worried that I would inadvertently do something (like say "hilarious") that they could seize on and expose as foolish. I'm sure I would be star-struck if I ever met Paul one-on-one, but his style of humor is one of the warmest, most positive (yet still funny and occasionally revelatory!) that I've heard.

That warmth was on fine display at his show on Friday night. At previous Sketchfests I had attended the Paul F Tompkins Show, a wonderful vaudeville-type extravaganza. This one was quite different, with no music or sketches. Instead, it had a series of stand-up performances, interspersed by Paul's characters. I had seen all of Paul's "real friends" previously in sketch shows, but it was the first time I'd seen any of them do standup, and all of them were terrific, using very unique perspectives to make us laugh.

I'm going to refrain from sharing my favorite moments from the standup, mostly because I suspect they will be touring with the material, and some of it may eventually end up in some special or other, and there's no earthly way my typing words into a blog could match the effectiveness of their delivery. I'll confine myself to some general reactions, and recalling moments from the show that seem unlikely to be repeated in the future.

First, to run down the real friends: I only know Steve Agee from The Sarah Silverman Program, where he played Brian Posehn's stoner boyfriend. Much of his set involved telling stories from his past, and either extrapolating from them or imagining unseen aspects to the tales. Mary Lynn Rajskub looked stunning; I've only seen her in Mr. Show with Bob and David, but apparently she has done some major television and film work as well. Her comedy focused on introspection, and had some wonderful moments where a totally unexpected "fact" arrived from left field. Finally, Kevin McDonald from The Kids in the Hall did a set anchored around the idea that he, as a sketch comedian, had no business doing stand-up. This was the most meta of the sets, and Kevin masterfully interwove his standup with commentary on him doing standup.

Paul may be the most gifted riffer in the business, and at the start of the show, he opened with several minutes off the cuff purely about the surroundings. This is the first year that the Verdi Club has hosted Sketchfest shows, and this was the first show held at Verdi. It's a pretty cool venue - the room is fairly intimate (capacity 299 people), so everyone is close to the stage; the floor is level, but the stage is elevated, so everyone has good sightlines. There's also a well-stocked full bar. Anyways, Paul came out after being introduced by a Sketchfest founder, and immediately started some business with the microphone, whose cord had been looped around the stand. Um... I'm going to get this wrong, but his opening went something like this, with lots of laughter from the audience interspersed:

"Ah, good - three microphones. I'm so glad that the Verdi Club was able to accommodate my request: I said, 'I require no fewer than three mikes! And, if you could make sure that one of the microphones isn't plugged into anything, that would be great.' Actually, I remember now that I specifically asked for a cordless mike, which makes me feel foolish. Great job, Paul! Way to start off the show! Idiot. But I am grateful that Verdi could fulfill so many of the things I require for my show. I said, 'I'll need some chandeliers from the movie Logan's Run.' They said, 'No problem, we got you covered.' I said, 'Please make sure to have a depressing bar stool from [some era or movie? I forget...]' They said, 'We can get that for you.' I said, 'You're really going to hate me for this... but is there any way you can get a haunted piano?' 'Poltergeist or ghost?' they replied."

Needless to say, all of this was just responding to things in the room, things that I had totally missed during the half-hour that I'd been sitting and waiting for the show to start. Those comedians, always ready with their observations and their jokes!

A lot of Paul's comedy is based around anecdotes and telling stories, so after his intro most of his set was about an incident that occurred at Christmas. Hopefully you'll get to hear it! For the rest of the night, he did his characters. If you haven't had the pleasure of experiencing these before, you can get a taste on YouTube, but most of the "mythology" around them has accreted over years of appearances on podcasts like Comedy Bang-Bang and The Pod F Tompkast. His characters are based on real people, but they aren't really impersonations in the standard comedic vein. Instead, he takes only the most basic facts about the person (Werner Herzog is is a German film director who made a movie about a man getting eaten by a bear; Ice-T is a rapper who acts on the show CSI: Miami), then extrapolates goofy premises (Werner Herzog is obsessed with the awfulness of nature and wants to fight it; Ice-T is obsessed with creating new business ventures). The most impressing thing is the canon - while Tompkins inhabits a character, he is constantly making stuff up in response to questions or statements from other people on the podcast, and these become established "facts" for all future appearances. Over time, this makes the characters evolve into hilarious personalities that are barely unrecognizable (Werner Herzog married a beautiful robot who he fashioned from the parts of a zeppelin).

Paul performed as probably my three favorite characters of his: Dame Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Garry Marshall, and The Cake Boss (cakeboss!). He had basic but effective costumes for each: a fabulous cape as Lloyd Webber, a white wig for Marshall, and a black wig and white chef's jacket for Buddy Valastro. Tompkins did a great job of setting up each character so newcomers wouldn't be totally lost, while also not feeling like he was just retreading old material for the hard-core fans. For example, he re-told the story about how he was bitten by a cake bug, as he usually does as that character; but he also discoursed for a little bit on why cake bugs occupy cake kitchens and the role they play in keeping predators under control.

As Lloyd Webber, he reviewed his musical oeuvre and laid out his plan to compete against the awful "juking-box" musicals of the day. Garry Marshall provided some insights into his hit sitcoms of the past, and gave a very long and entertaining description of how he's going to find Bigfoot, and what he'll do once he captures it. My favorite set of the night was the last one, though. After the Cake Boss (cakeboss!) described the horrible time constraints he has to work under and explained how he received the curse of the second sight, he offered to go into a trance (er, "tranche") and answer any questions about the future we might have. This was incredibly impressive - I'm always amazed at seeing great comedians thinking on their feet and responding to something unexpected.

Paul selected someone, who asked, "Who's going to win the Super Bowl?" (In case you don't follow football, San Francisco is going to the Super Bowl next weekend, to play against the Baltimore Ravens, so it's a question high on the mind of many residents here.) Tompkins good-naturedly mocked the question for a while - "That's a real important question right there! I mean, out of all the things in the entire future that you could possibly want to find out about... well, okay, sure, we'll find out who wins a sports game. Good forbid you should have to wait a week to find out." He went into his tranche, then moved "All the way into the future... parting the curtains... all the way to two weeks from now.. it's so far! I don't know if I can make it!" He then described the scene: "I see a stadium, filled with people! They are tossing the coin... the coin is flipped, and they're ready to... do the first football thing... then... oh, no! Suddenly, the ground falls out from below the field! It's Bane! He's at the stadium! That's right, he's crossed over from Batman into our own world! It's a Purple Rose of Cairo type of thing. A woman was watching The Dark Knight Rises and fell in love with him, so now he's here. And, that's it! The game is called on account of Bane. And this gentleman here made a lot of money on the game. That's right, he bet on Bane winning the Super Bowl... and the odds were very long! So he did quite well. Okay, does anyone else have any other questions?"

While still in his tranche, he selected a young woman who asked, "Will Garry Marshall ever find Bigfoot?" He cracked up a little before replying, "That's a bit of a callback there. Okay, let me check." He described Garry Marshall, in a far-away, distant land, coming across a tall, mysterious shape. [I forget exactly how the next part of the story unfolded - I think that it turns out to be the actor who played Bigfoot, and Bigfoot, standing on each others' shoulders, or something.] "And then... oh, no! It's Bane again! He's here too! He kills Garry Marshall and takes Bigfoot for himself! And that gentleman from before makes even more money by betting on this. It's off the main book, too... the odds of Bane finding Bigfoot were four thousand to one. He really cleans up. Okay, final question!"

Another woman asked, "Who will be our next president?" "That's a... okay, that's a pretty good question, I guess. It does affect your life, so whatever. All right, I'm - hold on, before I proceed, a follow-up question: the president of the United States?" Yes. "Okay, just checking. I'm moving through the future again... all the way to 2016... oh, wait, now I'm going back to 2015 when the people are actually running. Okay. I see that the Democrats will nominate... Hillary Clinton. She's good, she's doing well. She's done something with her hair that I approve of. And the Republicans nominate... a bag of angry worms. The bag of angry worms is making some progress, it has a few good points. Okay, now I'm at the first major debate. Hillary is winning the debate. The bag of worms is doing well for a bag, but c'mon, a bag of angry worms can only do so much. Oh, no! It's Bane again! That gentleman made even more money by betting on Bane in the 2016 election, he wasn't even a candidate. But he ends up winning. So, that's it. Bane is the next President."

The show ended with gales of nonstop laughter, pretty much starting from the introduction of the bag of angry worms until well after Paul had left the stage. It was, needless to say, a fantastic show!

Fast-forward a day to the next event: the Thrilling Adventure Hour! I've actually only recently gotten into this - I contributed to their recent Kickstarter project, then started listening through their voluminous archives. This is a live show that's been playing in Los Angeles for nearly eight years. Every single month, they were a completely new script and put on a single show. It's done in the style of an old-timey radio serial, like The Shadow or Buck Rogers; if you listen to A Prairie Home Companion, it's a bit like a hipper version of the radio sketches they do on that show. The show is anchored by two recurring segments: Sparks Nevada: Marshal on Mars, about a literal space cowboy (a man from Earth who comes to Mars, rides his horse, tangles with outlaws and ruffians and whatnot); and Beyond Belief, with Paul F Tompkins and Paget Brewster as Frank and Sadie Doyle, a psychic married couple constantly confronted with paranormal mysteries who just want to be left alone and drink with one another. In between they feature a rotating assortment of other programs, commercials, and the occasional song.

The TAH is a surprisingly dynamic program, with a steady core of performers playing multiple roles, but a constantly rotating slate of guest stars, from the world of comedy but also featuring many "straight" actors known mostly for their dramatic roles. Their cast at Sketchfest is always impressive, and this year did not disappoint: Reggie Watts, Jonathan Coulton, John Hodgman, Colin Hanks, Gillian Jacobs, Rider Strong, Steve Agee (remember him?), Keegan-Michael Key, and an uncredited but excellent Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett.

This was my first time seeing TAH live, and I was really looking forward to it. I enjoy listening to the podcasts of their LA shows, and one thing I notice is that, in every program, the boisterous audience will respond well to the jokes and such within the script, but there will also be moments when they crack up at something physical happening on the stage. Of course, this is completely lost in the audio-only version everyone else consumes it in, and I really wanted to catch a glimpse of that sort of business. I wasn't disappointed - sometimes it's as simple as Paul F Tompkins scowling at the audience, other times it's an inspired bit of blocking.

I'm pretty sure that these programs will enter the podcast stream soon, so I'll avoid spoilers. Instead, here's a random list of personal favorite moments from the show:
  • Kevin Murphy's talented instrumentation.
  • Paul F Tompkins as the King of Coffee, doing one of the very best types of characters he does.
  • ... and the way he exited the stage from these segments, constantly glowering at the audience, never turning his back.
  • The very rich songs, nearly all done in chorus, most of which Jonathan Coulton joined.
  • Keegan-Michael Key's incredible character of a nazi from the future.
  • Rider Strong's animated performance opposite Marc Evan Jackson.
  • Reggie Watts as a hangdog minion.
  • All of the wonderful ladies - the sunny Annie Savage, the impassioned Gillian Jacobs, the magnetic Autumn Reeser. (And the terrific harmony they sang at the end.)
  • Seeing Amelia Earhart fly her plane.
  • I like to think that I was the first person in the audience to realize which Shakespearean play was being parodied in the final WorkJuice commercial.
  • Beyond Belief doing a rare call-back to a previous episode, which happens to be one of my all-time favorites.
  • Seeing the Bens (or at least one of them) pop onto the stage and wave at the very end.
 It was an incredible show, and left me kind of wishing that I had tickets to the 9:30 as well. Apparently, they're keeping the serialization of Sparks Nevada between both shows that night, which is amazing.

The entire experience was fun and strange; it's reminiscent of a lot of different types of entertainment, while not being like any thing I'm used to. There's frequent laughter like you would expect from a live sketch or stand-up show; but what kind of entertainment these days inspires frequent applause? I guess it's a little like watching a play or musical, but instead of holding your reaction to the end of an act, it spills over at opportune times, like an actor entering or exiting. In terms of interactivity, it might be closest to something like a special screening of a favorite movie; but you have the drama and malleability of a live performance. Well. It's a unique, fun, funny experience, and hopefully one I'll get to see next year as well!

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