Over the weekend, Improv Olympic became a Scripted Olympic. From Thursday through Sunday, Hollywood's iO West Theater hosted its first annual L.A. Scripted Comedy Festival, featuring a collection of talent from across the country showcasing sketch, variety, storytelling, stand up and short films.
The event marked a departure from the improvised comedy that defines iO. According to James Grace, the coordinator of SFC, this venture was an organic evolution for the theater.
“iO West has had an explosion of sketch, solo, storytelling and stand up shows over the last year,” explained Grace during a pre-festival interview. “So featuring all the talent at this theater in L.A., and across the country, seemed like a natural progression. The industry is always looking for product and scripted comedy is the best way to consistently showcase talent.”
While SFC inked a new chapter in the story of iO, it also embraced the theater's rich history. Over the years, Improv Olympic has boasted comedic talents such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers and the late Chris Farley, an old friend of Grace's. This inaugural iteration of the festival honored the latter by naming the Chris Farley House as its official beneficiary. A percentage of the SFC's revenue will be donated to the charity's residential treatment program for substance abuse, located in the late comedian's hometown of Madison, Wisconsin.
Besides its philanthropic elements, SFC also supported aspiring comics. Winners in the competitive categories of Stand Up, Sketch Cage Match, 24 Hour Sketch, Story Telling, and Video Shorts — voted on by audience members — were awarded with coveted stage time at both iO and Comedy Central Theater. (Full list of winners below.)
Travis Cohen, the SFC's first ever stand-up champion, won a statuette of a horse's ass, as well as the privilege of opening for headlining veteran comedians TJ Miller, Wayne Federman and Kevin Farley, Chris' brother. Cohen contributed his success to his positive attitude and refined material, factors that helped him quash his coarser, less experienced opponents during Friday's preliminary round.
“I feel that I brought an energy to the room that the rape and abortion jokes preceding me just didn't provide,” said Cohen during an interview following Friday's win. “You can be funny without being shocking just for the sake of shock. I was happy to perform and I think it came across. It's like would you be more engaged by a teacher that didn't put much into a lesson or a teacher that makes learning fun?”
Fortunately for the also-rans looking to hone their skills for future contests, SFC offered a series of comedy writing workshops over the course of the weekend. Jean Villepique, an alumnus of the Second City comedy institution whose credits include Up All Night, 30 Rock and The Office, was courteous enough to allow this writer to sit in on her seminar entitled “Something From Nothing.”
Designed to develop a writer's unique voice, the two-hour class consisted of a series of free-writing drills emphasizing nonjudgmental thinking. At one point, a student about to share the results of one of these exercises began by apologizing, “I don't know if I did it right.” Villepique flashed a reassuring smile and explained, “Its not up to me to judge. As long as its helping you do what you need to do.”
The effectiveness of nonjudgmental mindsets was evidenced in the success of Sketchy @ Best, winners of SCF's 24-hour sketch competition. Participants were given suggestions of an emotion, a location and a movie genre by the audience the night before the performance. The team then had a single day to write, rehearse, and produce a 20-minute sketch show based off those suggestions.
“We didn't think or had time to get in our head about anything,” said Sketchy @ Best cast member Eden McFadden in the iO green room immediately following her team's win.”The first ideas that came out, we ran with.”
There were also impressive non-competive shows, notably the staged reading of Jeff Rosenthal and Michael Oppenhuizen's pilot for Mooch, a sitcom revolving around unemployment featuring Scott Lowell (Queer As Folk) and Ken Campbell (Groundhog Day). Equally entertaining was Julie and Maria: Witch Hunters, a character comedy cavalcade hosted by Maria Ciampa and vintage MTV icon Julie Brown.
Grace was encouraged by SCF's initial success and has bigger ambitions for next year's festival.
“We will expand the amount of nights and shows and expand the opportunities for the various types of scripted comedy to be explored,” he said. “I would like to have more categories for length for the short films, more stand up showcases, include staged original pilots, et cetera. I would love to bring in more of the current big names in sketch comedy like Key and Peele and also highlight some of the great groups from the past like Mr. Show and The State.”
Winners of the 1st Annual L.A. Scripted Comedy Festival were:
24 Hours Sketch
Sketchy @ Best
Sketch Cage Match