4th Chicago Sketchfest spotlights 100+ comedy acts from US, Canada; includes writing workshop

The 4th Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, aka Sketchfest, at the Theatre Building is running on all three 150-seat stages simultaneously from now through Jan. 16.

One hundred-plus shows will be mounted by 83 local, national and Canadian sketch troupes chosen from more than 160 applicants.

Sketchfest’s special events include a comedy writing workshop, “How to be Funny Even if You’re Sketchy,” taught by John Vorhaus, veteran Hollywood comedy/sitcom writer (“Married?with Children”) Jan. 15. It will be followed by a panel of Chicago’s premier comedymeisters.

“Sketch is the natural evolution of comedy right now. In the ?80s we had a huge hit with stand-up. In the ?90s we had a huge hit with improv. Naturally, what comes out of improv is sketch,” said Brian Posen, producer/creator of Chicago Sketchfest.

Invited to attend were talent representatives from “Saturday Night Live,” HBO Comedy and NBC casting, press and critics, where they can see a wealth of fresh talent in a matter of days.

Lucky out-of-state ensembles will be tapped to audition for Second City’s producers Sundays at 11 a.m.

“The variety of styles and forms is outrageous,” said Posen. “We have everything from political satire to outright clowning to absurdism, to race issues to women’s issues, all wrapped up in a funny package.”

Lucky out-of-state ensembles will be tapped to audition for Second City’s producers Sundays at 11 a.m. The troupes’ names are as variant as their performance styles. Negin Farsad uses humor to discuss Islam in her one-woman show “Bootleg Islam.” Meat is a four-woman ensemble from New York. The satirical scenes of the Cupid Players, which Posen founded, always transitions into song.

The Uncomfortables returned to Sketchfest for the second consecutive year as one of three acts to launch the festival Thursday with “Chicago Transient Authority.” Co-producer Kelly Beeman described the act as a “Ride through the ?L’ system, taking a look at the diversity from stop to stop.”

“I knew going to Sketchfest was a big deal last year,” said Jo-Elle Munchak, cast member of The Uncomfortables. “But until I was there, I didn’t understand what an honor it really was. There is so much talent from all over the place,”

Another encore performer is Katie Watson, writer/performer in “Gynecology” in Sketchfest 2002, who returns with Dani Sher in their two-woman act “Consumer Reports: Spring Break Edition.”

“Sketchfest fosters a wonderful collaborative energy, and seeing 83 ways of approaching this art form invariably sparks a hundred more,” said Watson.

Beeman said, “Sketchfest is really a chance to feel like you belong to the comedy community in Chicago.”

“I’ve lived in New York and spent time in L.A.,” said Watson. “And I respect what goes on in both those cities. But I LOVE Chicago. There’s so much creativity here, so much experimentation, so much talent.”

The Jan. 15 Vorhaus workshop, 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., will be followed by an all-star panel at 2 p.m. Participants include Vorhaus, comedy writer Tim Kazurinsky, Charna Halpern of ImprovOlympic, Antoine McKay of the Second City Mainstage, Mick Napier of the Annoyance Theater, Joe Janes of Second City and ComedySportz, and Cedric Yarbrough and Carlos Alazraqui of RENO 911!

“There’s so much creativity here, so much experimentation, so much talent.” Sketchfest found its way into the world in 2002 when Posen’s plans to mount a musical at the Theatre Building fell through, leaving him with all that space and no show. Affiliated with Second City and many other theater groups, Posen put out a call for sketch troupes and received an overwhelming response.

More than 30 ensembles played to roughly 2,000 people. In 2004 the audience topped 5,000, and Posen expects an even bigger crowd this year.

He believes that Sketchfest serves Chicago’s rich legacy of sketch comedy fostered by Second City, which first opened its doors in 1959. “Chicago sketch has influenced so much of today’s entertainment.”

Posen, a performer and commercial actor, is on the core faculty of Second City and Columbia College and had taught at Steppenwolf.

Sketchfest takes place Thursdays through Sundays at Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: $12 per performance, $30 per night, and $75 for a full festival pass. See www.chicagosketchfest.com.