TOSketchfest Celebrates Comedy Old And New
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TOSketchfest Celebrates Comedy Old And New

Our recap of the local talent showcase (and its corresponding laffs).

Sketch show Panacea was one of the breakout new acts of Sketchfest. Photo by Brian Crosby.

It’s been a challenging decade for Canadian comedy. Despite a historical ability to punch above our weight when it comes to developing comedians in Canada (most of whom inevitably leave for TV and film opportunities in the US, or more money and cache performing live overseas), entertainment producers have done a poor job of exploiting this national resource. Shows like Corner Gas and Little Mosque on the Prairie have been outliers, while our nominally Canadian Comedy Network fills most of its schedule with US exports instead of Canadian feature programming (which may become even more of an issue thanks to a recent CRTC ruling).

But a spate of recent Canadian-made television successes―CBC’s Schitt’s Creek, City TV’s Sunnyside and Young Drunk Punk, FX’s Man Seeking Woman―has networks and producers considering Canadian comedy again. And the writing and performing talent they require was on display at the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival.

For the tenth edition of “Sketchfest”, producers brought back a number of “legacy” groups from their early days, and fest favourites – groups like The Williamson Playboys, Boiled Weiners, and Falcon Powder, who ended up winning the Audience Choice award at the conclusion of the festival.

For their Headliner series, they presented Albuquerque’s crack comedy duo Pajama Men, who’d last performed in Toronto in 2006, and CBC Radio’s the Irrelevant Show, returning to the festival again for a live taping―this time, featuring guest performer Carly Heffernan (Second City, She Said What) and emphasizing their Toronto-based contributors like storyteller Sam Mullins and comic Chris Wilson (Peter n’ Chris, Get Some).

Other Toronto comedy festivals have brought in Saturday Night Live alumni before, but Kate McKinnon’s shows on March 9 at the Randolph Theatre marked the first time a current member of the long-running NBC show had headlined a Toronto festival. McKinnon had a fervent fan base filling the theatre; her character impressions of celebrities like Justin Bieber and Ellen Degeneres, as well as her status as the show’s first openly lesbian performer, have made her a standout in the current cast.

But while McKinnon, in her first visit to Canada, charmed the crowd with her stand-up routine, featuring a gently satirical folk song and a personalized slide show, the night was almost stolen by local opener Mark Little (Get Some, Adventures in Zulk), who won over the crowd (and a visibly impressed McKinnon) with plenty of new material about his embarrassing cover shot in last December’s Now Magazine, and a clever fill-in-the-blanks rap routine. (Fest producer Paul Snepsts let slip in his introduction that Little will be appearing on Conan at the end of the month.)

Ann Pornel (left) and Josh Murray (right) as Glimmer Twins, with choreographer Robin Henderson at centre, were one of our favourite discoveries of Sketchfest. Photo by Evan Arppe.

Of course, much of the focus of the festival is on developing new talent and troupes, and this extended from the Incubator and Cabaret series right to the Best of Fest closer. One of our favourite surprises of the festival was Glimmer Twins, with Ann Pornel (The Sketchersons) and Josh Murray (Fratwurst) performing lipsynched dance routines choreographed by Robin Henderson (Dance Animal). And while sketch is usually a group effort, some of the most buzzed about acts of the festival were solo, like Allana Reoch‘s (Panacea, The Sketchersons) character monologues, and Marty Topps‘s (AKA Isaac Winters) musical performances.

Both Reoch and Topps were added to the bill of the festival’s March 15 closing show at the Theatre Centre, the Best of the Fest showcase, which ended with the announcement of which troupe had been selected for a television development deal with Accent Entertainment, the Susan Cavan company that often features Kids in The Hall alumnus Bruce McCulloch. The selection of Get Some, a troupe featuring many members and alumni of others, seemed a canny choice to us.

There were other troupes in the festival who had better live shows, especially those who dispensed with blackouts in favour of smooth transitions from scene to scene; these included Pajama Men, Montreal’s Uncalled For, and Elephant Empire, whose milk commercial sketch was the funniest thing we saw all festival.

Lisa Amerongen, Danny Belair, and Peter Stevens perform an Elephant Empire sketch at the Best of the Fest show. Photo by Graeme Bunton.

But Get Some’s roster, including alumni of the Sketchersons (Alex Tindal, Laura Cilevitz, Jeremy Woodcock), Picnicface (Mark Little, Evany Rosen, Kyle Dooley), and all of Tony Ho (Miguel Rivas, Roger Bainbridge, and Adam Neibergall), plus Chris Wilson and Justin Collette, has a potent mix of talented writers and performers whose work should be well suited for television.

If there’s a criticism of the festival, it’s that you can see many of these acts in Toronto regularly, for considerably less money, outside of the festival setting. But the obvious counter to that is the concentration of talent at the festival, making it easy for fest attendees to see and discover troupes showing off their best and most polished work.

Not every troupe did this; some flubbed lines on obviously new material, while one out-of-town troupe lost us completely when we spent most of their set watching them stumble and nearly trip over discarded props―keep your stages clean and safe, comics!

Get Some even trimmed the fat from their set from the first weekend to the last, discarding one sketch that wasn’t working well to emphasize those that did, like Laura Cilevitz and Alex Tindal’s musical beach lovers interrupted by Mark Little’s beach vagrant, or Little and Cilevitz again as a white reggae rapper and baby-voiced club star, respectively.

Putting your best foot forward is a strategy we need to see more of from Canadian comedic talent―and as for our gatekeepers in Canada’s television industry, we just need to see more Canadian feet.

Marty Topps’ first single from Live at The Rotary Club (NSFW language).

An earlier version of this article described Accent Entertainment as Bruce McCulloch’s company. The company is actually run by Susan Cavan, but frequently features McCulloch. The error has been corrected. 12:36 PM