The Stink Is All Over

The BS Improv & Sketch Comedy Fest Takes Over Austin

You can't stop a stink from spreading.Once loosed from its source, be it lowly skunk or exalted multinational petrochemical refinery, a stink will expand, will grow, will extend itself outward in all directions until every nose has become aware of it. And nothing you throw in its path – not window, not wall, not stiff-armed traffic cop – will stop it. It will spread. This is simply its nature.

That's all one needs to know to comprehend the phenomenal expansion of the Big Stinkin' International Improv & Sketch Comedy Festival, the third version of which begins this Monday, April 20. In 1996, its first year, this homegrown jubilee of jollity drew to town 30 improv troupes from around the country for six days of workshops and showcase performances – a healthy eight shows in four venues. Two years later, the festival has ballooned into 55 shows in 13 venues, with 75 performing companies serving up both improv and sketch comedy. That's a substantial spread, but then that's Stink for you.

Once you acknowledge that such expansion is merely a natural by-product of the thing itself, you can focus on what's most important about this Stink: the intoxicating opportunities it offers for local laugh lovers. Next week, for six days straight, you can spend six solid hours of every day gorging yourself on Big Stinkin' comedy. From the cocktail hour full on to the witching hour, you can tool among a dozen of our town's coziest clubs and theatres and be regaled by the antics of companies like The Lindbergh Babies, Baloney Rodeo, Legitimate Freaks, The Oxymorons, Fat Guy on a Bike, and Running With Scissors. Four nights in a row, you can saunter into Palmer Auditorium and be tickled by some of the country's keenest wits, companies such as The Groundlings, ACME Comedy Theatre, and The Second City Touring Company, and individual performers such as Ana Gasteyer and Chris Kattan of Saturday Night Live, Alex Borstein and Chris Hogan of MAD TV, and Waiting for Guffman's Fred Willard. It's a comedy bacchanal.

You'd think that a fest as huge and hip and fun as the Big Stink would have a higher profile in this, the town that can't get enough festivals (When's the next one? Dear lord, it's been four weeks since SXSW!). But outside the comedy community, the buzz for the Big Stink is but a whispery hum of that for South by Southwest. I can only assume that this is a failure on my part, a failure to cover the Big Stink the way my colleagues in the music and film departments at the Chronicle cover South by Southwest. So, in an effort to beef up the buzz on this year's Big Stinkin' Festival – hereafter referred to in true festival coverage style (all-caps acronym) as BS3 – I'm shamelessly appropriating the Chronicle music section's annual SXSW advance features. Of course, the resources in the arts section aren't quite the same as those in the music department – instead of a dozen writers, there's, well, just me – so the coverage might not have as much breadth, but it's the thought that counts, right? Right?– Robert Faires

Catherine O'Hara and Fred Willard in Waiting for Guffman

One staple of the issues leading up to SXSW is the feature identifying "picks to click," bands appearing in festival showcases that this paper's music writers like and expect to do well within the industry. The feature typically consists of seven profiles of these "picks," each written by a different writer. Naturally, since I'm tackling this festival solo, I can't offer quite that many "picks," but I figured as this is a pretty important component of this kind of coverage, I should do at least one. So I picked Fred Willard to "click," as they say. Now, some wags might characterize this choice as "safe," what with Willard's 30 years in the industry and a résumé that includes stints with the legendary comedy troupes The Second City and Ace Trucking Company, plum roles in the films Roxanne, This Is Spinal Tap, and Waiting for Guffman, buckets of guest shots on TV series from Diagnosis: Murder to Friends and leads on another half-dozen shows such as Fernwood 2Night and Real People, with a handful of Emmy nominations for his trouble, but that's splitting hairs a bit, I think. The relevant criteria are: Do I like him? (Yes, I do.) and Do I expect him to do well within the industry? (Now, there's a no-brainer if ever I saw one.) So here goes. Count on seeing more of this fine young talent. And remember, you read it here first. – R.F.

Some songs are forever altered by a single interpretation. The combination of material and performer is so dynamic, so inspired as to be beyond compare. You cannot hear the song without thinking of that singular performance. It happened when Kate Smith sang "God Bless America" and when Bing Crosby sang "White Christmas." And it happened again last year when Fred Willard sang "Midnight at the Oasis." Willard's interpretation of this Seventies pop hit, which he performed with Catherine O'Hara in the film Waiting for Guffman, is so powerful as to forever obscure the Maria Muldaur version that put it on the charts. It takes all the number's hootchy-kootchy kitsch about desert assignations and serves it up so hamhandedly and overloaded with show biz smarm that whatever charms the song possesses are sunk beneath the dunes.

"We were so annoying, we wanted to go up to the screen and slap ourselves," Willard says of the time he and O'Hara first saw their Guffman work on film. Indeed. In Ron and Sheila Albertson, the husband-and-wife travel agents of Blaine, Missouri, who get their stab at stardom performing in the town's sesquicentennial anniversary pageant, Willard and O'Hara created an uncanny representation of The Couple That Set Your Teeth Grinding – oh so lovey-dovey in their matching jogging suits, more chummy than should be allowed by law, and way too confident in their abilities given the level of talent they possess. Ron is the kind of character that Willard has mastered in his three decades of performing: the cheery, gladhanding know-it-all, the guy who's all smiles, thumbs up, gung-ho to a fault, and just as gosh-darn smug and overbearing as can be. Few actors have such brilliant comic command over a type as Fred Willard has on this one. Small wonder that Guffman's director Christoper Guest thought of Willard for the project.

For Willard, making Guffman was "wonderful on two levels: first, I was working with all these people that I'm a big fan of – Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara – and second, it was improvised." Guest had a story in mind and knew where he wanted to go with it, but he allowed much of the film to be developed out of the actors' sense of character and ability at expressing it. Willard's contributions ranged from background for the character – it was he and O'Hara who suggested that their travel agent characters had never left their hometown – to actions in specific scenes – Willard improvised the bit in the Chinese restaurant in which Ron interrupts dinner to get some outrageously indelicate medical advice from Eugene Levy's dentist character – to Ron's outfits. "I told the wardrobe people that I thought Ron was the kind of guy who would wear a cravat and a yachting cap, and the next day I came in, and they had me a cravat and a yachting cap. I meant it more as an idea, but I went with it. I mean, it's funny for this guy in the middle of Missouri to be wearing a yachting cap."

If there was a downside to the use of improvisation to develop Guffman, it's that reels and reels of hilarious material never made it into the finished film. One example, Willard noted, involved hobbies developed for the main characters. "We were all supposed to have hobbies. My character's was re-enacting great moments in sports history. We had this bit where I was doing the 1960 World Series when Bill Mazeroski hit a home run in the final pitch of the last game to win the series. We had this whiffle ball and bat and Catherine's character was supposed to pitch to me, only you could tell she really didn't want to do it." As Willard describes it, the scene comes up in the mind's eye and the comedic potential is tantalizing. But alas, it's among the 58 hours of footage which didn't make Guffman's final cut.

Fortunately, local fans of Willard can console themselves with the actor's upcoming appearance in Austin. As a celebrity guest of BS3, Willard will be hosting three showcases: the Saturday night Palmer spectacular with Monks' Night Out, The Screw Puppies, and The Second City, followed by a late Saturday night special at the Dougherty Arts Center with Oui Be Negroes and Houseful of Honkeys, and the one the true Willard fan won't want to miss: a Wednesday night prime time show at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center with Houseful of Honkeys, The Groundlings, and Willard performing his own show. In our interview, Willard didn't indicate that his performance would include a rendition of "Midnight at the Oasis," but we can hope. We can hope.

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