Someday, Austin will make it on an Internet list proclaiming it one of the funniest cities in America — or at least the friendliest city for comedy. We have our share of comedy clubs and theaters galore, and just like our other favorite forms of entertainment, we can’t help but throw a festival to celebrate it.
The next fest that deserves a spot on your calendar is the Austin Sketch Festival, entering its fourth year on Wednesday, May 22 and running until Sunday evening, May 26. Other local festivals celebrate stand-up and improv, but Sketch Fest is devoted to the comedy style popularized by Saturday Night Live and Monty Python.
Two of the festival’s producers and performers took the chance to discuss Sketch Fest and their unique sketch group with CultureMap. Lance Gilstrap acts as one of the producers of Sketch Fest and is a member in the popular Austin comedy troupe, STAG! Comedy. Mac Blake also fills the dual role of festival producer and STAG! member, but will soon become more familiar to local comedy fans after winning the 2013 Funniest Person in Austin competition.
CultureMap: Tell me first about your sketch comedy group, STAG!, and the history of the performers behind it.
Mac Blake: Well it started as three guys from Master Pancake. They did a couple of show, but never really did much with it. We were talking, myself and [Master Pancake and STAG! member] Joe Parsons, and he was like, “You know I have this group called STAG!, and I’d like to do more stuff with it.” And at that time I wasn’t doing a whole lot of live comedy so I was eager to sink my teeth into anything like that.
So me and a couple of people I had done short films with joined STAG! It was so much fun doing sketch comedy and putting on shows. Since then two of those original members left and one is about to have a baby … and we’ve added a lot of new people, including Lance who is an awesome guy.
Lance Gilstrap: Thanks!
MB: And super funny.
CM: And how many members are you at now?
MB: We’re at seven. It’s hard to coordinate sometimes. It also works out to where if three people can’t make it, we still have four people and it’s still a sizable group.
CM: Is that one of the major difficulties of sketch comedy? If you’re a stand-up you just have to work for yourself, but with a group you have to coordinate with everyone else and find time to work together.
LG: I think, personally, it works both ways. When you’re doing something on your own like stand-up, you’re the only one who has to be anywhere to write something. You’re the only one who has to be anywhere to perform, but at the same time when you’re with a big group you’re so inspired to work harder because everybody else is doing awesome sketches.
Also, it’s fun. It creates a fun environment, like if you’re in a crummy mood you’re not going to feel like writing jokes. If I’m in a crummy mood and I go to a STAG! meeting where everyone cracking jokes, it’s going to be fun and I’m going to get out of it and feel more creative.
MB: It is harder to get people together, like Lance said. If you write a sketch that makes other people in the group laugh, then it’s a really good feeling. I kind of feel like that’s our target audience in a way.
CM: The format of STAG! is pretty unique as a sketch comedy show, because it basically mixes live sketches with video skits, correct?
MB: It changes per show… It interchanges between a video and a live piece. We try to have some touchstones throughout. It does not always work and we’ll quickly abandon them [if they don’t work]. That’s definitely the goal to have them interlink a little bit more, but for out Sketch Fest show we’ll probably be doing a bunch of our favorite sketches and try to link them together … but we don’t want to force anything.
CM: And when working together in a large group is it difficult to make sure that everyone is contributing and has a voice in a completed sketch?
MB: All the people in the group write stuff; some write more than others… Most of it is written individually, but they’ll be collaborations, from reading it in a group or getting feedback once you perform it.
I’d say that, even if I wrote a script on my own from start to finish, at the end based on everyone’s input and editing, it’ll still feel like the group’s sketch.
CM: You guys are also two of the producers of Sketch Fest. Would you say that the festival could help to remind local comedy fans that the sketch comedy scene is just as important as Austin stand-up and improv?
LG: Part of the reason for Sketch Fest is “sketch awareness” as dumb as that sounds. Making people aware that there are people who do sketch comedy in Austin and maybe drum up a little more interest.
The improv scene is blowing up, but the sketch scene is growing disproportionately. It’s not growing the same way that the improv scene is. But hopefully that can change and it’ll get bigger. I feel like that most of the people that do sketch in Austin know each other and it would be great to get to the point where it can be like, “Oh, there are these five groups I’ve never even heard of.”
MB: You know, I think it’s partly because… the threshold for sketch is a little higher… With sketch you’ve got to write it and get people together. And so I feel like it does take more work.
It’s gotten better over the last year but there are not as many shows on a weekly or monthly basis where you can see sketch. Coldtowne Theater as a lot more sketch groups. The Encyclopedia Show has Your Terrific Neighbors every month.
CM: Any thing in particular that you guys are really excited to see at Sketch Fest?
LG: I’m excited just to meet and talk to all of the sketch artists from outside of Austin. We’ve got Superego, Rabbit Rabbit, LanceLife, Beige and Old Fashioned.
MB: And also it’s kind of inspiring because I remember seeing some sketch shows and being like “Oh, that’s really good. I want to be that good.” kind of thing. So that’s always a good thing to get spurred on.
A limited number of festival passes are available along with individual tickets for shows. Registration is also available for sketch workshops from comedy veterans, including Owen Egerton, Matt Kaye, and John Ennis.