Sketch often feels like the forgotten hyper niche in the Seattle comedy scene, buried below improv and well below standup and improv. Thankfully, SketchFest Seattle allows the form a chance to flourish. Groups from Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal, and Winnipeg join 24 local acts to deliver gut-busting punches of short-form hilarity. SketchFest Seattle 2016 gets underway this Thursday, September 15 and runs through September 24 with most of the action taking place at Capitol Hill's Annex Theatre and Greenwood's Pocket Theatre (visit the SketchFest website for the full schedule).
After years of being hyper involved in the scene as a performer, Randall Cleveland now looks to further build the city's comedic infrastructure in his new role as SketchFest's artistic director. In addition Cleveland's own groups (Princess and Babyfin), SketchFest 2016's lineup includes tasty local comedy flavors from the likes of Death and Taxes (creators of the best sketch I've seen all year—Saturday Night Live included—which used the premise of Sasquatch's demise to examine the ceremony of mourning celebrity deaths), Fifty Percent Less Bear (my personal favs for totally biased ex-college improv buddy reasons... plus they're super fun), Jason and Spike (featuring The Stranger's Seahawks columnist, Spike Friedman), and visiting headliners like Los Angeles's Blade Brown and Canadian teams TwoSon, Ladies and Gentlemen, and H.U.N.K.S.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Cleveland about how forming SketchFest's lineup, the importance of critical peers, and the quiet explosion of Seattle sketch comedy.
What do you see as the goal of SketchFest?
We always call it Comedy Christmas. It’s the time where we all come together and show off the cool stuff we’ve been working on or do our greatest hits for each other. It’s almost an entire month of shows, friendship, and parties.
SketchFest is built primarily around rewarding the local Seattle performers who toil in relative obscurity. We like to make one big event that really puts them at center stage, and also brings in amazing outside talent from around the country that they can talk shop with and cross-pollinate ideas with. But primarily, it gives them a bigger stage and hopefully a bigger audience than they normally have throughout the year, sort of rewarding them for their hard work.
What do you look for from teams when you’re putting together the SketchFest lineup?
First and foremost, is it funny? We have a staff of six or seven volunteers for SketchFest, and we all get together and review the submissions. And if anyone can objectively say, “Oh, I just don’t get it,” then it doesn’t make the cut. Are they doing something unique and inventive, and are they saying things in a way we wouldn’t have thought of? That’s the kind of thing that we really appreciate and like to put forward into the festival.
But beyond that, we really try to curate a diverse festival. I’m really happy with the number of female performers in groups. We have one group that is entirely LGBTQ. We have some people coming up from Los Angeles this year that are apart of the CBS Diversity Showcase.
What was your path to Seattle?
I move to Los Angeles in 2006, not doing the whole “I’m going to move to LA and make it” thing, I was just going to move out there be a regular guy. And I was adamant that I was not going to become an actor or anything. And then my wife got me a class at the Upper Citizens Brigade one year for my birthday, and I wound up coming home from that and realizing like, oh crap, this is what I need in my life. This is why I can’t stay at a job more than a year. I go nuts at a desk, because I didn’t have this outlet before.
I went through the programs there, and performed around L.A. for about a year or two, then the economy tanked in 2008 so we had to retreat to St. Louis, where I’m originally from, and I taught improv and performed with a group called the Improv Trick. I was sort of trying to come up with my next move was when the company I was working for was bought by Amazon, and they moved us all out here to Seattle sight unseen in 2010. And that’s when I fell in with SketchFest. It’s been tremendous.
Has Seattle changed your approach to comedy at all?
Definitely. It’s made me much more aware and cognizant of what I’m saying and how I’m saying it. In 2008, when I first started, I would have scoff at someone saying things like what are we really saying about this community or is this the person you want to make this joke about? For lack of a better word, I don’t just want to do dick jokes. I try to write stuff that is socially conscious or commenting on stuff going on around us. I find it most rewarding when after a show people are saying that was funny, but also really made me think about this thing.
What do you think is the state of the Seattle sketch/improv scene?
It is the quietest explosion you’ve never seen.
This is my first year as SketchFest artistic director. The guy I took it over from, Clayton Weller, did a tremendous job of just getting performers excited, convincing them yes, you can do this, you can make this show. I think there were like nine local groups performing at the very first festival in 1999. This year we have 27 groups total, and only four of them from out of town. So the scene is exploding. It’s more diverse than it’s ever been as far as personalities and viewpoints.
What I really want to show Seattle is that any given night there is not just funny, but incredibly talented, heartfelt, honest, and challenging art happening. Right know when you say theater people primarily think of dramas, musical, or the amazing things around Seattle. If you say comedy, people tend to think standup. So there’s this blindspot blooming with tons of amazing art and performers, and I really want a chance to show them off to Seattle.
It feels like having more venues has helped out on the front.
Yeah, we’ve seen a lot more theaters. The reason Clayton Weller stepped down and I took over artistic director was because he’s running his own theater in Greenwood—the Pocket Theater—which is hosting all our local showcases. His whole “you shouldn’t have to pay just to put on a performance” philosophy has really helped a lot of people off the ground and start doing things, because they don’t have to take a financial loss just to do something cool. Ballard Underground has opened up to regular improv and comedy showcases. Unexpected Productions has obviously been around forever. There’s a lot of really cool theaters that are wising up to this and realizing that this can make money.
What would you say is the greatest strength of the sketch/improv scene right now? And what does it need to do better to keep growing and bring more people in?
I think the biggest strength is it is one of the most tightly-knit and—for lack of a better word—touchy feely comedy scenes I’ve been a part of, and I’ve bounced around the country a little bit. Everyone is super on board and supportive of each other’s work and projects, and they’re very excited to work with each other. So there’s a lot of constant sort of cross-pollination and cool new things happening.
I think one of the things we need to grow—after saying how much I love how touchy feely it is—is that we need that push to say great you did this and it was funny and amazing… now go back and tear it apart and make it ten times better than it was before. I think it’s a hard thing to tell someone who you genuinely love and respect as a peer like oh, that joke didn’t work for me or whatever. As a writer who has grown up on red ink my whole life, I sort of crave that. Because that’s the only way I can get better, and that’s the only way I can dial in what I can do. We’re working to establish some workshops and some writer’s rooms that will be a little more focused in that regards.
Sept 15–24, Annex Theatre and Pocket Theater, $10–$15