The comedians of Best of the Fest.
Good sketch comedy requires a troupe to work as a team, to cohere and support each other’s timing and energy; bad sketch comedy can turn into a series of disjointed, seemingly selfish solo showcases that would be better performed alone. Excellent sketch comedy, however—which is what was performed at Best of the Fest Encore Friday night—can use the cohesion and finely honed routines of a troupe to not only showcase funny premises as a group, but to seamlessly weave in a series of star turns by gifted performers.
The show, on the stage at Second City, showcased the skills of the three top award-winning troupes from the 2010 Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival. And as befits a night called Best of the Fest, the troupes on display had clearly figured out how to create sketches that work as ideas, but also complement the standout talents of individual members.
To the show’s benefit, the arrangement of the night’s program was also complementary as a whole: in a Venn diagram of the three troupes’ individual approaches, the circles would rarely touch. Producers’ Pick Award–winners Reverse Oreo delivered precise, high-energy, premise-based sketches, Audience Choice–winners Deadpan Powerpoint doled out a very-low-energy (in a good way) barrage of non-stop jokes, and Best of the Fest–winners Falcon Powder finished off the night by creating an existentialist mini-play about miners trapped underground (stepping away from it constantly for sketches about the hazards of manly pursuits like finding a “real” wife, shooting a crossbow in the right direction, and remembering Jason Statham’s entire filmography).
Egged on from the start of their opening commercial parody by a warm crowd that was clearly eager to laugh, Reverse Oreo were described by hosts (and SketchFest co-artistic producers) Paul and Julianne Snepsts as having “maximized their opportunities” at the SketchFest, and that was also the essence of their relatively short set. Jumping from revisionist history (the audience really went for Olivia Coburn’s boorish Laura Secord) to vaudeville songs about how to get away with first-degree murder (an important topic actually covered multiple times throughout the course of the night), Reverse Oreo kept it lean and tight.
A lot of Oreo’s clean, simply-staged sketches seemed to have their origins in ridiculous questions the troupe members might have asked each other: “Who’s the last person who would be taken seriously while delivering disturbing existentialist koans to a classroom?” “…Gilbert Gottfried?” Adam McNamara’s dead-on Gottfried was a highlight of the show, as was Jonathan Langdon’s bellicose, indignant Jamaican driving instructor—getting some of the biggest laughs of the night with a character that had more subtlety and nuance than that description might imply. Oreo’s set culminated with what is rapidly becoming a trademark scene, and though we won’t spoil the details, it exploits the team’s chemistry and energy by deriving a lot of laughs from unsettling techno music and from a befuddled-yet-affable McNamara hiding as far away as he can from the sweaty, breathless, and hungry Coburn and Langdon.
(Out of context hilarious quote: “Kids love Todd Russell!”)
For those unfamiliar with duo Deadpan Powerpoint (and this was our own first encounter after a lot of hype), the name pretty much captures it. Relaying reams of ironic advice and statistics in movie-trailer-guy voices (their faces rarely betraying their comic intentions with even a raised eyebrow), it’s tempting to think that Deadpan Powerpoint would work just as well with your eyes closed—until you remember that they up their number of jokes-per-minute by always having a second (and third and fourth) one displayed on the projector hanging behind them. (The one downside of grabbing prime real estate by the foot of the stage: some awkward neck-craning to catch the non-stop visual gags and pie charts before returning your gaze to the dark-suited presenters.)
Of the three troupes, Powerpoint had the audience most in the palm of their hand, thanks to a conceit that enables them to get big laughs with a tiny pause or look. Mike Kiss carried the bulk of the presentation with his drier-than-dry narrative (reacting to the audience with some good ad-libs when appropriate), while Ted Sutton threw in colour commentary and made absurdist arguments to his partner with a disturbingly funny absence of emotion. Sutton did all this in a booming Dan Rather-meets-Peter Jennings voice that hardly seemed like it could be coming out of him (it couldn’t be put on, though, because it never wavered for a second). Seriously, this man needs to do the trailer for the next inspirational Julia Roberts movie.
(Out of context hilarious quote: “Maybe you’ll get an erection maybe” or “Something to which, as owner of the moon, I should have pretty easy access” or “Colombia is the Hogwarts of the murder world.”)
The closing set by Falcon Powder (the first local troupe to win the Best of the Fest award) demonstrated a few things: that Jim Annan, Scott Montgomery, and Kurt Smeaton (1) are pros who aren’t afraid to start a sketch with a lot of temporarily confusing details that they won’t exploit until later; (2) can turn the most absurd or even impossible notions into really naturalistic exchanges that are all the funnier for it; and (3) can memorize an absurd amount of dialogue without stumbling for one second (obvious and mandatory enough, but this should really be pointed out once in a while—they were on for nearly an hour, talking non-stop). The troupe used the minutes of their long set to good effect, building up strong enough individual characterizations that, by the end of their time, they were able to garner big laughs just by Montgomery (who carried the mining play as [elected] King of the Miners) saying “buh-bye” yet again, the oft-put-upon Annan protesting, “I said what I said!,” or Smeaton slowly, meaningfully lifting up his left t-shirt sleeve for the umpteenth time (always to reveal a completely amateurish marker “MINING” tattoo that was far funnier than a real one would have been, an effect also achieved by Reverse Oreo with Laura Secord’s falling-apart fat suit).
Starting and ending with a blank-faced dance number (which had the hilarious effect of cheering their miserable characters up slowly—very slowly—as they danced), Falcon Powder closed the show powerfully. Smeaton in particular was non-stop weird-funny, and for all their cohesion and timing (which also, admittedly, did a lot of work to set up conditions that made the following bit most effective), Falcon Powder’s set peaked during his solo spot. Taking to the front of the stage for a surreal monologue as a washed-up Sarnia pop star with the terrific name of Jason Wednesday, he appealed to “city council” (played by the audience) to use its budget surplus to fund his new restaurant idea, wherein people and waiters would slide down and up (?) waterslides, ordering $5 lobster and $15 dessert for life. His character’s determined delivery and exhortations forced the audience to decide either that all this madness made sense, or that none of it did; they chose the former, going along for the ride even when Mr. Wednesday pointed out that an evening out at the restaurant would culminate with a final trip down the exit waterslide, at the bottom of which he himself would be found (every night??), hugging a baby and a horse. It was lose-your-breath funny, as was much of their set.
(Out of context hilarious quote: “Is that what you mean?” “It’s not what I don’t mean.”)
The Best of the Fest Encore Show was a superb night of comedy, as traditionally defined by showing some tight, deservedly acclaimed sketches, leaving a lot of breathing room for talented performers to showcase their abilities, and causing many audience members to want to grab the nearest marker and immediately get their own “MINING” tattoos.
All photos by Marcel St. Pierre.