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.