Sketch comedy doesn’t have the hold it probably should on Montreal. The city has everything needed to make the scene – talented energetic actors, studio space, and enough cultural goo for material. When thinking of prominent local sketch comedy groups, Only Uncalled For comes to mind, and sadly, they rarely perform except on special occasions (11 years worth of life will do that to you). Perhaps the lack is because the Montreal improv scene is so strong (opposite ends of a see-saw, I suppose), or maybe it’s because Montreal has such creative burlesque and cabaret. At any rate, the city’s slightly less prominent sketch scene gets a big Boo-Ya once a year at the Theatre St. Catherine’s annual Sketch Fest. Now in its ninth year, the fest brings in international and Canadian groups to perform alongside mostly make-shift local ones.
Festival director and President of Nouveau International, Mark Louch explains that sketch comedy is a little like improv. “It consists of scripted, short sketches and plays that are essentially little jokes. They don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other,” he says. “A show will be 20 to 30 minutes with around six or eight sketches. Sketch troups consist of four or five people who write the material and practice it a few times. They may have props and a recording, or it can be very simple.”
In fact, the use of props and recordings is one thing that distinguishes sketch comedy from improv. “Every night we have to do a tech run through with the groups and the shows are tech heavy,” Louch says. “A lot of them are dependent on sound and lighting cues.”
Montreal’s scene is a little bit haphazard. It largely consists of people in the English comedy and improv community getting together to form groups for the festival. “We have one French night in the festival,” says Louch. “Sketch comedy is not really well known in the French community, but there’s a rebirth of it happening now – Saturday Night Live is being done in French. Other than that, it’s mostly English troupes.”
Many of those troupes come from the states and Toronto. Sketch comedy reigns supreme in Chicago and New York, with clubs and theatres that put sketch shows together all the time. “Some of them are a little more corporate,” says Louch. He also notes that there are groups from Toronto, Antarctica, Montreal/Australia, and Boston.
The festival is especially important for Montreal’s English comedy scene. “We’re small enough as it is,” Louch says. “It’s fun to see the out-of-town troupes because our English comedy community because it can be so insular and a separate world. We don’t have a lot of contact with a lot of English comedy scene. “
As a result, Montreal’s groups tend to be very edgy. “The quality is really good,” says Louch. “They’re not trying to make it clean and corporate They’re trying stuff out. Some well-rehearsed troupes are so well-rehearsed that they’ve lost all their edge.”
Louch recommends a few troupes that he enjoys. He mentions Vest of Friends from Toronto. “It’s their fifth year and they get better every year. Last year they won the Grinder award. They are exploding. Their style is not super raunchy. It’s clean, but super smart. That’s my favorite — when they’re not going to dick jokes.” He also mentions Elephant Empire. “They have a smart style and are super speedy. They don’t stop.”
One thing that’s important to Louch is for the troupes to feel welcome. “The vibe is amazing. There are over 40 troupes, each with 3-4 people in them. We have all those artists in the same space at the same time. It’s a good party.”
“We realized over the years that it’s not the biggest festival in the city, but the most important thing is to please these artists and give them some free beers, so when they go back they can talk about how the Montreal Sketch Fest is crazy and the party never stops. They really love it.”
The Montreal Sketch Fest runs from May 19 to 25. All shows are at the Theatre St. Catherine (264 St Catherine E) except the Sketch Frenzy show on Thurday, May 22, at Katacombes. Pass $45, individual shows $12, double bill $20. Click HERE for more information.