Saturday, August 05, 2006

A Bit Sketchy

OK, so here's where I write about what I thought of Sketch-22 this year. I enjoyed the show last year, but saw areas where they needed to improve, themes they seemed to naturally talented or insightful exploring, and very much thought that they had a lot of potential.

So I was of course looking forward to this year's show, to see where they would take their act and their writing. had the idea to go this week since we hadn't had the chance to shoot the shit in a while, so this was a good excuse to get together and bitch.

OK, I'm going to mention a few specific skits and jokes now, so if you haven't seen it yet you may want to skip the rest of this, with me simply saying that it's worth watching, and I enjoyed myself, but there are a few areas where I think they could have done a better job, and that they were certainly capable of doing so.

The first skit was a video, about a third of their skits were projected onto a movie screen with the rest being live on stage. Not a bad concept, and it gives them some material that they can show on the web that looks better than just a taped live show. The first part was a little back story cooked up about how Harmony joined the group this year. Basically she magically replaced the guy who left the group through an accident at an ATM. Then they go into the "whaaa? a girl!?" routine, which leads into her doing a musical act making fun of Charlottetown to the tune of New York, New York, to prove that she had something to say, basically.

Now, as a lead-in to the song it was OK, but I think they could have had more comedy potential if they actually talked about the real process they went through looking for a female member. Maybe they could have done a bit where they broke the news to Rob that he wasn't quite cutting it when they needed an attractive female character, and that his cross-dressing talents were better suited for old ladies and dykes. When you know they actually went out looking for a female member and then pretend that one just appeared eliminates the seed of truth that can make for memorable humour.

The song itself was well-done. I still have Harmony's voice in my head, she's got quite a pair of lungs, to be sure. The song had them running around town and singing about empty shop fronts and making fun of the laments of downtown shop owners who blame the big box stores for the fact that no one wants to buy their overpriced macrames and such. Very nicely done, and it certainly resonated with anyone who's been watching Charlottetown's fitful growth attempts over the years.

The next bit was a little disappointing, it was a pretty well-worn premise of a guy getting accosted by a wacky neighbour in a costume pretending to be a supervillain. I can just imagine the writing session for that one, "Hey, I bet if we dress you up in a funny costume and have you talk like an evil cartoon character, the jokes will write themselves!"

No they won't.

And here's where I first noticed that the writing was a little thin on the actual funny lines and jokes. There was mostly back-and-forth between the characters reinforcing the premise, yes this guy is wacky, yes he is obviously only pretending to be tough. This is all pretty familiar territory that basically reminded me of every other Radio Free Vestibule skit ever written. There was a funny little nod to the SNL land shark skits, but aside from that the lines were pretty dry.

The scene on stage with the apartment, though, was just something of a segue into another filmed scene where two members in costumes chased each other around town. This was enjoyable, but again nothing unexpected once you take the premise as a given.

The next memorable skit was a filmed sketch where they were showing a reality show / contest involving the people who were fighting over the Roll Up the Rim to Win prize from the thrown-away cup had to live in the SUV that was up for grabs, and the last one left would be the winner. Now, this one started of so, so well, and I won't give away the joke because it made me laugh so much seeing it. And the interplay between the characters was very good, you could see that the characters reacted to each other in individually different ways, and there was a lot of potential there for interesting directions to go in with characters trying to annoy each other to the point of driving one out.

Unfortunately the last half of the skit was the most predictable ending they could have thought of. Have the fat guy eat the other ones. Wow, never heard of that one before, guys. You know, sometimes the first idea you come up with in a brain storming session isn't always the one to go with.

OK, I'm getting harsh and I don't mean to be, I don't want to give the impression that I hated it,because I didn't. But it's just a little frustrating to watch something that I can see could be improved a lot with just a little more control and refinement.

The fearsee / evil clown sketch had some funny Murphy allusions in it, and the female character with a story to top everyone else's stories was a good character, but the skit didn't really have a point to it beyond 'haha, let's kill everyone.'

In the end when the lights were going down and only the clown was visible I was hoping for at least some sort of monologue to tie everything together and give the action some meaning, but there was nothing.

My favourite skit they did was a two-part family drama about a fellow who was a farmer and a fisherman, and who thus owed two huge chunks of money to the bank, and who didn't accept that one of his sons was gay. There were some very insightful themes in this bit, like the notion, taken as a given, that you can't make money either fishing or farming, so to do both, even if you did both well, was a monumentally bizarre idea.

The real strength of their show is pointing out the unspoken weirdness that is taken as normal on PEI. Also, dropping in a reference to the Legion is always funny. Always. Punchy the punch-line computer out-did himself with that one.

Speaking of Punchy, they did the catch-phrase skit again this year, but I sensed a bit of self-satisfaction underneath it. They turned up the house lights, and were specifically watching as people laughed at the phrase 'suck my cock' repeated over and over.

Soon after that Graham did a 9/11 bit, and the dead silence of the audience, save for me laughing at the fact that no one else was laughing, was pretty palpable and contrasted with the laughter at the deliberately unfunny catch-phrase bit. The arrangement of the two skits right after one another seemed conscious to me, and felt like they were trying to prove some kind of point. I don't know if they're quite big enough yet to start making the audience the joke the way Stephen Colbert did at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, where he did something similar, telling a racial joke which would get lots of laughs and then sharply criticizing Bush, who was sitting right next to him, and only getting uncomfortable, muted giggles. In that case it was brilliant, but in the catch phrase skit, unfortunately laughter is contagious and people will laugh when everyone around them is laughing, and if the actors on stage are projecting a lot of energy.

This is another point about the material, it works in a live audience environment a lot better than it would without it. Often a character having a fit or yelling replaces a punch line or unexpected twist or joke as the culmination of a scene. People get into it but I didn't really find a lot to take away from most of the scenes, especially the resolutions.

Something I loved was the Mr. Dress Up In Dresses bit, the characters were deep, the off-the-wall parts were played straight and thrown at you without pause, the lobster character was hilarious, and god damn the puppet show was gold. This was my other favourite bit.

In the end I think that they could really benefit from a director, a critical eye to tell them when something doesn't work, tell them to alter an ending or speed up the pace of some scene, and to be a guiding hand for the floor work and line-of-sight issues on stage, which is not something you can take for granted, unfortunately.

They're maybe falling into a bit of a bubble themselves, since their shows continually sell out and people in the audience laugh and enjoy themselves, they don't think that there is a lot that they can work on to make their show even better. Which is a pretty common problem with productions and endeavours that happen on PEI, once something is 'good enough' it's just important that it is there. This attitude is something they've made fun of themselves, so that they are falling for it is rather ironic.

By al - 6:34 p.m. |

Hey Al, thanks for coming to the show. And thanks for the comments, even if they are a bit on the negative side. Hopefully, you enjoyed the show more than your review indicates. It's always interesting to hear other people's views on work that you are so close to.
While I'm tempted to offer my counter-arguments to some of your arguments, I will refrain, because I know too-well how tedious it is to listen to an artist try and defend himself. I, of course, use the word "artist" in its most general sense.
Seriously, thanks for taking the time to write your post on our show. There are lots of interesting thoughts there.
Hi Rob,

If you want to email me and say what you think I got wrong or missed please do. I know that Ididn't point out everything that I enjoyed because it was getting very long, and I did laugh a lot and I'm glad I went for sure, but those were the things that were on my mind afterwards so it's what I ended up writing. So it goes.
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