Milwaukee Comedy Festival: The last two days
Beginning the new theatre Year With Funny—the end of the fest
By the third night of the festival, things started to feel a little bleary. I’d been to ComedySportz before, but not THREE DAYS IN A ROW. The laughter started to stick together between the beer and the humidity. And I was enjoying the effect quite a bit.
Christy Watson opened the evening with some stand-up. The first group on the evening was Meanwhile. The Milwaukee-based improv group is a premium mixture of different comic intellects who almost all work in various other live comedy projects—kind of a local improv all-stars almost. Judging from the performance last night, the groups comic rapport has developed quite a bit over the years. The energy wildly ricochets around various subjects and styles. The group is large a liquid enough to occasionally fill an entire stage with multi-layered energy in big crescendos of comic action, occasionally dipping into less frenzied two-person comedy bits.
Chicago’s The Comic Thread was Saturday’s first Sketch comedy group. Featuring a large group of rotating comics, the group is one of Chicago’s oldest sketch groups. The group that appeared at the fest rendered some highly polished performances. On paper, the comedy doesn’t sound nearly as funny as it is. A recurring gag featuring “great moments in Amish Pornography” really had no business being funny at all beyond the first bit, but the Thread had the right kind of comic talent to keep it from getting dull.
One of the group’s longer fit the format of a king of a fantasy realm addressing the audience as though it was a group of soldiers going off to do battle with a dragon. The more sophisticated possibilities of the premise aren’t present here, but again, as this is a group of really talented performers, they make relatively weird surface-level comedy work a lot better than it has a right to. It’s a comedy of characters where the king and the rest of his subjects seem more wrapped-up in their own issues than actually slaying the dragon. The audience gets drawn-in. Fun stuff.
Another memorable bit featured a young couple about to get intimate when an old Scotsman comes in to interrupt the two of them. He goes on at great length with great passion about the movie Braveheart, which ends up being a seemingly random mixture of various other popular films. Again—seems kind of weird, but not particularly funny on paper, but again, this is the Comic Thread and these guys know what they’re doing.
The first show of the evening closed-out with Murseley—an improv group consisting of two guys from Austin Texas. What made their wok kind of interesting was their willingness to do an extended character-based long-form improv bit with shared characters. The two took turns fading in and out of a man and a woman’s journey to engagement at . . . an Olive Garden.
The last day of the festival is the big Sunday family matinee featuring the work of comic performers in the vicinity of their teenaged years. The big expectation that most people would get from this would be that it would only be of interest to parents and high school kids. Nope. High school improv, particularly by the people pictured above is some of the best in town.
I seem to recall this show being billed as the Teen Comedy Show in previous years . . . and it’s taken on subtly differing forms over the years. This year’s show seemed to be almost entirely work shepherded by festival co-producer Patrick Schmitz. Schmitz works with First Stage Children’s Theatre in their improv comedy classes. Much of the programming for this year’s matinee came out of that work in on fashion or another.
After suitably poised stand-up by Adam Crivello, the first group of the show came out—Organized Chaos—the name given to the performing improv group that comes from Schmitz’s First Stage students. With Schmitz’s first class going off to college this coming fall, this years Organized Chaos show was a new group. Watching a group of young high school kids begin to relate to the stage through improv is fascinating for any student of live performance. The third wall glows ever so faintly as connections are made.
There was kind of an odd juxtaposition between OC and this year’s non-Schmitz related group Underage Sugar Addicts from Chicago. In previous years, the Addicts had some sparkling talent. This year’s Comedy Fest performance was either having kind of an off day or is kind of in transition. The group floundered a bit at times. The Addicts’ performance went in kind of a weird direction with a long-form show about the darker side of a Disney theme park. The potential was there, realized in odd moments including the premise of introducing a Disney animated terrorist. Disney is an entertainment company that manages to successfully market so much to American kids. It would be genuinely funny to think of executives at Disney trying to manage the ultimate challenge: to make terrorists look fluffy, cuddly and cute. The group came pretty close to realizing some of the comic potential of a darker Disney lurking beneath the surface in a heady long-form work.
Scoot’s Schticks returned to the matinee this year. Consisting largely of graduating members of Schmitz’s first class of Improv students, this was something like a return to the Organized Chaos Alumni show from earlier in the fest. Wearing black punctuated by White ties, the group showed strikingly good form with a very nonchalant, effortlessly funny kind of a feel to it. At one point, Joel Boyd asked for a suggestion from the audience by saying something along the lines of, “we need a word that rhymes with cheese, but not really.” That kind of irreverence to the finer points of the improv format are a lot of fun to watch in action.
After School Special closed-out the festival. It’s one of the best groups in town. The premise ends up feeling like a cross between sketch and improv with equal parts of each. TV producer’s idea of entertaining educational fare is spoofed by teenagers in an improv that takes a suggestion of a moral from the audience and uses that to build a story with a clear beginning, middle and ending featuring stock characters played by each of the comics. The group has been working together for long enough to have developed really interesting relationships with all of the stock characters, making for an impressively detailed world for the improv to circulate through.
The suggestion was “graduation,”—a topic pretty close to a group of actors who have just actually graduated from high school. More than just running through the motions, the group almost seemed to be working through some emotional issues with the piece, which gave an inspired kind of an edge to it. If this is improv, it’s about a deep as I’ve ever seen it get. A phenomenal performance, really. Deeply entertaining.
Joel Boyd is a solid comic talent. His comedic instincts are as sharp as ever. The range of characters has a crisp versatility to it. The Hispanic kid he plays goes way beyond stereotypes—a precise mix of comedy and emotion. The most novel character he brings t to the stage is probably the hip principal trying too hard to be even more hip is a smart tilt on the type of principal commonly found in film and TV high school comedies.
Kevin Gerrity’s geeky romantic lead plays a nice contrast against his high school acting teacher. The acting teacher has the potential turning the whole thing in on itself conceptually as students studying comedy play students studying acting. Gerrity’s got kind of a comic charisma about him that can emerge when he lets it out. The acting teacher has a cool awareness about him.
Nevin Langhus’ characters are some of the more novel ones in the ensemble. The mystical janitor who speaks only in riddles is a smart addition to things. He also plays Anna’s mother—a comically domineering woman. And it may have been a gag they just stumbled into, but when Anna is visiting him as a high school guidance counselor, we find out that he will only tell her to do things once she’s already done them anyway. It’s a really funny concept, even if they only stumbled into it . . .I like the idea of a guidance counselor who will only suggest that you do those things that he know you’ve already done . . . Langhus has a really good sense of comic timing. Silence with him can be every bit as funny as the punch line that follows it.
Anna Wolfe was at the center of it all . . . going through the final days in class. Wolfe’s forte lies in showing genuine sentimentality with cleverly understated subtle comic shadows peering through beneath the earnestness of the character. She delivers a closing monologue as cheesy as anything said at the end of any high school comedy, but she’s got such a set stage presence that she sells the sentimentality of it remarkably well.
It was really nice to have Wolfe closing-out the festival with that monologue. The group bows. Matt Kemple and Patrick Schmitz thank everyone for coming. Thus closes another successful festival.
The Milwaukee Comedy Fest returns next August. For more information on live comedy in Milwaukee throughout the year, check out Milwaukee Comedy Fest online.