R. Jeanette Martin
For one lucky sketch comedy troupe, five minutes could change their life. That's how long they've got to initially win over the audience and jury in Sketch Com-Ageddon, the second annual search for new comedy talent.
"Five minutes is crazy long," says Gary Rideout Jr., one of the four jurors.
"Even three minutes is more than enough time to set up a premise, explore it and get out," says Rideout, who should know. He's a member of the acclaimed Sketchersons and Hawkmail (with Hot Box star Pat Thornton), as well as the driving force behind the Comedy Bar, Com-Ageddon's venue.
Julianne Snepsts, another judge and one of the festival's co-artistic directors, advises comics to do their audience-pleaser in that short slot. They could even squeeze two sketches into the five minutes.
"And don't be worried if everyone in your troupe isn't represented," she says. "Last year, Death Ray Cabaret impressed everyone with a one-person sketch and then did a bigger sketch during the finals."
This year, 48 troupes square off in a round of prelims (each night with one audience pick and one jury pick) that end tonight (Thursday, June 18). Semi-finals happen Friday. During Saturday's finals, the audience chooses the winning troupe from four (15 minutes each), who get $480 (the pooled $10 admission fee) and a guaranteed spot in the fall's Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival.
Wait a sec. The audience picks the winner? What if one troupe stacks the crowd?
"It's always interesting to see what happens," laughs Rideout. "Even if you're there and want to vote for your friends, you could see something funnier and follow your conscience. It happens a lot."
November's Sketch Comedy Festival, which includes industry events and professional development, has become such a draw that companies from as far afield as Winnipeg and New York City are coming to T.O. this week for their five-minute shot at glory.
"We've worked hard to nurture a fun and friendly competitive environment," says Rideout about the week-long fall event. For every Canadian discovery (like Montreal's Uncalled For or the Rock's Dance Party of Newfoundland), there's a sketch group from the States.
"Canadian troupes go to New York or L.A. because they hope someone in the industry will see them," Rideout says. "But what do Americans expect here? That someone from the CBC will say, ‘Oh, let's give this American troupe a sketch show?' So we go out of our way to make sure they have a good time."
Both Rideout and Snepsts are currently gearing up for Just For Laughs, which expands this year into their respective venues. (Snepsts is an associate producer at the Second City.)
At this year's JFL, Second City features music comedy star Bo Burnham, an act called the French Comedy Bastards and a two-night Sketch Show with Bull Hooey, Deadpan Powerpoint (to my mind one of the best emerging troupes), Idiots of Ants (say the name quickly) and the Understudies.
Comedy Bar, meanwhile, hosts stand-up Nikki Payne's autobiographical show about donating her kidney to her father (believe me, it's hilarious) as well as a late-night variety show with Heino (aka Marc Hickox) and a variety of guests, including SNL alumnus Jerry Minor.
"I'm expecting the Comedy Bar to be the cool late-night festival hangout," says Rideout.
"Yeah, sure, Gary," says Snepsts. "That's if they're not over at the Sketch Show."
On the Sketch Fest's professional development:
On the demise of the Diesel Playhouse:
On the expanded Just For Laughs Festival: