The Long-Distance Comedy Kitchen

Matt Walker. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Which comes first, the script or the show?

That depends.

Live theater typically starts on the page before it hits the stage. Sketch comedy is a different animal – the script often comes last. In this summer of social distancing, the conventional approach of sketch comedians bouncing ideas off each other in a writers room is clearly not an option. So Florida Studio Theatre’s comedy network has had to adjust, and thanks to The Playwrights Project, they’ve kept the laughs coming. As Sarah Durham shared in a previous interview, they’ve been creating sketch comedy with remote video conferencing sessions. Soon, you will be able to see the results on FST’s stage.

We recently spoke to two of the funny people involved: Matt Walker (FST Staff Writer) and Kyle Shoemaker (FST Assistant Director of Sketch Comedy). They were happy to reveal how their long-distance comedy kitchen cooks up the laughter.

OK. Just to set the stage…You guys have been meeting on Zoom, but that’s a means to an end. The goal is a live performance of sketch comedy. Physical actors on a physical stage in front of a physical audience.

Kyle: Correct, it’s not metaphysical.

What does that look like in practical terms?

Matt: We’ve put a sketch comedy show together via weekly Zoom meetings. We’ll write material, pitch ideas, and narrow it down to a select few bits. Before the show gets up on its feet, we’ll figure out which sketches are still funny with social distancing. If a sketch doesn’t work at six-feet-apart, it doesn’t make the cut.

Has the process been fun…or miserable?

Matt: Great question. A little bit of both.

Kyle: It’s been fun to rework stuff and rethink things. We’ve really had to step up our acting. On Zoom, you’re basically a talking head.

Not the cool David Byrne variety.

Matt: No. The alienated, weird variety. And none of us are used to working that way.

Kyle: No, we are definitely not.

Matt: In normal times, we’ll find the heart of a sketch through physicality. Say, you’re trying to convey a relationship between a couple. You usually do that with body language and physical contact. The payoff at the end of the sketch might be a hug. Now you can’t do that anymore. Here’s this vital tool you depend on as a writer and an actor – and it’s been suddenly taken off the table.

It’s like telling an artist you can’t use yellow paint anymore.

Kyle: I like to imagine that’s how Pablo Picasso came up with his Blue Period.

Matt: So…our material has to pass an acid test. As we develop the material on Zoom, each sketch has to be funny on a purely verbal level – almost like a radio show – words alone, minus any physicality. If a sketch stands on its own, we’ll keep it. Then we’ll add the physical element back in when we rehearse it for the live performance.

I’m thinking of Monty Python. Their comedy albums are funny, even without the visuals. You can’t see the Pythons. But you still laugh at the “Spam” routine – the material is that strong. You’re following in their footsteps … 

Kyle Shoemaker • Photo courtesy of the artist

Kyle: So, that makes us the new Pythons? No pressure, huh?

Matt: I call Michael Palin.

Kyle: I’ll take John Cleese.

Settle down, lads.

Matt and Kyle: Right.

Where are you at right now?

Matt: Right now, we’ve actually started workshopping some sketches in FST’s Bowne’s Lab, the space where FST Improv performs every week. We’ve done a lot of work on the sketches – but we’ve reached the point where it all gets real. We’re finding new life for them in live rehearsal. That’s been a blast.

You’ve gone through heroic efforts to create this sketch comedy revue. But, COVID-19 and Zoom aside, what does it take to get people laughing on a Cabaret stage?

Matt: To make this material work, you need a laser-sharp focus. I’m used to contemporary long-form improv, but that doesn’t come across as well in a cabaret setting. The audience needs structure. It’s very old-school, but it works. The one-two-three-finish sketch comedy format evolved for a reason.

Do you guys have any sketch comedy role models? 

Kyle: Definitely. We’re always trying to look for sources of inspiration without ripping anybody off. We’re constantly revisiting the performances of comedy troupes we love. It’s a very long list…from Kids in the Hall, to SNL, to Tim Robinson’s sketch show, I Think You Should Leave.

Well, if you insist …

Matt: That’s what the show is called. Please stay.

I knew that! Let’s talk about subject matter. Are your sketches mostly Sarasota-centric? Or is there a good deal of universal humor?

Kyle: Our first show will be more Sarasota-focused, but we’ll have enough evergreen topics to appeal to anyone. We’ll also have plenty topical material — like the pandemic, obviously. It’s on everybody’s mind…

It’s the elephant in the room.

Matt: Yeah. It’s a mighty big elephant – and it’s in everybody’s room. There’s no way to avoid it, so we might as well work with it.

Matt Walker is a Staff Writer for FST’s Playrights Project. He performs with various Gulf Coast improv groups, including FST Improv and The Third Thought in Tampa. Nationally, he’s performed at The Second City in Chicago; and with Nerdist Showroom, Upright Citizen’s Brigade, iO West, and The Pack Theater in Los Angeles.

Kyle Shoemaker is FST’s Assistant Director of Sketch Comedy, and a performer, improviser, and filmmaker. Shoemaker is a founding member of Come What Will (Sarasota’s Shakespearean improv troupe) and performs with FST Improv and Big Bang.