Monday, December 7, 2009

The Kids in the Hall and the Death of Sketch Comedy

For all you comedy nerds out there (our primary readership, apart from the HERS foundation of course), here is an article about the return of the famous Canadian sketch comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall. They have a new series coming out for the CBC called Death Comes to Town. I would be excited to see it except that I basically have Flintstones television (or, network television) and whatever wireless Internet I’m able to scrounge up, so I’m probably going to have to wait awhile.

Regardless, the article is a very interesting read, not only for the writer’s profession of love for a sketch troupe that is quite deserving of the praise and adulation – I grew up watching them on Comedy Central – but also for the assertion that sketch comedy as an art form is either dead or dying.

“But now who needs a troupe, or a name, or a stage?” laments the author, himself a former sketch comedian from Toronto. “All you need is a digital camera and a firewire.”

Typically over dramatic artsy-person.

There has been an explosion in the last decade or so of sketch comedy videos on the web. So, in a way, I understand the author’s point. Literally anyone can throw up something funny in a comparative short amount of time and get seen by thousands of people. Hell, a group of friends and I used to do the same thing back when we started out here in Chicago. Our group was called Date-Nite, and while the website no longer exists (after we stopped producing shorts, the desire to pay for a website ceased), I believe you can still find some of our shorts floating around on Youtube.

And, as someone who apprenticed for over a year at a legitimate theatre before moving to the city, I’ve spent a lot of time around people worrying that film/television/the Internet is slowly strangling live performance. So I’m used to hearing these concerns.

It’s hard not to agree. With the Internet, with DVDs and Netflix and On Demand and Hulu and whatever else the kids are using these days, entertainment has become more and more convenient. From the audience’s standpoint: why take the time and extra cost to go to a theatre and see something that may or may not be any good when they know they’ll at least mildly enjoy whatever they were going to watch from home? From the performer’s standpoint: if the ultimate goal is to do televised comedy on SNL anyway, why bother with the live performances that get audiences of ten people?

And yet, as anyone in the sketch comedy community can tell you, sketch is not dead. Here in Chicago, a new sketch group is born every five minutes. Hell, take a look at the performer list for this year’s Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival. There are over a hundred sketch troupes taking part, and those are just the groups that made it into the festival.

So what the hell, guys? What are we doing here? Wasting our time while we save up to buy digital cameras?

You probably guessed this already, but being that Robot vs Dinosaur is a sketch comedy troupe and that we’re devoted a considerable amount of time and effort to it, the time has come in this little tangential rant to defend the decision to waste our time with this live performance nonsense despite the evident futility of our actions. So here goes:

I think the reason sketch comedy (and live theatre as well) is still around and not likely to disappear anytime soon is the fact that film and Internet video can’t actually talk to you. By you, I mean ‘you personally’ not ‘you as an audience of millions.’ In the online short world, you personally can’t talk back either. Yeah, you can leave a snarky comment or something on the video message board or something, but there’s no instant communication with the performer the way there is with a laugh or a groan.

This is the only advantage live performance has over filmed performance. You and the performer are both there, at the same time, and that performer is talking to you. There’s no substitute for the charisma of a live performer. Film will forever be better at special effects, breadth and depth of story, setting, notoriety of the performers, etc. etc. etc. Even the best equipped theatres with the highest budgets and the most seasoned actors can only make a dent in what a big budget movie is capable of doing.

Sketch comedy has none of these technical capabilities – most shows are done with nothing more than a couple of chairs – you think that can’t be replicated by some jackass in his basement somewhere in the middle of nowhere?

No, the only advantage you have, fellow sketch comedian, is that your audience is right there in front of you experiencing your show right before your eyes. You can hear where they laugh; you can see their reaction when you’re talking right to them; you can bring them into the experience that is a live show.

When we were putting together Mrs. Gruber, we deliberately tried to play to these strengths. I’d go into detail, but we’re doing the show one more time at Sketch Fest (SHAMELESS PLUG: SATURDAY JANUARY 9TH AT 7:00 PM) and I don’t want to ruin the experience for anyone who hasn’t seen the show yet.

For live sketch comedy to keep its audience and remain vital, it has to be aware of what strengths and advantages they have. Your reward, sketch comedian, is what you learn from having people there in the room with you. You learn where they laugh, what they find funny, what doesn’t work so well, what can be done to improve your performance or your script. In short, you learn all the stuff that you can’t really learn by throwing something out for people half way across the world to watch in the comfort of their own homes.

And with that, I shall end my ridiculously long post. Go forth, sketch comedians, and multiply.

1 comment:

Joe Janes said...

Well said, Nat.

One of the best compliments I got about our Gruber show came from a student of mine last week. He was literally blown away by the experience. To the capping quote on his diatribe of how eye-opening our show was for him was, "I didn't even know you could end a show like that!"

We couldn't get that kind of reaction on YouTube.