What I’m about to write pains me more than it might bewilder you:
I have never seen a live sketch comedy show.
Never. Not once in my lifetime.
I admitted this last night to a couple of friends outside ColdTowne Theater. They were surprised: “Really? Never??”
“Never once. Never ever.” I explained that the show we’d just stepped out of—the premiere of Nice Astronaut’s Back In Townsville—was the first sketch show I’d ever seen in person. They pointed out that Back In Townsville wasn’t exactly sketch.
But it’s true. Calling this a “sketch show” is underselling it somehow. Back In Townsville is a snug, tasty, clever comic play.
And the sad truth remains: I’ve still never seen a live sketch show. Never. Never ever.
Here’s a quick explanation of the show. The mayor of Townsville, Mr. Mayor (played with aplomb by Drew Wesely) seems to be a corrupt schemer, and he’s scheming to do something to the town’s beloved Community Center. I wasn’t clear what the scheme was (more on why in a minute), but his opening monologue is such a nice stage-setting for the rest of the story. Because while this isn’t sketch, per se, it’s also not a classical narrative. It’s a series of entwined vignettes—think Short Cuts but not as nihilistic, think if Mr. Show had ever made a movie.
There’s a two-month run ahead for Nice Astronaut, and because this is fully scripted and precisely choreographed, it’ll only get better with each Thursday. By late May, Back In Townsville will certainly have further tightened the screws and fixed a couple of the snafus the first show had. (For example: ColdTowne is a cozy space, but it’s easy for an actor not to be heard clearly unless they’re projecting as if it weren’t such a cozy space. In other words, I couldn’t hear about 20% of the things said onstage.)
The show didn’t have much of the opening-night “coarseness” you sometimes see in scripted theater. I’m not sure how long Nice Astronaut worked on Back In Townsville, but it seemed like they’d worked hard and long.
What impressed me most was how snuggly the narrative tied up in the end. The plot is absurd, of course; this isn’t Tender Mercies or anything. But the characters each had a moment of their own, and the various story-lines we met over the first 60 minutes were all, more or less, resolved in the final 15 minutes.
A few times Nice Astronaut cuts from the live show to video footage. This ended up being the most impressive bit of production. In fact, if Nice Astronaut ever decides to film the entire show, I’d watch it and I’d laugh at it.
Let me make a final point about corporate sponsorship, if I might.
I don’t know the specific machinations, but one way or another, Nice Astronaut got Double Daves Pizzaworks to sponsor the show. By “sponsor” I mean: DoubleDaves set up a huge spread of free pizzas and pepperoni rolls and swag in the lobby of the theater. Everybody had a fistful of free pizza (except me, as I’m currently trying to become less Andrew).
And this is for every show--all eight of them.
In exchange for the free pizza, Nice Astronaut weaved into their script several clear product promotions. At one point Mr. Mayor explains his plan for driving a competitor of DoubleDaves—a lamer pizza joint who “don’t even make pepperoni rolls!”—out of business. The shameless pimping of DoubleDaves, which happens two or three times throughout the play, is OK because it’s shameless. There is no attempt at subtlety. They maintain their artistic integrity by being unabashed corporate pimps.
In the end, they’re offering you dinner-and-a-show for five bucks. That’a a steal.
But more than a steal, it’s a nice illustration of how improv productions can (and should) seek out community and corporate partnerships. It’s called synergy, it’s called marketing symbiosis—and it works. More on this topic in an upcoming post, but suffice it to say: Nice Astronaut repaid their corporate pizza partner without sacrificing an inch of their vision. Bravo, indeed.
Highly recommended Thursday night show. Nice Astronaut presents “Back In Townsville” every Thursday at 8:30 p.m. in April & May at ColdTowne Theater.