January 25, 2008
It was a very wired and drawn Will Franken who greeted his audience in the vestibule at The Eureka Theatre last night. The Sketchfest headliner who recently decamped for New York from San Francisco hadn't slept in two days and, by the looks of things, had been living off Twinkies for weeks.
"I'm really broke," he said, by way of greeting. He then went on to describe a recent engagement at the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York. The well-known, bi-coastal comedy club is revered for its great standup and sketch acts -- as well as for its cheap ticket prices. "Best five-dollar-per-person date" chimed the Village Voice. "Cheaper and funnier than a lap dance" agreed Screw Magazine.
Turns out the prices are so low because the club doesn't pay its artists. Everyone who appears on its stage performs for free. This of course is standard practice for many comedy clubs. In fact, getting paid is abnormal. The thing is, why shouldn't a performer see a cut if he's making tons of money for the venue?
Franken told me last night that he'd performed on three consecutive evenings at UCB to full houses. According to Franken, the venue made $1600 per show from his appearance. On the third night, he decided to pass a hat around at the end of the show, figuring that he deserved a little something for packing the punters in -- even comedians have to keep a roof over their heads. UCB apparently took great offense at Franken's attempt to eek out some spare change from the people who'd found him so funny and had paid so very little to enjoy his sense of humor. The club's management banished Franken as a result. Upright citizens? More like downright swindlers.
In spite of the difficulties of making ends meet, Franken managed to keep his end up last night during his first return engagement in San Francisco and pulled off a side-splitting show. I'd seen and heard most of the material in his half-hour set before (many of the bits came from his recent show, Grandpa It's Not Fitting, which I reviewed last year for SF Weekly.) But this time the flow was smoother and the comedy sharper and more savage. From the moment he sat down at the piano and sang a two-bar parody of Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" substituting the lyric "Goodbye English Rose / Goodbye Norma Jean" for "Goodbye Heath Ledger", to a final hyperbolic political speech centering on Barack Obama, the universe seemed to go into tailspin. Tonight Franken's performing at Sketchfest again, this time at The Purple Onion where he says he'll be trying out all-new material.
On another note, I got into trouble with fans of the comedy troupe Kasper Hauser a few years ago when I wrote an unimpressed reviewed of one of the group's shows back when I was a second-string critic for The San Francisco Bay Guardian. For several years, I've been carrying around a bit of guilt about that review. KH inspires such devotion among audiences that I figured I must have somehow missed something crucial in that performance. But having experienced the company's work for a second time last night just before Franken went on, I can now rest easy about my first impressions of the troupe: From a tired skit about a preacher's bad standup comedy habit to the schoolboy-humor-infused sketch involving a hysterical woman (played by a man in drag) who looks after miniature horses, the set dragged on. The company's work, as far as I'm concerned, remains inane.
And on a final note, I very much enjoyed the evening's opening sketch by New York's The Apple Sisters. This trio of sassy lassies sends-up 1940s "wireless" radio programing with sketches and beautifully-harmonized jungles, cutting references to "all our listeners out there" and "our fine studio audiences" with bawdy-absurd humor and wartime satire. The Sisters are performing tonight at The Purple Onion with Franken. Not to be missed.