invasion-free since 1812 at the Second City (56 Blue Jays Way). Opens tonight (Thursday, April 29) and runs indefinitely, Monday-Friday 8 pm, Saturday 8 and 10:30 pm. $20-$27. 416-343-0011. sketchcomedy lounge at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), Tuesday (May 4) at 9 pm. Pwyc. 416-596-1908. sunday night live at the Poor Alex (296 Brunswick), Sunday (May 2). $5. 416-923-1644. snacks for wexler w/ the Minnesota Wrecking Crew at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), Sunday (May 2) at 9 pm. $5. 416-596-1908. unckey darryl's house of sketchola at Bad Dog Theatre (138 Danforth), the fourth Thursday of each month at 8 pm. $8. 416-491-3115.
comedy, like fashion, is cyclical. Wait a few years and what's old suddenly becomes funny again. Take sketch comedy. In the mid-90s, everyone and their mother was involved in a sketch troupe, hoping they'd become the next Kids in the Hall or be asked to audition for Mad TV or Saturday Night Live. There was even a regular show called Sketchy At Best.
Then, suddenly, everyone loved stand-ups, especially when they saw that you could construct an entire sitcom around a single star like a Seinfeld or a Romano. The last few years have made improv fashionable. We've been wondering Whose Line Is It Anyway? and riding Train 48.
But these days sketch is back in a big way. Weekly and monthly sketch nights are popping up across the city.
On the comedy catwalk, sketch is the new black.
"We were getting a bit tired of doing improv, or what I call lazy-man acting," says Darryl Dinn, producer and actor in the monthly Unckey Darryl's House Of Sketchola, easily one of the best new sketch troupes around.
"We wanted to get back into the habit of writing and memorizing."
The current popularity of sketch is partly a result of the Humber Comedy School program, points out Pat Thornton, head writer, co-producer and member of the Sketchersons.
"The school draws people from across the country, then pumps us out every year," says Thornton, who met fellow Todd's Lunch members Gary Rideout and Tal Zimerman and Flossy and the Jube Jubes' Craig Brown, Bob Kerr, Dan Galea and Grant Cumming there. All of them are part of the Sketchersons.
"A lot of us have been in the game for a while and are finally making noise."
No question, the Sketchersons' Sunday Night Live show wins them the prize for the hardest-working troupe in Toronto. The 11-person ensemble mounts a brand-new night of sketch each week at the Poor Alex, complete with guest host and band. No cue cards. It's modelled after Lorne Michaels's ubiquitous show, but on about a millionth of the budget.
"Yeah, we ripped off the format," says Thornton. "When you have a sketch troupe with a funny name, no one knows what to expect. People recognize this name."
If you're a stand-up comic, performing in a sketch troupe can also showcase your acting talent in a way your solo act simply can't.
"More and more stand-ups are looking for ways to show more of what they can do," says Lorne Perlmutar, co- producer of Monday's ALT.COMedy Lounge and the new biweekly Tuesday-night SketchCOMedy Lounge at the Rivoli.
It's no surprise that some of the best recent stand-up acts have also been exercising their sketch muscles. The current troupe the Distractions boasts two Tim Sims Encouragement Fund Award winners, stand-ups Tim Polley and Levi MacDougall. The Minnesota Wrecking Crew, who perform Sunday (May 2) at the Rivoli, features last year's Tim Sims winner, Ron Sparks, as well as John Catucci, one-half of the TSEFA-nominated musical duo the Doo-Wops.
The brass ring of the sketch world, at least in Toronto, is still Second City, the comedy institution that's developed some of the world's best-known comics.
"It's Eugene Levy's fault that I'm doing this at all," laughs Second City's Naomi Snieckus on the eve of the troupe's latest show, Invasion-Free Since 1812, opening tonight (Thursday, April 29).
"If Levy and those Second City and SCTV actors like John Candy and Catherine O'Hara hadn't been so great, I'd probably be a dentist in Vancouver."
Besides the great exposure (the other week, Snieckus and the rest of the crew got to improvise onstage with Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Tom Hamilton, who were in the audience) Second City members get to perform onstage seven times a week. It's hard to beat that for experience.
"People tend to forget that we're a theatre company. We produce new Canadian works every year, and we're not subsidized," says Snieckus.
The new Second City show, she says, will probably cover topical issues like gun laws and gay marriage. It has to appeal to a broad cross-section of society, including some tourists.
The Sketchersons' Thornton has seen the new Second City show in previews, and admits his own troupe is doing some material that you won't see on the SC Mainstage.
"We have a recurring character named Moira who's a little girl with a large penis. And I do a character named Raj, in full brown makeup, who's a 45-year-old gay Indian guy who used to be a porn star in India."
Some of House of Sketchola's best work comments on pop culture detritus, like the biting infomercial for cheating singles, or a sad but hilarious look at a couple who met while dancing at Electric Circus.
"We're writing and performing this for ourselves. If we find it funny, others will, too," says Dinn.
There are limitations, though.
"No matter how popular sketch is," laughs Sketch COMedy Lounge co-producer Zoe Randall, "you can't compete with the hockey playoffs."