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Sketch Fest celebrates scripted comedy

Wes Eichenwald

As the recent rousing success of the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival should have proved beyond doubt, there's a huge audience in Austin for stand-up comedy. Improv is also well-established, with the Austin Improv Collective and showcases like the Hideout Theatre in town. So shouldn't it be high time for that third leg of the comedy universe scripted sketch comedy to explode locally? Michael Jastroch, ColdTowne Theater's executive director, is doing his best to say yes to that and nudge things along.

The upcoming third annual Sketch Fest – a multiple-venue event for which ColdTowne serves as the production arm – finds room for more than traditional sketches alone under its tent, but it's clearly the primary focus. Chatting with us recently at ColdTowne, a cozy 50-seat black-box venue on Airport Boulevard that oozes shabby chic, Jastroch recounted how he and his theater migrated to Austin from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina's havoc in 2005.

October will mark ColdTowne's sixth anniversary in Austin, and though the triumph-from-tragedy (or comedy out of tragedy) narrative is almost too perfect, it's nonetheless true. "We were doing improv and sketch in New Orleans," Jastroch relates. "The anecdote I like to tell is that we were playing to five people in New Orleans, and in the first weekend we were here (in Austin) we were playing to 50 people who were laughing, and we decided to stick around."

Sketch Fest still lacks major corporate sponsors. "We've been having to grow it in a way that we won't lose our shirts, because we really don't have shirts to lose as such," Jastroch says. "Before Sketch Fest there were maybe two, three or four groups doing sketch in town, kind of in their own little bubbles. No one really knew each other. The Austin improv scene over the years has gained a lot of national attention, and part of that is because of the vibrancy of the community. We wanted to bring in some out-of-town acts as well, but I think the main goal was to get all these guys doing scripted comedy working together."

Among this year's Sketch Fest performers are L.A.-based stand-up comic/actor Paul F. Tompkins (of "Mr. Show with Bob and David" and many other TV and web credits), Stag Comedy, New York's Astronaut Theatre, There's Waldo and the local HUMORdy video collective.

Some of the HUMORdy actors are students, says Jastroch, but they've gotten a lot of notice lately. "Their videos are going super-viral, having 500,000, a million hits. I can't take credit for that, but as the sketch scene has developed and grown, it's interesting that these other groups are doing video work and starting to get some national attention. The Austin comedy scene's just completely blowing up over the last five years. I think it's just a matter of time before someone gets really famous because there's so much talent here... and stage time is so accessible that people have had a chance to develop very quickly."

Do audiences hold scripted comedy to a higher standard than improv? "Oh, I think so," Jastroch says. "Improv is a live experience that you can only kind of capture in the moment that it's happening, which is why it doesn't often translate to video. It's almost like watching a jazz band; there's moments that are only going to translate to the live experience, because there's that added layer of we know this is all being made up on the spot. That doesn't make it any less funny; it's just a different energy. There's stuff you can get away with doing improv that you wouldn't be able to get away with doing sketch, for sure."

Nobody's yet calling Austin the comedy capital of the world, but the pot is bubbling. "Especially with Moontower just happening, I think there's a buzz about it," Jastroch says. "It's still growing, and there's still a challenge of making people aware that this is something they can do to spend their entertainment money, but it's coming along."

The third annual Austin Sketch Comedy Festival