The first national Sketch Fest was held in Seattle in 1999, conceived both as a showcase for touring sketch comedy groups, and an opportunity for sketch comics to meet, network, and show off. Each year since, the concept has grown in popularity, as other cities quickly jumped on the bandwagon. Sketch comedy festivals are held in most major cities these days—and a few less-than-major cities as well. In addition to solidifying a community of sketch comics—and attracting a level of visibility that draws audiences to shows they might not otherwise attend—the festivals can serve as a launching pad for careers in television and film, as comedians hope that their work will be seen by producers or agents. The Chicago Sketchfest is the biggest, and perhaps the most well known, of the fests, in large part because the city has a reputation for turning out successful comedic talent: Chicago is the home of the Second City comedy troupe, from which Saturday Night Live regularly draws members.
Most of these festivals accept applications from any touring sketch comedy troupe. Portland, however, does things a little differently.
Unlike Chicago or Los Angeles, Portland isn't known for having a large "industry" presence; what we are known for, perhaps not coincidentally, is having some of the smartest, most appreciative audiences in the country (go ahead, pat yourself on the back, smarty pants). When members of Portland's 3rd Floor comedy troupe decided to start a fest here in town, inspired by a trip to Chicago Sketchfest, they realized they needed something other than the promise of industry attention to lure touring troupes to Portland. This realization coincided with a feeling that the open-application process used by most sketch festivals wasn't selective enough; that just because a group could pull together a video clip for an application didn't necessarily mean they would be funny live. The 3rd Floor hit on the idea of a more exclusive festival that would bring only the best to Portland. Hence the name: Best of the Best Sketch Fest, now in its fifth year.
Unlike other festivals, Best of the Best is invite only—every act on the bill has been seen by members of the 3rd Floor, and presumably made them laugh pretty hard. 3rd Floor founding member Ted Douglass explained the requirements for an invite: "You are active on the sketch circuit. We've seen you live. We love you." This exclusivity gives the Portland festival a cachet that draws top talent, despite the fact that we're not exactly known as a launching pad for careers in film or television.
If you're curious about the festival, but are scared to try new things, a quick Google search on any of the following troupes will turn up a dizzyingly diverse handful of YouTubes and video clips, ranging from acerbic to manic to surreal.
"There's no true definition of 'sketch comedy,'" Douglass told me. "I can say 'really smart' about all the groups in the show"—other than that, the only thing these groups have in common is that they will probably make you laugh very hard."
It's important to note, too, that sketch comedy is not to be confused with improvisational comedy. Everyone knows what improv is—fast, off the cuff, occasionally hilarious, and definitely hit or miss. Sketch comedy is a different animal altogether. It's unfortunate that the word "sketch" implies something that is hastily drawn, because sketch comedy often has more in common with traditional theater than with a game of Party Quirks: Scenes are scripted, rehearsed, and presented with varying degrees of theatricality. And if you've never seen it live, you're missing out—the energy and intelligence that bristled through last year's festival made it one of the highlights of the summer.
This year's show features eight troupes from across the country, several of which have performed in previous festival years.
FRIDAY, JULY 13
Slow Children at Play, 8 pm
When Googling Slow Children at Play, the first hit is for a website run by a guy who works at a group home for "boys who have had the misfortune of being born to crack whores, carnies, perverts of all kind, white trash, and gang bangers." I spent some time on this page trying to figure out if I was being outsmarted by a too-clever comedy troupe, but eventually realized I was just on the wrong website. Slow Children at Play hails from Boston University, and this seven-person "sensual sketch comedy troupe" has taken some time out from their summer vacation to revisit Best of the Best, where last year their show packed the house.
The Cody Rivers Show, 9 pm
The Cody Rivers Show is two men, neither of whom is named Cody Rivers, who hail from Bellingham, Washington (apparently a hotbed of comedic awesomeness. Seriously! Don't scoff.). Lindy West at the Mercury's sister paper, The Stranger, had this to say about their show: "The sketch comedy duo of Mike Mathieu and Andrew Connor creates and performs intellectual, blazing-fast, highly conceptual theater that's so bizarre and charming and unselfconscious that you can't quite comprehend what you're looking at. Like a baby giraffe. Like a baby giraffe wearing a monocle and giving you a high-five."
Meat, 10 pm
If fountains of blood- and gore-stained butchers' aprons are your scene, then New York City's Meat are the ladies to watch. Invited back for the fourth consecutive year, Meat is a slightly deranged four-women troupe whose new show, Camp Blood, promises to be so blood soaked that you "might not want to sit in the front row."
Scramble Bamble, 11 pm
Scramble Bamble is a "comedy free-for-all" in which any sketch comic present, whether they're in the fest or not, is invited onstage to perform. Basically, it's a chance for comedians to cut loose and show off, sans the pressures of producing a full-fledged show. And it's free.
SATURDAY, JULY 14
Dark Eyed Strangers, 8 pm
Dark Eyed Strangers are a four-person troupe including former Portlander/3rd Floor member/Drammy winner Tony St. Clair (even moving away from Portland isn't enough to escape the incestuous web this town weaves). The Dark Eyed Strangers take a theatrical, character-based approach to comedy, featuring "heightened production values and an array of dramatic conventions rarely utilized in sketch presentations." It took me 20 minutes to find their website, because it's disguised as a swingers' site and I was afraid to click the link that read "i am curious: dark eyed strangers." Clearly, these people are much smarter than I am, and from all accounts they're pretty funny, too.
Karla, 9 pm
Karla is a two-women troupe currently residing in Los Angeles, though they have roots in the Chicago scene. Douglass described Karla as simply "one of the most brilliant shows I've seen in years" and, after seeing them perform in New York, invited them out to Portland on the spot.
The Weekly Armenian, 10 pm
Douglass described Bryan Coffee's Weekly Armenian to me in a tone of voice that bordered on reverential. The one-man show features Coffee (a founding member of the 3rd Floor who now lives in LA) interacting with a variety of characters—none of whom are actually onstage, since it is a one-man show. The Weekly Armenian has the added advantage of being directed by John Breen, arguably the funniest man in Portland, who rocked last year's fest by bringing along a live mariachi band.
The 3rd Floor, 11 pm
The 3rd Floor should need no introduction: They've been local stalwarts since 1996, winning raves in these pages and others for their smart, literate brand of comedy. With 650 finished sketches under their belt, and something like 37 alumni, the 3rd Floor is handily Portland's premier sketch comedy troupe, touring frequently in between selling out shows here in town. The 3rd Floor has also single-handedly put Portland on the sketch comedy map; in addition to organizing the Best of the Best, they have recently taken to hosting guest performances from touring comedy troupes after their own shows, giving Portland audiences a chance to experience what's going on in the rest of the country. Their larger-than-average cast (six to eight people, on average) distinguishes them from other groups, but it also works to their advantage: As Douglass put it, "If something made that many cast members laugh, it's a keeper." Their performance at the festival is also their 11-year anniversary show, and they'll be inviting alumni from all 11 years to join the current cast in performing classic 3rd Floor Sketches.
Tickets for Best of the Best are $10 per show, $32 for four shows, or $49 for a festival pass—and you might as well just go for the pass, because once you get there you probably won't want to leave. And get there early, because many of last year's shows sold out.
"Portland audiences are a large part of why troupes come here," Douglass told me. "They know they'll be appreciated." Prove the man right, and show these comedians some love—you won't regret it.
Best of the Best Sketch Fest, Artists Repertory Theatre, 1516 SW Alder, Fri July 13-Sat July 14, 8 pm, $10 per show, first come first served, bestofthebestsketchfest.com