Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012

Milwaukee Comedy Festival Day One

The Early show is a mix of stand-up sketch and imrpov

By Russ Bickerstaff
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This year's Milwaukee Comedy Fest slips into the classy Next Act Theatre Space on 255 South Water Street with a very slick professionalism that makes it feel kind of like a comedy convention. One half expects to find booths from various comedy vendors popping up in the lobby . . .  weird . . . . 

 

The festival opened with introductory music by Flitharmonic--a jazz improv group that does some remarkably stylish work. The interesting thing about what they were doing before the show was that it was stylistically complex enough to be distinctive and at the same time smooth enough that people going in to find their seats before the show didn't feel at all uncomfortable about actually talking during their performance. In a way, that's the perfect balance for a house band before one of these shows . . .  

 

Once again, the festival is hosted by co-producers Matt Kemple and Patrick Schmitz. These guys have been doing this for several years now . . . they seem perfectly calm about the whole thing. And though it comes together perfectly onstage, you half expect that they're dealing with a million headaches offstage to make sure that it all comes together. 

 

 

The opening act for this year's festival was pianist Matt Griffo. Piano stand-up is either exceptionally bad or it's okay . . . and the fact that Matt Griffo is good says a lot about his comic talent. He's up there with a synthesizer and his music making observational humor. like the best musical comics, he's actually a good musician. This means that even when the jokes are bad (and there IS some exceptionally bad comedy in here) the music is so good that you don't really care. The cleverest bit on his set has to be a song he'd written out of pure frustration. Griffo is evidently an environmentally-conscious vegetarian. (More power to him in that respect.) So often that sort of thing comes across to people like pretentious, uptight liberalism, but Griffo poured his anger and frustration a world that doesn't care about its own consumption and poured that into a very, very funny and very, very angry song. If more people could see him perform that, they'd probably understand a little bit more about environmentalism. I kind of  hope that Griffo could act as the face of the next generation of environmentalism, but I might be getting carried away there. 

 

 

The improv comedy on the opening show of the came to the stage courtesy of local improv group Meanwhile. The line-up onstage last night included Tyler Kroll, Lee Rowley, Vince Figueroa & Beth Lewinski. The group takes a single suggestion and develops an entire series of interrelated scenes on that topic. Kroll, Rowley, Lewinski and Figueroa all bring something distinctly different to the stage in interesting ways. In a way, it's kind of like a comedy trapeze act. Whenever someone looks like they're going to take the whole improv comedy narrative crashing to the floor, someone else picks it up and takes it in another direction that IS distinctly funny. The fact that they can do this without breaking the narrative too much makes for a very tight comedy package.  

 

The first show on the festival ended with a performance by sketch comedy group the Nerdologues. It's a half hour of nerd-based sketch comedy. On the whole, this is pretty good stuff, but the problem I have with Nerdologoues is the problem I have with Star Trek: It just isn't geeky enough. Like Star Trek, the Nerdologues take highly obscure stuff that works so well in its tiny, original niche and attempts to bring it out into  larger audience in a more generic commercial package. Where Star Trek was generic TV popularizing classy, old space faring sci0fi pulp stories . . . the Nerdologues are taking geek humor and staging it in a way that is attempting to reach a larger audience in a popular sketch comedy format. Some of it works. Some of it doesn't. 

 

The opening sketch is a perfect example of where this sort of thing DOESN'T work . . . a comic monologue delivered with one of the comics as the Blob giving a graduation speech to a class of Professor X's mutants. What would be ideal here is a clever satire on Claremont's magnum opus that casts a glance at the silliness the House of M and the folly of writers like Bendis in the open embrace of the sliding timescale. And I would have reached the smallest fraction of a percent of anyone reading that last sentence, but there's a way to do that sort of humor that embraces audiences completely unaware of the subject matter AND those who are intimately familiar with it. With MST3K, Michael J. Nelson and Kevin Murphy are brilliant at that sort of thing. At their best, Nerdologues strive towards that maddening precision that also embraces the universality of the comedy. Take their bit on The Highlander--they staged a battle between MacLeod and The Kurgan that degenerated into an existential conversation that is not only funny to those of us familiar with the premise, but also plays a larger more coherent satire on the nature of epic myths and legends. Clever stuff. Observational humor about the vacuous nature of 90% of all internet comments was also really funny. 

 

The Milwaukee Comedy Fest continues through August 11th at Next Act's theatre Space on 255 South Water Street. 

 

 

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