Chicago Sketchfest 2009 #1: The Odd Versus the Ordinary
Is there one type of comedy that is funnier than the rest? Does the scandal of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin trump the racially charged antics of Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence? Do you need a bit of drama mixed in like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or do you go for the straight sitcom style of a “Drew Carey Show"? Today, I will be comparing the odd versus the ordinary: wacky character-based comedy and observational comedy.
Odd comedy is the kind that truly brings out the “what the hell?!" reaction in an audience. Whether it be an extremely weird situation or a character with a quirk so loud it takes over, this is not your Monday night CBS type fare. Often, you see this type of humor in live sketch comedy or on television shows like “Kids in the Hall" or “Saturday Night Live." My #1 examples of an odd comedian is classic Jim Carey from the show “In Living Color."
As the token white guy of the program, Jim Carey excelled at playing extremely freaky people. A lot of people who watched the show remember Fire Marshall Bill, a wacky safety instructor who often hurls himself into horribly disfiguring situations. I have never forgotten a sketch in which Carey plays an infomercial “diet" guru who lost four hundred pounds in two days with the help of crystal meth.
The only way for this comedy to work is by going for it 100%. If the actor playing this oddball breaks character at any point, the comedy gets a major downgrade. The situation and actions of the character must continue to escalate to the point of insanity. This culminated in the “Crystal Meth Diet" scene by having Jim Carey’s character explode.
Ordinary and observational comedy points out humorous situations in everyday life. The scene or comedian brings up something that the audience can relate to. This type of comedy is present in most sitcoms and a great deal of standup comedy. Some examples on TV at the time of this post are “How I Met Your Mother" and “According to Jim." The most common example when discussing this “ordinary" comedy is Jerry Seinfeld on his show…"Seinfeld."
I resisted watching Seinfeld for a while. The outcast rebel in me was wary of a show that appealed to so many people. After giving into peer pressure, I realized why. The show has a great one-two punch. The setup for the show is the stand-up comedy of Jerry Seinfeld. He takes a magnifying glass to mundane and seemingly insignificant things. You can’t help but connect with things that you see every day. He talks about airports and driving and dating and we just nod our heads and laugh. The “two" of the one-two punch is the odd characters of the show executing these situations, but without the keen observational setup, it would be like any average sitcom. Ordinary comedy works best if the situation referred to is something most people can relate to, or at least most of your audience. If you want to appeal to the broadest niche possible, you need to talk about a phenomenon that a whole lot of people experience.
One practice that Seinfeld did incredibly well was to create labels for characters that would remind us of people in our lives. Some examples: the low talker, the girl with man hands, and the Soup Nazi. The characters themselves were funny but we laughed more because we could recognize them in our lives.
Sketchfest: Buffet Shark and Solo Duet
I performed on the 8th and final night of the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival and this allowed me entrance into all of the other shows for free. The first show I took in was a doubleheader with two groups that couldn’t be more different. Buffet Shark consisted of two men while Solo Duet consisted of two women. Buffet Shark focused on situations while Solo Duet focused on characters. And the pace of the show was wildly different. The biggest difference, however, was the styles, which fit perfectly into the categories of odd and ordinary.
To begin the show, the first scene between the team members Jon Barinholtz and Chris Witaske was announced: Every 80s movie ever made. This parody included dozens of hilarious clichés including the slow motion catch of an object followed by a triumphant freeze frame. The audience bought it big time and you could tell the room was already hooked.
At the conclusion of the scene, the two actors began what I’ll call an Open Forum. They spoke to the audience like a very personal two-man standup routine. They introduced themselves, spoke some truths about their lives and did a bit about Chris being sort of an idiot.
What I loved about Buffet Shark’s approach here was how they connected with the audience in a way the audience could understand. This link with the audience was forged by seeing the performers as two regular guys. After the Open Forum you knew who they were and you could trust their perspective. This is an ideal situation for observational comedy.
They alternated between the Open Forum and very truthful and a little bit goofy scenes about relationships, theatre, and Craigslist. They tied the whole show together with an ingenious move and ended every scene on an extremely strong note. I had seen both of these performers on stage before and I have to say, this was them at their best. Buffet Shark is a group I would watch again and again.
Solo Duet, comprised of the two funny ladies, Jet Eveleth and Lyndsay Hailey, had a rough start of it with some technical difficulties. The two performers were so strong that this was all forgotten by the second scene. In this show each scene was cemented by one or two extremely weird characters. Solo Duet was quite daring in their physical comedy in climbing over and through the audience and rolling around on stage. These were great attributes of some wacky characters.
Some examples of these crazy characters: Completely insane (or drunk/high) open mic comedian, very corporate trainers, and little girl trying to molest a cat. The characters that Solo Duet performed were pretty incredible. They definitely followed the principal of taking the characters 100% and never looking back. I think that women comedians should look at the work of these two actresses and be inspired.
That being said, Solo Duet’s set felt unbalanced. It could have been the technical problems up top, or following such a grounded show, but I felt there could have been more cohesion to the whole thing. Jet was featured in most of the scenes and while Lyndsay had a great finale rapping about testicles, I would have loved to see more of her.
All cohesion issues aside, the audience really enjoyed the show. By taking the oddity “by the balls" they made sure the viewers would laugh at and remember these outlandish characters.
Is One Way Better?
I suppose it depends what the desired end result is. I think I received a little more enjoyment from Buffet Shark but more “Wow!" moments from Solo Duet. Ordinary comedy has more mass appeal and can easily translate to film and tv. Odd comedy is something that is amazing to experience live and can truly be inspiring as an actor or a writer. Mix ‘em together and you get Cosmo Kramer, one of the most memorable characters of the last decade.
Take what you can from both and enjoy yourself while you’re doing it!
I will be continuing my discussion of the 2009 Chicago Sketchfest with a review and analysis of the clowning antics of the Los Angeles group Ten West.
Bryan Cohen is the author of more than 30 books, many of which focus on creative writing and blasting through that pesky writer's block. His books have sold more than 20,000 copies. You can find him on Google+ and Facebook.