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Meghan Trowbridge never planned to write sketch comedy. When she came across Killing My Lobster in 2008, she fancied herself the sort of writer-performer whose gifts were reserved exclusively for “serious drama.” Cut to 2022 and Trowbridge is not only a company member of the quarter-century-old San Francisco sketch comedy troupe, but also proudly defends sketch as an art form.
“Well, I think it’s hard to grasp how seriously we take our work, when our work includes titles like ‘City Farts and Lectures,’” she says. “People may think it’s just friends throwing together a show and not giv[ing] it much consideration, but our process is really thoughtful.”
Valentine’s Day officially marked KML’s 25th anniversary, which the troupe used to announce its 2022 season. When that season begins on April 7, it will be the company’s first in-person show since February 2020.
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(Full disclosure: I’ve frequently collaborated with many of the KML members interviewed for this article, including Trowbridge.)
Borne of Vaudevillian need to get as much performance as possible in such a short time, sketch has given the world countless talented performers — from Chicago’s Second City troupe and LA’s Groundlings to cultural institutions “Saturday Night Live” and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” — but, like all comedy, rarely gets the recognition of “serious” theater.
Indeed, Trowbridge’s comments are reminiscent of actor Bruce McGill’s anecdotes about John Belushi. In the 2020 documentary “Belushi,” McGill recounts how his “Animal House” costar (a veteran of both Second City and “SNL”) always introduced McGill as “a great actor,” while talking himself down. When McGill insisted Belushi was just as talented, a dismissive Belushi replied, “No, I’m a sketch player,” as if the title “actor” were off-limits.
KML can be quite serious, especially about donation goals. Like all nonprofits, the troupe looks forward to the post-Thanksgiving push of Giving Tuesday. With 2021 budgets limiting how they could reward donors, KML’s quick-witted members responded to each donation that day by scrambling to the troupe’s Folsom Street headquarters. There, they created personalized thank-you skits for social media. These included Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet explaining that Mr. Darcy was off “practicing a ‘Magic Mike’-inspired aquatic strip-tease,” a flatulence-laden cover of Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” and even a piece with a giant lemur.
The troupe flew past its $35,000 goal, securing further shows and programs like KML + 826, a collaboration with nonprofit 826 Valencia, which provides children with writing courses, tutoring and mentorship programs. As most nonprofits struggle for visibility, KML thrives by, as board president Kevin Kosik puts it, its ability to “mobilize a tremendously enthusiastic artistic community to rally together in a nonstop, all-day effort to create and share sketch comedy with our audiences and supporters.”
It’s a testament to both the resilience of sketch comedy and of KML’s pandemic-era transition from live shows to online content. Although this meant competing with established on-demand content, including aforementioned institutions like “SNL,” PianoFight’s Duncan Wold believes the popularity of KML’s online content validates the necessity of unique, local content.
“Why is there a need for local musical theater when Broadway exists, or small music venues when there’s Madison Square Garden?” asks Wold, director of operations at PianoFight, KML’s San Francisco performance home of several years. “I mean, artists have to start somewhere. You don’t get from your garage to Madison Square Garden without a few steps between.”
Allison Page, KML’s outgoing artistic director, agrees.
“Running a nonprofit arts organization in the U.S. is not easy,” she says. “Our absurd Giving Tuesday strategy of raising at least $35,000 in a day works for us because we’re leaning into three of our specific strengths: being able to come up with a huge range of specific, funny content in an incredibly short period of time; the fact that our artistic community is passionate and collaborative by nature; and we’re generally good at setting specific expectations and not expecting everything out of everyone.”
The Minnesota-born Page first connected with KML in 2010, as a last-minute cast addition to the show “Preaches to the Choir.” By her telling, “[T]he director had contacted my boyfriend at the time and asked if he knew anyone, and he said ‘Well, my girlfriend’s out of work!’ and within a short time I was suddenly in the cast.”
As she spent the next few years frequently writing and acting in sketches, the company went through a revolving door of leadership changes. In 2014, she and fellow member Millie DeBenedet became co-creative directors before eventually becoming artistic and executive directors, respectively, bringing the company a much-needed focus and leading to the creation of projects like KML + 826. (In 2016, DeBenedet got married and changed her name to Millie Brooks.)
After years as the hybrid “executive artistic director,” Page announced in 2021 that she and her husband will be moving to Nashville this year to be closer to family. A months-long search concluded with KML’s Giving Tuesday announcement that company regulars Nicole Odell and Emma McCool would be serving respectively as incoming artistic director and executive director.
“Frankly, until Allison announced she was leaving, I hadn’t ever really considered trying to become an artistic director before,” says Odell.
As she pores over AB-5 materials, the seasoned performer says the biggest adjustment has been the shift in perspective. “When I’m approaching one project at a time, I get to become somewhat obsessed with that one project,” she says. “Overseeing an entire company — its season and its operation — requires me to think in a lot of different directions at once.”
For McCool, who is mixed-race, maintaining the company’s “safe and welcome [space]” for diverse performers and audiences will be a high priority.
“The first show I did with KML was ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Whites,’ and as someone who is white-passing, I was nervous about how I would be received and treated in the room,” she says. “But from that first show until now, I have felt nothing but support from the KML community. Having had the pleasure of being a stage manager for KML over the years, I have found that it has afforded me a unique perspective of the inner workings of the organization and understanding of KML’s creative process.”
Yet styles like sketch and improv remain low in the comedic hierarchy. Sure, everyone’s heard of “Saturday Night Live,” but its continued recognition is often matched by criticism of its lack of cultural relevance.
For Meg Trowbridge, also a skilled improv performer, disdain for that style can be chalked up to “people [being] scarred by really bad improv and are afraid to love again.” Sketch, she explains, offers a better format for storytelling and social commentary.
“Whenever I write for a show, I consider putting what’s happening around me or in the news into a sketch — which not only helps connect with the audience, but also helps me experience some sweet, sweet catharsis,” she says. “Our No. 1 rule is to punch up … delivering comeuppance to the oppressor, which we so rarely get to see in the real world.”
Wold agrees about the importance of the two styles. “I think sketch and improv are forms that most stand-up comedians participate in to some degree. I actually think the more traditional theater world struggles to parse the world of sketch comedy, to see the really good and serious work that happens there. … Sketch is really cool for performers because it creates space for both comedians and ‘regular’ old actors to work together.”
As Giving Tuesday ended, KML announced “The Fireside Project,” an audio-only riff on Jane Austen, the writers for which included recent “Jeopardy!” champion Amy Schneider. Scheneider may be the most high-profile KML alumnus, exemplifying the troupe’s support of local talent.
Both PianoFight and KML planned to return to live performances in January with SF Sketchfest 2022, but omicron concerns pushed the festival back a full year. Though Wold and his colleagues lament the resulting loss of “tons of hours of work for local theater technicians, bartenders, servers, box office attendants, ushers, etc.,” KML moved forward with its 2022 season announcement, to be performed live and in person at PianoFight’s SF and Oakland venues.
KML board secretary Kelly Anneken is just as optimistic about the future of the company, sketch comedy and performing arts as a whole.
“As a performer myself, I know I come from a long line of people who look at any number of local and global catastrophes and say, ‘The show must go on!’,” says Anneken, herself a popular stand-up comedian. “The performing arts are always evolving. Theater people are resourceful, and I think KML is a perfect example of that … It’s hardwired into our DNA. To be an artist is to live in hope because the alternative is too depressing.”
To find out more about San Francisco sketch troupe Killing My Lobster and its upcoming 25th anniversary season, visit https://www.killingmylobster.com/.
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at The Thinking Man’s Idiot.