Interview: Alex Zalben, Sketchfest NYC

Filed Under Interview, Live Events, Sketch Comedy

New York City’s second annual Sketchfest starts this Thursday with three days of performances from the best groups not only in the Big Apple, but across the country. I talked to Alex Zalben about what people can expect from this year’s fest and how to enjoyably endure seeing every show in the festival.

What are some of the newcomers to the festival that you are most excited about introducing to New York?

It’s like you’re asking me to choose one baby over the other… But I’ll try. Cody Rivers show is fantastic. They’ve been performing together for only a short while (relatively speaking), but have blown up on the sketch scene in the past year, and I can see why. Their show walks this incredible line between ridiculously surreal premises that could be mistaken for experimental theater, except for the fact that they each have a clearly defined idea behind them, which brings them into the realm of sketch. Fempyre is a rock duo from LA, and they are hilarious, rocking, and not to be missed. Slow Children at Play are awesome. They’re still in college (at Boston University), but are so polished and funny, we had to take them into the festival. I think their tape made me laugh the hardest out of the over 100 submissions we got. And American Dream from Chicago are excellent, just really well done, solid sketches.

Are there any targets that seem to be common across sketch groups this year? Does anything thematically tie some groups together?

I think that comedy targets are in a little bit of a transition period right now. Two years ago, it was definitely political humor. Last year, people were all abuzz with The Aristocrats about dirty or blue humor. With that faded away, I think something new hasn’t filled that void yet. If I was to guess, I would say that it’s not a target, but an approach that’s on the horizon. The rise of shorter form programming on the web has been an incredible boon to sketch comedy. People don’t want to see 22 minute shows, or ever 15 minute shows. They want three to five minute content. Who has that? Sketch comedy groups. That’s how we structure everything. It’s yet to be seen how it will fall out, but people are catching on very quickly that what they want for their next-gen programming in sketch. Conversely, I think there’s a huge push in the sketch community to embrace the theatrical aspects of comedy. It’s fine and good to stand their and tell jokes, but people are realizing that what makes sketch different is that it’s theater. You have props, characters… Why not take it to the logical extreme, and actually work on blocking, stage presence, pauses, etc. They’re two very different directions people are going in, and I’m excited to see how both go. Also, lots of jokes about bears.

Does the potential for industry attention change the tone of the fest at all?

I think it certainly puts the heat on the performers to put on the best show they can, which is not necessarily a bad thing at all. That being said, there’s a concerted effort on the producers part to not make this an industry supermarket. When we first decided about the festival, we picked and chose pieces from other SketchFests around the country, and what we enjoyed about each of them. The one constant is that they are full of a great, supportive, positive community of people who, more than anything are there to check out as many shows as possible, and laugh and clap whenever they can. So that was our number one priority: making this a great experience for the performers, making sure that all they have to worry about is performing, and we can take care of the rest (getting them into the shows, feeding them, being as prepared technically as possible, etc.) So to that end, we take care of the industry and press behind the scenes, in the same way, and just let the artists deal with the positive fall out.

How do you balance out sketch performers to make the most diverse festival possible?

The really great sketch groups all have a very unique filter on life. Monty Python sketches couldn’t have been written by Kids in the Hall, Saturday Night Live sketches wouldn’t fit on The State, and so on. They might use the same premise, or idea, but their approach would be entirely different. We’re looking for those groups that have as unique an approach as possible. A good example would be Ten West, who have very clear ideas, but all of their sketches are performed in a clowning style of theater. To be even more specific, MEAT (all-female) and Elephant Larry (all-male) could write two sketches that start with the same idea, but there’s no way that they would be the same in execution, because they’re coming from entirely different life experiences.

When we get down to it, we’re looking for a couple of things. First and foremost, does it make us laugh? You have a group of people in a room watching your tape, and we’re not going to laugh that much if we’ve seen those sketches before. Laughter comes from surprise, and the people on the viewing jury have all seen a ton of groups from all over the country. So if you surprise us, we’re going to laugh, and then there’s a good chance you’re going to get into the Festival. After that, things like rep & recommendations come into play, which is what I like to call the “are you ready?” factor. There’s a number of young groups that are good, but have the potential to be great. So we ask them to submit again the next year, and see how they’ve progressed. Finally, despite what I said at the beginning of this rant, there are occasionally groups that are exactly like other groups. That’s a very hard call to make, and it’s where the other factors come into play. If a group is totally hilarious, but like another group, we’ll probably take them, and figure out a way to separate their shows as much as possible.

That lengthy discourse being said, we then try to schedule the groups so you’re getting as much diversity as possible. Just looking at Thursday night, you have a totally surreal duo, y a group that does hilarious cartoons, a romantic comedy about the isreali-palestinian conflict paired with a vampire rock duo, etc.

So there’s three nights like that. It should be pretty amazing.

Do you have any advice for any who are attempting to see every show in the fest?

Go for it. You’ll be tearing your hair out afterwards with lack of sleep, but I think it’ll be an incredible, eye-opening experience. We do spend a lot of time planning the schedule, with the idea in mind that some people will hang out for a chunk of shows. So if you hang out for the whole fest, I honestly don’t think there’s one hour that will be like the next, which will be totally different from the next one. Oh, and buy an extra festival pass for your vat full of Red Bull.

Sketchfest has spread from Seattle across the country. How connected are all the events?

They’re connected by the fact that we all love each other’s festivals, and respect the individual approaches each city takes. There’s always some preliminary talks of some sort of more concrete affiliation, but that’s a few years away. However, we all chat to get recommendations on groups (positive and negative), and freely exchange information. It’s in everybody’s best interest that all the sketchfests do fabulously.

How can somebody in a city not currently holding a Sketchfest establish one?

When we were setting out to start SketchFest NYC, I’d say there were about four to five years before I felt we were ready for it. Reason is, there was no real sketch community in NYC. You need that solid backbone for the whole thing to work, otherwise, what’s the point? As of two years ago, we finally had a bunch of groups in NYC who had been around for more than a year. We all knew each other, liked each other, and respected the work each other were doing. So the time was right. Beyond that, making sure you have a sketch friendly venue, a great staff (there’s no way any one of the producers involved in SketchFest NYC could have done this alone), and a line-up you really believe in. Also, you probably need large mounds of cash.

Do you have any idea how vile the craptacular will be? Will barfbags be provided?

Crap refers more to the quality of the material than the props used onstage… Some of the sketchfests have a late night sketch jam like this, where people perform the material too ridiculous, inside-jokey, or just not like what they normally do in a show. So we gave it a name that I think properly reflects that.

With two shows in the fest and as a producer of the whole shebang, how sleepy will you be on Monday?

Who says we’re stopping on Monday? Party at my place!

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