Friday, Aug. 5, 2011

2011 Milwaukee Comedyfest Day One

Beginning the new theatre Year With Funny—the first two programs

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Return To The Fest At A New Place

The next annual Milwaukee Comedy Festival takes the stage of ComedySportz this weekend. ComedySportz is in such a strange area of town—that weird hinge between downtown and Walker’s Point that is home to paint and carpeting stores, an active pair of train tracks and a couple of empty spaces patiently waiting to become vacation condos for rich Chicagoans.

On my way in to ComedySportz, Libby Amato handed me my pass, which is a really good way to enter any theatre. Right around the corner there are T-Shirts and buttons for sale. I opened a tab at the bar and got a standard Milwaukee Lager. As luck would have it, ComedySportz has a couple of old cabinet arcade games . . . ended up getting in a couple of rounds of Galaga between shows.

When Matt Kemple told me that the guys at ComedySportz were nice enough to hand over the entire space (both stages) to the Comedy Fest, I guess I kind of assumed that both spaces would be used for performances. I casually walked into the one that was open before the show and looked around a bit. Luckily enough, no one on staff told me that I had no business being there as I had nothing to do with the fest. I walked out as casually as possible when I realized my mistake—that other space is for performers only . . . awkward . . . but I guess what I’m saying is that Fest organizers Kemple and Shmitz are really nice people.

And so things sort of settled-in for the first show of the evening.

THE FIRST SHOW

The first group on the first show was an improv pair from Chicago. Seriously Unprepared actually kind of lived-up to its name here. One guy. One woman. Jeff Murdoch. Jo Scott. The improv was pretty good when it worked and when it worked, it veered off in the general direction of some stylishly dark stuff. There were also some kind of awkward dead moments. The most stylistically interesting thing they did had to be a bit featuring a boy in a bubble and his mother. It ended with the single weirdest line in the fest so far this year—it was something along the lines of “we’re ALL skinless in here mother.” Their best stuff rides the line between funny and creepy. 

Seriously Unprepared was followed by returning members of Patrick Schmitz’s Organized Chaos group. (The formal performing group from First Stage Children’s Theatre’s improv classes.) Labled as The OC Alumni, it was fun to see a rather large improv group that had been working together for quite a long time. There’s genuine depth to the improv done by people who had been practicing it together for, as I understand it, the better part of high school. At its best there’s a kind of group consciousness that forms out of that sort of thing. The OC Alumni shot through multiple narratives with striking efficiency . . . and the humor was really good in places. The group is dispersed in various colleges now, but there’s some real talent here. Schmitz has done a really good job of helping develop that talent. 

The first program ended with a sketch group from Chicago—Jeremy Show. It's three guys and a woman. (As I recall, on opening night there was some kind of weird invisible barrier keeping more than one woman from appearing onstage at any one time.) As it turns out, Jeremy is actually quite funny in places with a style that is novel enough to keep the comedy interesting. Jeremy’s set started with a bit about a father in a car on the phone to multiple characters (all played by Carley Moseley.)  There was a fairly clever bit about a couple of toddlers on a playdate that ended up being really fun, too.

 

 THE SECOND SHOW

The first group on the second show of opening night was another group from Chicago—the improv comedy of two guys known as Jack and the Wolf.

A big dark-haired guy and a smaller blond guy worked through a series of narratives, most of which worked. What sets them apart from most of the other improv that I’ve seen is that . . . Jack and the Wolf take time to establish their characters in quite a bit of detail, which takes the improv in a really interesting direction. In a comedy format so commonly dominated by people desperately looking to get easy laughs, it’s really refreshing to see character-based improv. It may not have all worked brilliantly, but it never does with improv. Solidly entertaining, though.

 

(A Word About Stand-Up

The overall rhythm of the second program was a bit of a fluke. Each program on the festival has four acts. Most of the programs are laid out like this: a stand-up comic is followed by alternating sketch and improv comedy groups. The early show was a stand-up/Improv/Improv/Sketch format. I find myself looking forward to Saturday where the format is Stand-up/Improv/Sketch/Improv—and tonight’s format is more of a Stand-up/sketch/imporv/sketch kind of feeling which could be really cool, too. 

My big issue with the festival ends up being the stand-up. I generally hate stand-up comedy. I loved it as a kid, but somewhere around junior high school I overdosed on early Comedy Central programming and ended up hating the vast majority of it. I don’t mind a comedy fest show opening with it, but TWO of the four acts on the 10pm show last night were stand-up acts. And I didn’t like the second one very much. 

When the second stand-up comic came out for the evening—a gentleman who seems like a perfectly nice guy who co-founded a local “underground,” stand-up group--I cringed ever so slightly. When he started performing everyone else in the audience was loving this guy’s stuff and I felt my own energy distancing from the crowd. To me it sounded like exceptionally bad stand-up. This guy was trying to do something that reminded me of early ‘90’s Drake Sather-type stuff (which was brilliant when Sather did it.) The gentleman in questions seemed to be failing miserably at it. To be fair, my opinion was affected by the fact that this stand-up was placed rather precariously between two improv acts and not at the beginning of the program where it belongs.

I say again, the audience loved it and that’s what’s more important than anything else. A comedian is supposed to be funny and if the majority of the people are laughing, he IS funny in a very objective way regardless of what any critic thinks. Still—by the end of his set, I’d gone from thinking of it as exceptionally bad stand-up comedy to affectionately thinking of it as the worst attempt by an individual to practice comedy on a public stage in the history of the world. (So I didn’t like it.) But on the walk out to the bus stop (ahem) to get back home, I’d gained some perspective on this guy's performance. I’d forgotten about most of what his set consisted of. So put into perspective, this gentleman’s stand-up was no worse than the 99% of the rest of stand-up comedy. The vast majority of it in my opinion, is absolute hackwork. (And in my opinion, that hackwork includes some of the most successful stand-up in history. I’m not making any judgments here, I’m just saying that I don’t personally like Seinfeld or . . . well a lot of other stand-up comics.) The audience loved this guy’s stuff, though. I successfully tried not to leave. And then Homegrown Electric Circus closed the show.  And I’m just happy that there won’t be another program on the festival with stand-up in the middle of it. That’s all I’m saying. Sorry it took about 540 words to get that off my chest.)  

The second show of the festival closed with somewhat poetically titled Homegrown Electric Circus from right here in Milwaukee. HEC is a kind of an eclectic mix of improv comic intellects working in some impressive semi-elaborate territory. The comedy went in the direction of a family obsessed with their child’s science fair. The domestic family comedy structure is pretty common in improv from what I’ve seen, but the clever thing that HEC was working on here was having their characters go through role-playing to prepare them for events that were to happen later on in the narrative. Token HEC woman Jazmin Vollmar was playing a mother pretending to be a girl on a playground for her son in the interest of getting him to open-up and be less shy. It’s a really bizarre concept, but it was fun to watch Vollmar as a competitive mother trying to get her son to learn the basic elements of improv comedy . . . kind of an infinite regression thing that worked on levels that go way beyond the usual improv stuff. A very, very fun end to the first evening of the festival.

Milwaukee Comdey Fest continues through August 7th at ComedySportz on 420 South First Street.    

 

 

 

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