Those Crazy Kids Will Do Anything ...
KING OF THE HILL
Paramount Theatre, Monday, April 5
Austin was probably the first city to really get this Mike Judge/Greg Daniels show -- certainly Fox was wondering what their viewers outside the Lone Star State would think. Now, more than two years later, Hank Hill and his brood have entered the pop culture zeitgeist and, despite a recent ratings plummet (due to the re-slotting of the show to Tuesday nights), King still rules as the kind of intelligent, familial, animated comedy you can't get anywhere else. Any further proof you might need was on display during this sellout screening and star-studded Q&A from the show's vocal talents, creators, and more than a few writers and editors. Despite a projector foul-up that left the screening portion of the evening relying on less-than-stellar equipment, Judge cut to the chase early on as he introduced a pair of Austin-specific, previously unaired episodes that caught the Texan lifestyle more so than most. The first, Hank's Cowboy Movie, took random potshots at everything from America's Team to indie filmmaking, as Hank tried desperately to woo the Dallas Cowboys away from their summer training camp in Wichita Falls to Arlen. The second, Dog Dale Afternoon, focused on lunatic Dale Gribble's descent into further mental imbalance after Hank and the gang "steal" his prized lawnmower. The event fully kicked into gear with a brief sample of King outtakes and bloopers, which, Judge explained, aren't nearly as uncommon as you'd think. With final animation completed in South Korea, there is plenty of room for error, and these gaffes proved it. It was the lengthy Q&A that followed, though, that answered everything you wanted to know about King but were afraid to ask. Secrets revealed: LuAnn Platter's name is a tip of the hat to the Luby's lunch menu, Bobby is voiced by Pamela Segall, a girl (of all things), and "the writers are the fundamental element of the show." Okay, so maybe that last bit should be tossed in the "well, duh!" file, but who knew LuAnn's cleavage was so, ah, uppity? Altogether a nice kickoff to an exceedingly strange week. -- Marc Savlov
THE IMPROV BANDITS
John Henry Faulk Living Theatre, Wednesday, April 7
So that's where this place is -- within spitting distance of my balcony. Nice. Sometimes the coolest stuff is stumbled upon completely by accident, as was the case with this late-night run-in with a trio of daft Kiwis intent on redefining improv for a new millennium. Deep in the black stage bowels of the smallish JHF Theatre, a full audience found itself transported -- not to the group's home turf of Auckland, as expected -- but to the fertile and skewed imagination of the Bandits. Let's face it: Improv is not an exact science. Timing is everything, as it is with so many strains of comic performance. But here the performers' split-second imaginative skills come far more into play; thinking on your feet is what it's all about. Whether serenading audience members with improvised songs or playing "murder" with clues involving Stevie Ray Vaughan, bats, and Spam, the Bandits ran circles around any number of improv troupes from past fests. Much of this had to do with the group's amiable, "aw shucks" vibe, which downplayed the lightning mental reflexes involved in favor of a countrified, down-under ascetisicm that won over the late-night crowd faster than even gratis drink tickets could've. -- Marc Savlov
GILLIGAN STUMP/ACME COMEDY THEATRE
Esther's Pool, Wednesday 7
When you put two different troupes on a bill together at one of the festival's smaller venues, there's no telling what sort of bizarre combination it will make. This night had to have been one of the oddest pairings I've seen and, even odder, somehow it worked. The first half of the bill was a raucous one-man rock concert bythe ferociously energetic Gilligan Stump. Gilligan is a big, sweaty bald guy who thrashes a mean guitar and snarls out hysterical, raving lyrics about the evils of television and the trials and tribulations of father/son relationships. And while he does, this wiry little kook called "The Perfesser" is in a lab coat doing really weird mime. They had smoke bombs and pyrotechnics and some insane physical comedy that had the crowd at the Pool screaming by the end of the set.
Meanwhile, one of L.A.'s hottest sketch troupes was in the wings wondering what the hell it was hearing from the stage. A highly polished, network-ready team, Acme Comedy Theatre was obviously not used to having a raving lunatic guitarist/mime duo open for it.
Of course, the troupe had nothing to worry about. A host of bright young comic actors have emerged from Acme to film and TV fame, and this year's six-member cast seems ready for prime time as well. Their show, directed by M.D.Sweeney, was a lively blend of cleverly written sketches and finely wrought character work. Moving at a brisk pace, the show poked fun at game shows, cops and magicians (in the same bit, no less), and lots of Hollywood archetypes. The acting was excellent, the players all working off each other nicely. It seems this show was a nice tuneup for Acme, who reportedly blew the roof off the Paramount the following night. At least, that's what an Acme troupe member told me. -- J.C. Shakespeare
MAD TV/ACME COMEDY THEATRE/ONLY NINETY PERCENT EFFECTIVE
Paramount Theatre, Thursday, April 8
It seems like I've missed out on MAD TV; every Saturday night, I'm over at NBC soaking up the current crop of Lorne Michaels' golden kids. Brief sojourns to the left of the dial usually leave me cold, though I've come to appreciate the animation that the Madmen drop in now and again. This set from the cast -- Nicole Sullivan, Alex Borstein, William Sasso, and Phil LaMarr -- didn't exactly change my mind; the gang pulled off some well-done improv but a number of their skits seemed to include standard characters from the show that were lost on me entirely. My fault, I know, but do TV characters belong in improv in the first place?
Only Ninety Percent Effective managed to prove that there's no truth in advertising; their pro-wrestling-meets-religion sketch was, sadly, only 10% effective, if that. (What will forever be known as "the doggy scene" haunts me still.) Much better was L.A. troupe Acme Comedy Theatre, whose snappy, goofball antics included an inspired series of blackouts featuring "The Magic Cop," a witty take on T.J. Hooker meets Bill Bixby's The Magician, performed by a guy who looked almost too much like Nathan Lane from my vantage point. Other top-flight skits -- honed to perfection, or near enough -- included a vampy riff on Disney's The Little Mermaid and a creepified nightclub chanteuse with severe moral issues. More Acme, please. -- Marc Savlov
MAD TV/ACME COMEDY THEATRE/ONLY NINETY PERCENT EFFECTIVE
Paramount Theatre, Thursday, April 8
It should be noted that the full name of BS4 is the Big Stinkin' International Improv and Sketch Comedy Festival, for the emphasis here was on sketch comedy. Plagued by an annoying mike buzz, Haglund opened the evening lampooning The X-Files and recruiting an unwitting audience member to provide sound effects for the only part of the evening that was pure improv. Only Ninety Percent Effective presented a large-cast, multimedia effort called RASSLE that lumbered back and forth between film and live action, but should have been about half its 45+ minutes, making it about 50% effective. The six-person Acme Comedy Theatre didn't begin until 9:30pm but delivered some memorable moments, such as ex-Mousketeer Darlene Gillespie as a frowsy lounge singer at a Disneyland bar ("Sometimes every day is Anything Can Happen Day") and a foul-mouthed Ariel the Little Mermaid on the rocks calling to sailors only to flip them off when they look. By 11pm, the MAD TV folks were on the stage mixing sketch and improv cleverly in such skits as a couple overreacting to sexual suggestions, an audience-supplies-the-details scene, and other time-honored improv exercises with a live audience. Unfortunately, the show had been billed to end at 10pm and people had begun leaving to attend other comedy events, so the crowd grew sparser at the end of every skit. That's a shame because MAD TV really did get the last laugh. -- Margaret Moser
NAKED BABIES/OUI BE NEGROES
Velveeta Room, Friday, April 9
The Velveeta Room is one of the hottest comedy clubs I've ever been in. So how about turning on the air conditioning! I had previewed a demo tape of Naked Babies and enjoyed it a lot, but their live show turned me into a true fan. The Babies do fast-paced sketch comedy that is naughty and nasty but very, very clever. Their show is thematically woven together by variations on the different meanings of "funny"; for instance, "funny ha-ha," "funny traumatic," and "funny awkward and terribly wrong." All four troupe members have backgrounds in New York's stand-up scene, and their jabs at stand-up comedy were hilarious. The best of these was a good cop/bad cop sketch in which the good cop made a suspect laugh heartily before the bad sergeant came in and told hack jokes that bombed, wringing an emotional confession from his victim. And their "BS4 Bonus Tracks" section to close out the show took pot shots at all the conventions of improv, as well as groups from Chicago. Absolutely hysterical!
Oui Be Negroes, a Chicago-based group, was back for its third straight fest. Composed of five black actors and a token white man, the Negroes put on a high-energy set blending sketch and improvised comedy. While the show suffered from inconsistent writing, some sketches being visibly weaker than others, the cast's strong acting and enthusiasm made for an entertaining set. My particular favorites were a Negroes at the Opera sketch and a Stand-up Slave routine.
-- J.C. Shakespeare
LESTER MCFWAP/THE FLYING FANNOLI BROTHERS
Scottish Rite Theatre, Friday, April 9
There are times when even lauded improv groups fail to get a rise out of audience, and the Fannolis -- a trio of thirtysomething males with a penchant for lowbrow improv shenanigans -- coughed up a perfect example. Musical in the sense that they could master any number of instruments onstage, the group cannonballed through a series of musical improv bits, taking the requisite cues from the audience before launching into, for example, a semi-humorous hip-hop parody. Lobby time for me.
Advance buzz around the Don Martin-named McFwap, on the other hand, proved conclusively that silly sketch comedy and literary aspirations are not mutually exclusive. By far the most intellectual comic entourage I'd seen in just about forever, the group (four men, one woman) relies heavily on the "so stupid it's genius" formula honed by early Seventies Brit-wits such as Peter Cook and the Monty Python gang. Highlights included a faux play called "Mamet's," in which the denizens of an all-night diner speak only in Mamet-ian flurries of epithets and angst, and "World of Hats," in which the chapeau finally receives its rightful place in society. The pick of the litter, though, was an inspired finale, "Land-speed Record," which turned a performance of Death of a Salesman into an Olympic event worthy of the gold for originality. The caffeinated lot were clearly having a good time -- so much so that the Fannolis even stuck around to choke on guffaws like the rest of us. -- Marc Savlov
MODERN PROBLEMS IN SCIENCE/MONKS' NIGHT OUT/ THE IMPROMPTONES
Paramount Theatre, Friday, April 9
The fun of watching improv is seeing people take huge chances, risking untold humiliation, just to make you laugh. This is not always pretty. One of my family's mottos is: "No, do not take a risk!" This dates back to a certain reunion in which one of my aunts said, "I'm going to take a risk here ..." and proceeded to (quite seriously) act out a little skit she had made up about the lymph circulation system. Luckily, risk-taking was all to the good at the BS4 gala show Friday. Despite a few problems (the show ran a full hour over time, and celebrity host Wayne Brady left during intermission), the evening sailed on smooth and funny seas.
The set from Austin's own Monks' Night Out -- the large group responsible for bringing Austin this festival in the first place -- took the form of a pledge drive to pay off their half-million dollar bar tab. Weird plot devices abounded. For example, the would-be fundraisers were repeatedly persecuted by Casey Kasem, whose disembodied voice boomed down his request for the "Fudge-town Dandies" sketch. Audience participation was kept to a minimum, giving some skits the stilted feel of being over-rehearsed, but there were shining moments nonetheless. One was a lasciviously gleeful automated phone sex line bit (V.O.: "Press one for cuddling, two for heavy petting, three for genital contact ...."); another was an outrageously slapstick-y Book Report sketch, mocking adolescent public-speaking nightmares. The truly tasteless jokes (especially the ones about crib death and incest) were well-received, but the biggest shock-laugh occurred when the lights came up for "Super Friends." Onstage were several cast members dancing to the Friends theme song, some wearing superhero costumes and one guy wearing nothing at all. Those crazy kids will do anything ....
The smartest, least goofy, and most sophisticated portion of the evening was served up by Modern Problems in Science. The trio assumed professorial identities in subjects chosen by the audience: fashion design, philosophy, and Russian history. Each comic then attempted to prove, in his or her field, the theorem (also provided by the audience): "David Hasselhof is the Messiah." They didn't exactly get around to a complete proof, but it didn't matter, so clever were they at spoofing academic arrogance and circuitous logic. The professor of Russian history especially shone as, in deadpan, he traced the etymology of phrase after phrase back to the language of that once-evil empire.
By this point, it was getting late and the audience had thinned, but the Impromptones -- three very in-sync singers and one masterfully versatile keyboardist -- came on bursting with energy. The slick Hollywood ensemble has musical improv down to a science, yet they couldn't seem to bear to leave the stage. For the last half-hour of their set, the right "ta-dum!" take-a-bow moment seemed right around the corner, but each time it failed to materialize. The group sang nearly a dozen songs, and talked with and ridiculed several audience members, especially one woman who, when asked for a "t" word, responded in a thick, languid (and frankly terrifying) drawl, "Teeeee-its." Finally, they staged a pop opera about New Zealand taking over Texas. Only then were they content to declare their job done and bring the evening, with a pro-Texas rallying cry, to a close.-- Ada Calhoun
SPOO/SGT. PICKERY'S MECHANICA WONDERFRA
Scottish Rite Theatre, Saturday, April 10
This year's festival was made all the more poignant by the passing of Del Close, God of Improv and the man responsible for building the fabled Chicago comedy scene. Close was directing a show at the time of his death, and the young group doing that show bravely kept his work alive and brought it to Austin. That group is Spoo and their show "Underlined Passages" applies a tight structure to an improvised show. Its premise is to take an ordinary object or thing suggested by the audience and explore its good side and bad sides. To build a structured show spontaneously and entirely in front of the audience is a tall order, but Spoo filled it well. Obviously comfortable together and confident in each other's abilities, the troupe's eight actors kept a tight focus and an intense energy as they mused on the philosophical pros and cons of toast. Their quickly paced scenes featured some fancy wordplay, the actors didn't hesitate to challenge each other, and the show's structure made for some great callback jokes. Overall, it was a first-rate piece of entertainment.
My favorite group of the week, however, was Sgt. Pickery's Mechanica Wonderfra, three freakin' wackos from L.A. Byrne Offutt, Jason Huber, and Dave Finkel are big talents whose show is almost too bizarre to describe. Call it high-concept sketch; if the Three Stooges had been geniuses, their show might have looked like Sgt. Pickery's. It was a runaway train of comedy taking swipes at everything from Ivy League education to foreign films to lonely cowboys. The three actors have distinct and very different styles that mesh together into a very weird, very funny whole. Finkel is huge and histrionic (and a dead ringer for Larry Fine), Offutt is dry and almost smarmy in a Dana Carvey kind of way, and Huber has a dark streak that gives the group a nice dangerous edge. The combination of highly intellectual comedy writing with good old-fashioned slapstick turned this show into a grab bag of laughs, and without a doubt it was the most original offering I saw at BS4.
The only negative thing about the show was the crowd, or lack thereof. With all the other fest venues clustered around Sixth Street, the Scottish Rite Theatre felt like a country cousin in exile. It also served no alcohol, and comedy without alcohol is like grass without water. It was a shame to see two of the best troupes in the fest, both of which had come from distant cities, play to a tiny house on the very last night of BS4. Those few of us who did get to see this show did our parts, however; we laughed our asses off.-- J.C. Shakespeare
THE INDUSTRY BUZZ
A Review of the Week's Cocktail Circuit
Each and every night of the festival, a post-show cocktail party was hosted by one of our trendiest local watering holes. The liquor flowed freely (well, after I'd given the bartender my credit card), and the real wheelin' and dealin', the movin' and shakin', went on at the parties. Each year's festival is judged by its parties, and this year had to be the most smashing, if not smashed, success yet.
Monday night's fete took place at Speakeasy. Being the first night of the festival, everyone was still getting to know one another. It took a while to figure out that the roof deck was where it was happening. Once there, I lit the first cigarette I'd smoked in two weeks; let the debauchery begin. At one point, alone between conversations, all the voices around me suddenly converged harmonically into a deep bass chant which undulated like a drum. Slowly, words emerged: "Satan loves TV! Satan loves TV!" Ah! I said to myself. So that's what they mean by "industry buzz"!
Tuesday was a bad night for me. It started up at the Capitol City Comedy Club with tequila shots -- not a good festival pick, especially that early in the week. A comedian friend of mine was down from Minnesota, and I convinced him to drink with me. With headliner John Morgan in tow, off we went. A couple of hours later, I was pulling my friend away from another pal, Johnny Hardwick of King of the Hill fame. Apparently, my Minnesota friend had been schmoozing some dame who found Mr. Hardwick a little more to her liking. The night ended with a small but intense after-party, where I peered into a smoky crystal ball with the kids from One Hit Wonder. The next morning, I woke up to find my dog eating quesadillas in the backyard. You figure it out.
Wednesday night was a good night for tapering off because you couldn't get a fucking drink at Miguel's. Improv troupes were shouting suggestions at the bartenders, a bevy of beauties who were way too swamped for a Wednesday. Behind a velvet rope in the back was the VIP section; the food had been completely wiped out by the time I got back there. The word on Wednesday was "Galacta Excite," and industry types were droolingand trampling one another to sidle up to this troupe from Tokyo. I bailed early.
Thursday's jam took place on the roof of the Iron Cactus, one of the truly great party spots on Sixth Street. I hooked up a margarita IV and made the rounds, introducing myself to Alex Borstein of MAD TV; hanging with another old pal, Chip Chinery from Acme, who's made a fortune as the dorky husband on the Bud Light commercials; and cultivating a practiced aura of mystique and charm.
Friday found us strewn about the Caucus Club. The top level of the deck, where former Esther's star Derek Reid was hanging with other alumni, was definitely the cool spot. With the cascading waterfall, a beautiful skyline view, and live music by the trio Beau Geste, it was an idyllic setting. Ray Prewitt surreptitiously circulated a map to his house for an after-party. Everyone showed up. I hung with Fox superagent Cori Stern, who introduced me to Dean Haglund (very cool dude). Also met one of Ray's neighbors who told me they were shooting guns in the basement when they heard the noise from the party. "Shit, we thought it was the cops! Some kinda comedy thing goin' on?" Yeah.
Saturday night: the homestretch! Everyone gathered at Stubb's for the last night. Tired, happy faces everywhere. The members of Spoo presented the Del Close "So You Think You're Funny" Award to Galacta Excite. More important even than schmoozing industry, it seemed that everyone had made a lot of friends. So here's a shout out to my boys in Sgt. Pickery's, Clint and Richard of Kairos!, Oui Be Negroes (especially Shaun and Nikki), the One Hit Wonder-kind, Naked Babies, and huge thank-yous to Ed Carter, Mark Pruter, Matt Sadler, and all the Monks, most especially party coordinator Becca, who did a damn fine job. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to rehab.-- J.C. Shakespeare