Sunday, Aug. 1, 2010

Substantially More Precise: The Fifth Annual Milwaukee Comedy Festival

The 8pm Show On Saturday Was An Interesting Mix of Comic Styles

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Relative to years past, this year’s Milwaukee Comedy Festival feels a bit more streamlined. The fifth annual festival of sketch, improv and stand-up makes it to the stage of the Off-Broadway Theatre with a stylish precision that had been lacking in the past.

Satyrday's 7:30pm show was nearly sold-out with only a few seats available. A comedy crowd packed the Off-Broadway Theatre with a kind of energy that is distinctly different from that of a regular theatre crowd. One of the last ever performances at the Off-Broadway Theatre, the show was a comic mix.

The 7:30 pm show started promptly at . . . like 7:45 or something to accommodate everyone who had purchased tickets. Like the rest of he programs on the festival, the show began with stand-up—Alex Grindeland in this case. All to often stand-up comics are simply lifelessly rifling through comedy that they’ve performed millions of times before. So, okay, Grindeland didn’t appear to be doing anything new, but he took the stage with a form vaguely reminiscent of an Olympic athlete. He was announced, walked out with a tiny bottle of water, placed that water on the stage on an “X” that seemed to have been taped there specifically for the task. He worked his way through his routine with a steady, easy rhythm that produced laughter and applause in all the right places. He closed the set with the standard the standard, well-placed kick in the head.  The North Korean judge would’ve given him an 8.5 . . .

Grindeland’s stand-up slid into a performance by half of The Gentleman’s Hour (the Gentleman’s half hour?) Tyler Kroll and Patrick Schmitz of the regular group were joined by Milwaukee Comedy Fest co-founder Matt Kemple in a few classic sketches. Libby Amato made kind of a surprise cameo as the girlfriend who dumps Schmitz as the two are chased by Freddie Krueger.  Kroll and Schmitz’ “Camping with Chris,” sketch probably had the best reaction from the audience, largely due to Kroll’s comically eerie portrayal of Christopher Walken. The video segments between the sketches included a Patrick Schmitz bit most likely inspired by the 1993 Michael Keaton movie My Life—in which Schmitz plays a terminally ill father trying to record a video message to the child he may never know. There’s kind of an unexpected element in dark comedy that can overcome the darkness. That video is a good example of this.

The show continued with Simply Coney-an improv group from Detroit consisting of three guys. Improv comedy lives in The Unexpected. A program that opened with Grindeland’s stand-up precision, moving through to a slightly less precise performance by The Gentleman’s Half Hour, moving through to the wild energy of improv by three guys from out of state. A spot that opened with a pair of guys shaving somehow managed to end with a transsexual mermaid caught by a couple of fisherman subsequently attending a birthday party.

The program moved into intermission before returning for a show-closing performance. The final group was introduced by Matt Kemple as comedy fest mascot “Jimbo.” Having seen “Jimbo” on Comedy Fest material for years I was kind of surprised to actually see the character in the flesh onstage. He’s got kind of a Tony Clifton thing going on mixed with a vague hint of vintage an Andrew Dice Clay posture. Jimbo introduced the final group of the evening: Broadminded.

The four-woman group performed excerpts from its recent show Science And Surplus. I’d seen all the sketches before on the show’s opening weekend at the Alchemist Theatre. The near sell-out crowd at the Off-Broadway Theatre gave the sketches some room to breathe. It’s been nearly two months since that show debuted. The precision of Broadminded’s humor has had some time to develop. It was interesting seeing those sketches a number of weeks later in a bigger audience. The energy at the end of a Comedyfest show was remarkably dynamic. There’s a kind of desperation in most comedy—a need to fill every possible moment with punch lines. There’s a fear of silence. Broadminded lacks that desperation. There’s one sketch done entirely without spoken dialogue that only has a single punch line—right at the end. That kind of fearlessness makes for some pretty sophisticated material. Broadminded got laughs in all the right places last night. Even some surprisingly subtle and idiosyncratic humor got a reaction from most of the audience. Broadminded closed the 7:30 program with the high-energy tribute to Pluto that also closed-out Science and Surplus. The energy from a full audience in a thrust stage added immeasurably to the performance.


The Milwaukee Comedy Festival ends today with Teen Comedy Day—Sketch and Improv from four different Milwaukee area high school-aged sketch and improv groups. Stand-up Joel Boyd opens the show.  The show begins at 1:00pm at the Off-Broadway Theatre. 

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