Lights Up at 10th Chicago Sketch Comedy Fest

After watching a lively performance at the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival several years ago, a woman approached a fest staffer and asked if she could have a word with Brian Posen, the fest’s Executive Producer and founder. The woman, whose age suggested she might be old enough to have appreciated the 1950s TV hit Your Shows of Shows in its prime, didn’t tip her hand as she waited in the crowded lobby, and she remained equally composed as Posen approached and asked how he could assist her.

“I just want you to know I wish my church felt like this,” she said, paying Posen one of the sincerest compliments in the fest’s ten-year history.

In that regard, church is back in session starting Thursday when the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival gets under way at Stage 773, located at 1225 W. Belmont in Chicago. This year, more than 120 local, national and international sketch groups are scheduled to perform at the eight-day comedy festival that continues through January 16 and is expected to draw 10,00-plus patrons. Also on the bill is the third annual Family Sketch Days, a Saturday matinee that’s targeted to kids and teens and, in some cases, stars them. Overall, 152 performances are scheduled for sketch fest, which undoubtedly will retain its title as the nation’s largest sketch comedy festival. (Click here to view the complete sketch fest schedule)

Large numbers of performers and patrons are nothing new to the fest or Posen, which makes his encounter with the commendatory woman all the more special because, as he points out, even she felt the sense of community and celebration that the fest strives to attain each year. To convey this message, Posen says fest organizers start with the performers and their talent for making people laugh.

“We always value everyone equally, and we always bend over backwards to make sure every artist has what they need so they can do their best,” said Posen, who added that in each of the Stage 773’s three theaters, there are seven or eight fest staffers present to assist the performers, and the staffers are not allowed to refuse a performer’s request. “So (the performers) are happy and then they give their best product to the audience and then everyone’s happy.”

This isn’t to say, though, that every sketch will be warm and fuzzy. With four or more sketch groups scheduled nightly in each theater, even patrons with the darkest senses of humor will be satisfied – and by at least one sketch group that was rewarded for their smut. Described by SCTV alum Jim Staahl as “the next Kids in the Hall”, the Los Angeles-based group, Big Game Hunters, is a former winner of the Upright Citizen Brigade’s “Dirtiest Sketch in L.A.” award. Additionally, Feminine Gentlemen features Liz McArthur and Jill Valentine as “two chicks who have bigger balls than you”, while FUCT promises no-rules comedy that incorporates “music and dance, nudity and pain, misdirection and audience participation.”

For patrons who appreciate mainstream comedy there’s the Chicago-based Clap It Out, whose show, “IMPROVISER! A Musical Sketch Comedy Revue” was nominated for a 2010 Broadway World Chicago award for Best Revue. Also, the groups The Backrow and monsters from the id will each be making their tenth appearance at the fest. Other groups of note include: Accidental Company, an award-winning sketch troupe from Toronto; New Exc!tement, a New York City group whose members come from backgrounds in improvisation, clowning, and television; Off Off Broadzway, an all-female sketch comedy troupe that specializes in a burlesque parody; The Sean Miller Explosion, a six-time sketch fest participant, and Soul Fools, an African American sketch comedy group.

Two-performer shows are also a staple of sketch fest. Among the shows scheduled are RAM Chicago starring Robert Reid and Matt Mages, and Shock and Awe Review Redo featuring Jamie Swise and T.J. Jagodowski.

Regardless of the size of a troupe, the subjects they address, or the techniques they employ, Posen, who also directs the musical sketch comedy group The Cupid Players, says comedy sketches are created from the same methods.

“There’s two major ways that sketch is approached nowadays because of the training that is offered,” Posen said. “There’s one old school, Second City style which is improvisation. You have a concept, you improvise it and then you re-improvise it, and then you re-improvise it until the beats are pretty solid and then you script it. Now, I’d say in the last six or seven years, there’s writers writing the sketches and then getting it on its feet and working it from there, reworking the script.”

Such reworking of scripts also takes place at the fest where performers participate in Sketchubator, a late night workshop that allows them five minutes to try out a new scene or concept. The workshop is especially useful, or not, because what makes a good comedy sketch depends on whom you ask.

“Every group that you see at sketch fest has their own personality,” Posen said. “We have the all-black group, the all-Hispanic group, the all-Asian group, the all-musical group, whatever. So every group has its own personality and a point of view that they’re writing from. And I’ve worked with Jablonski, which is an all-silent group, and Cupid, which is a musical group – it’s what’s funny to the people in the audience. It’s really that. If you think it’s funny then we think it’s funny.”<br/>

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