Totally Sketched Out 

Slow start for star-studded comedy festival.

It's amazing that more people don't know about SF Sketchfest by now. On a purely practical level it's not surprising, because the seventh annual sketch comedy festival was announced only a few weeks ahead of time, just before Christmas, leaving no time for the press to plan much advance coverage. By rights, however, it should be huge, as what started in 2002 as a few local sketch comedy groups booking some shows together, SF Sketchfest has grown into a world-class comedic summit with a hefty pool of big names.

The guys from Mystery Science Theater 3000 are doing live commentary to Plan 9 from Outer Space under their new moniker, RiffTrax Live. Jonathan Katz and his comedian patients revive Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. Upright Citizens Brigade is doing its long-form improv show ASSSSCAT with Saturday Night Live's Rachel Dratch, The Daily Show correspondent Rob Riggle, and guest monologist Neil Patrick Harris. Both the cast of Freaks and Geeks and the full membership of the Kids in the Hall are reuniting for onstage conversations, and the latter Kids are closing the festival with a reunion performance.

Also performing in various combinations are Bob Odenkirk from Mr. Show, Mary Lynn Rajskub from 24, Michael Showalter of The State, sketch groups the Whitest Kids U Know and Kasper Hauser, comedy game shows Get It!? and Match Game Live, stand-up comedians Eugene Mirman, Patton Oswalt, and Will Franken, and many, many, many more.

As impressive as the lineup is, the Opening Night Variety Show at Mezzanine on Thursday night was impressively unimpressive. An evening of stand-up with singer-songwriter Aimee Mann as a chaser, the party doubled as a sort of meet-and-greet for festival attendees, so people were standing around (in lieu of seats) chatting through most of it.

Hosts Kristen Schaal of Flight of the Conchords and Kurt Braunohler, her co-star from the web TV series Penelope: Princess of Pets, did a particularly bizarre routine that involved Schaal doing a trotting little dance with a big grin while Braunohler clapped and stomped and sang over and over and over and over, "Kristen Schaal is a horse. Look at her dance, look at her go. Look at her dance like a horse." After the thirtieth or fortieth repetition, it started to become mildly amusing, just as anything becomes funny if you say it often enough. (Most Saturday Night Live skits are based on this principle.) Little could we have suspected, however, that it would be the comedic highlight of the evening.

New Zealander Rhys Darby, also of Flight of the Conchords, did a stand-up routine heavily reliant on sound effects, like the guy from the Police Academy movies. Fellow Conchord Todd Barry mumbled his way through a monologue about funny things he's heard people say, such as a guy at a nightclub calling someone on his cell phone because he could "use some help in the nose department." Former Mr. Show writer Paul F. Tompkins' performance was particularly tedious because it was pretty much just him cracking himself up while he promised to start his actual routine any minute now.

The one really funny part wasn't live: A preview sketch from the MTV show A Human Giant about a true-crime TV reenactment of an office shooting turning tragic when one of the reenactment actors goes on a shooting spree. They also screened a video for the New Pornographers song "Mutiny, I Promise You" featuring hosts Kurt and Kristen tangling with people in animal costumes.

Although she commented on the irony of ending a comedy show "with music that is not comedy or even lighthearted in any way," Aimee Mann managed to save the evening with a far-too-short half-hour set starting at ten o'clock. Strumming her acoustic guitar accompanied by bassist Paul Bryan, Mann treated the thinning crowd to a mix of moody folk-pop hits such as "Save Me" and just as seductively morose new songs "Freeway" and "31 Today" (in which she murmured, "I thought my life would be different somehow. I thought my life would be better by now"). A closing duet of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" with Tomkins was marred only by more of the hemming and hawing that was quickly becoming the comic's trademark.

The best thing about the kick-off event was that it wasn't really indicative or representative of the actual sketch comedy, as opposed to stand-up, that would make up most of the festival. That was illustrated the very next night at the Eureka Theatre with the Naked Babies (not to be confused with local pub rock band the Naked Barbies), an improv sketch comedy foursome featuring Rob Corddry, late of The Daily Show, with Seth Morris, Brian Huskey, and John Ross Bowie. The four guys did two sets of hilarious, free-associative improvised skits touching on Guantanamo torturers' office banter, girly bank robbers bringing scones for the tellers, awkward gym buddies coming up with new exercises such as "call your kids without crying" — not one of which used the sole audience suggestion, "tiger." Too soon. More than anything it showed that after such a rocky start, the festival would only and immediately get a whole lot better. 

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