In the green rehearsal room that also doubles as official headquarters for veteran San Francisco sketch comedy crew Killing My Lobster, actors and their director are warming up by being silly. They’re in a circle mimicking one another using repetitive expressions such as “Funyons,” “kisses from Jesus,” “monkey dance” and “it’ll all grow back.”
Truthfully, if the first run-through of their upcoming sketch show, KML Hits Highway 101, is as funny as their warm-up, they’ll be in good shape.
Though rough – this is the first time the cast of six has been off book – the run-through proves to be hilarious as director Todd Brotze (below right), making his KML directing debut after having performed with the troupe, just about laughs harder than anyone in the room.
Brotze dreamed up the idea for this show last fall: “I pictured this all-American family hitting the California highways,” he says. But when the KML writers got together earlier this year to begin the serious business of writing serious sketches, Brotze says there had been a shift in tone. “The harsh realities of the economy had set it. We had all been through the holidays, and any hopes about the economy recovering had been dashed.”
Though a sketch show, “Hits Highway 101” has what you might call an arc, a through-line or a plot. Though there are about 20 sketches in the show, there’s also a central core of characters, the Schacter family. Dad has been laid off, the family home has been foreclosed and it’s time for a “staycation.” Dad Chat, Mom Shirley and teens Erica and Wylie are hitting the road in their biodiesel “green machine” RV, though what they’ll return home to is anybody’s guess.
With this idea in mind, a team of a dozen writers met weekly and churned out about 70 sketches, which were then whittled down to about 20. Some of the sketches involve the Schacters and the characters they meet on the road (like the AAA lady and the CHP officer who desperately wants to be part of their family). Others relate more to the vacation playground known as California.
In some ways, with its recurring characters and its dramatic framework, this sketch show almost resembles a play. That’s not exactly a surprise if you’ve been following the Lobsters, founded more than 10 years ago by Brown grads Paul Charney, Jon Wolankse, Marc Vogl and Daniel Lee. Sketch comedy is the meat and potatoes of the organization, but there’s diversification in the form of filmmaking and full-length play making. Three years ago, the group’s first play, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Hunter Gatherers, garnered phenomenal reviews and racked up local and nation prizes.
The second play, Matt Pelfrey’s Pure Shock Value, took a bow earlier this year.
Wolanske says that KML’s success on the play front has had an impact on the creation of the sketch shows.
“Having collaborated with two really talented comedic writers on those plays awakened us to the fact that being mindful of the intricacies of the overarching structure is just as essential as creating winning characters and developing unique concepts,” Wolanske says. “Working with Peter and Matt, we’d see how they pulled their pieces apart, scene by scene by scene and beat by beat in order to dial up certain elements and give new peaks and shadings. Being so intimately involved, I think we picked up some habits and now pay attention to how the minor scenes and individual moments contribute to the bigger story – which, with our sketch shows, is really the theme of whatever show it is we are creating.”
Brotze says that as in actor in KML Faces the Music, which had a recurring character, he saw how the audience responded each time the character made an appearance.
“That spoke to me,” he says. “It involves the audience and gets them involved in the entirety of the show. The basic nature of a sketch show is you jump from scene to scene and throw a lot of information out there. I like the idea of getting anchored and coming back to a story of some sort.”
The sketches in KML Hits Highway 101 (which opens Thursday, May 28 and runs through June 14 at the Zeum Theatre), involve everything from dating redwood trees to cosmetic surgery in LA to a wine merchant named Lord Humongous.
Getting from the 70 sketches originally created for the show down to the 20 that are actually on stage can be a painful process for the writers. But Andy Alabran, whom Brotze describes as the “grand poobah of sketches” (he’s actually KML’s creative director for sketch shows), says this is when it’s important to understand the bigger picture.
“You have to remember that this is about a lot more than one sketch,” Alabran says. “You have to remember the goal: to get as many laughs as possible. Everyone is there to support that goal, and when something doesn’t work, you get a whole lot of feedback. You try this, get rid of that, cut a page, rearrange – whatever. You get to see exactly what the joke is, what makes it work, how to get to it and how to build it up.”
Alabran, who also performs in KML Hits Highway 101 as budding adolescent Wylie, performs in a sketch about two redwood trees that have been dating for 536 years and 17 days. The sketch has changed dramatically since its initial conception.
“With any sketch, you want the story to be in three acts: you introduce the characters and situation, you get involved in the situation, then you wrap it up in about five minutes,” director Brotze explains. “With that one, we got into it a little too quickly. We gave the joke away right at the top, and there was not build-up of the relationship. The writer took another stab at it and worked up the tension between the trees, Lucas and Fiona.”
Comedy is always a risk, of course. But the great thing about a sketch show is that if you don’t like something, wait five minutes and you’ll get something new and different.
“Sketch comedy, like any art form, is a huge leap of faith,” says Alabran. “You put it out there and hope for the best. Because this is comedy, you want as many laughs as you can get. When we put these things together, we share our opinions about what’s funny and what isn’t, but there’s no real right answer. We value each other’s opinions. We’re all open and collaborative and excited to do what we do. We put it out there, and if someone laughs at our stuff, that’s great. We have fun creating it together, and because we enjoy creating it, I think that translates to the stage. It’s like fine art…but with fart jokes.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Killing My Lobster’s KML Hits Highway 101 runs May 28-June 14 at Zeum Theater, Fourth and Howard streets, San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$20. “Recession night” pay-what-you-wish performances May 31 and June 4. Visit www.killingmylobster.com for information.