Why comedy groups are descending on Gotham in June.


The competitive nature of acting in New York “puts this shield around you where you’re just ready to go out there and fight all the time,” says Jason Kalter, who is half of the sketch comedy duo Rue Brutalia. “But with comedy, if you see someone that’s funny and you like their stuff, you think, ‘I wish I could go there.’ Your first impulse is, ‘I gotta do something with them. I wanna make noise with them.’ ”

Rue Brutalia is one of almost 30 sketch groups that will converge on New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre to make lots of noise at the fourth annual SketchFest NYC, running June 12-14.

Since 1999, SketchFests have been popping up all over the country. Along with the original one in Seattle, there have been festivals in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Toronto, among other cities. This year’s SketchFest NYC will feature some of the best groups in North America – from Portland, Ore., to Austin, Tex., to New York City itself.

“It’s just like a party to celebrate great stuff going on around the country,” says Shayna Ferm, a member of Fearsome, a SketchFest NYC staple. “I get so inspired every year. Everybody loves what you love, so we’re all just sort of celebrating the love of sketch. And it’s always ridiculous. The worst part is the hangover on Sunday.”

The wide variety of groups and performance styles through the years has sometimes prompted audience members and performers alike to ask, What is sketch comedy? Unlike improv or standup, sketch comedy consists of short character-based scenes, written and rehearsed before the performance and usually presented by a group that can range in size from one or two to 20 or more.

The lineup for this year’s SketchFest NYC includes groups from prior festivals, such as the New York-based Elephant Larry, Kurt & Kristen, and The Whitest Kids U Know and the L.A.-based Troop!. But according to SketchFest NYC co-producer (and Elephant Larry member) Alex Zalben, all participants have to reapply each year.

“It basically boils down to ‘no preconceptions,’ ” Zalben explains. “We get well over 100 applications each year, and every group is judged on its own individual merit, not against the greater lineup. So if a group has been spectacular the past two years and really wants to come back to the festival again, certainly there’s a little bit of an advantage there, because we’ve seen them live twice and know that they’ve done well. But they go through the same process as everyone else.”

This year, however, the festival made some changes to its selection process. For example, local groups without a reel or that preferred performing in person had the option of auditioning live. Zalben says some 20 groups showed up at Comix on a Saturday afternoon to perform 10 minutes of their best stuff. That’s how two groups – Rue Brutalia and Blitzkrieg! – made it into this year’s festival.

“How do we make ourselves stand out?” Jon Pack of Rue Brutalia says he asked himself. “The live audition is going to have a power face-to-face that you’re going to lose in video format. We’re very aware of our ability to work a crowd, and we saw this as an opportunity to say, ‘Look, this is what we do,’ as opposed to sending in a DVD.”

Each performance lasts about an hour, though some groups will share the bill with another. And for the first time at SketchFest NYC, groups that work primarily in video – Britanick, Elders of the Dark Tower, Oren Brimer, and Hottdogs – will get to screen their short films between the sets of shared performances.

Peeling the Onion, and More

On its final day, SketchFest NYC will host two industry-related events: a panel discussion with producers and writers from the Onion News Network, the video sketch-comedy arm of the satirical newspaper The Onion, and a live taping of the radio show The Sound of Young America, an arts and entertainment interview program hosted by Jesse Thorn.

“This is actually an extension of something we’ve secretly done the past couple of years,” says Zalben. “We’ve had what we call an industry chat, open only to participants of the festival. Because they went so well, we thought we should open them up to everybody and promote them.” Participation in the festival is about exposure, not immediate financial reward, he adds, noting that many industry pros come to discover new groups.

Other highlights of this year’s festival include Backpack Picnic, Team Submarine, Hey You Millionaires, and the Apple Sisters – three women who perform a 1940s-style musical variety show with a modern twist.

“When we go to the fest, we’re real sketch geeks too,” says Steve Sabellico of Troop!. “If we’re not on until 10 p.m., then I’m going to sit through the 6 p.m., 7 p.m., and 8 p.m. shows to see what’s out there. It’s a very creative environment. Not only do you get to flaunt your own work, but you get to see what else is being done with the art form of sketch.”

Because all SketchFest NYC groups are responsible for their own travel and accommodations, the weekend often turns into a giant slumber party, with out-of-town performers crashing on the couches of sketch-comedy friends and colleagues. As Troop!’s Kevin Chesley says, “You’re watching each other’s work, you’re partying, and you’re sleeping on an air mattress and somebody’s cat runs over your face.”

SketchFest NYC runs June 12-14 at UCB Theatre, 307 W. 26th St., NYC. For more information, including a complete schedule, go to www.sketchfestnyc.com.

This “web exclusive” was published online at BackStage.com.