Let's face it: There are far too few laughs to be had at rock shows these days. The last musical performer who had me doubled over was David Lee Roth (mostly in spite of himself) in San Jose last month, but otherwise the same old stage banter is hardly the material that fills Cobb's Comedy Club on the regular. I realize that's not the bands' fault — enthusiasm for overly wiseass pop acts deflates quickly once the shticks get flimsy (see Datarock, Electric Six). In the meantime, though, comedians continue their infiltration of the music world. Zach Galifianakis boosted his exposure by starring (alongside folkie Bonnie "Prince" Billy) in the Internet wildfire that was Kanye West's "Can't Tell Me Nothing" video last year. Saturday Night Live alum and ex–punk rocker Fred Armisen formed a comedy duo called ThunderAnt with Sleater-Kinney alum Carrie Brownstein, and he recently released the instructional DVD spoof Jens Hannemann Complicated Drumming Technique on indie label Drag City — whose cult wisecracker Neil Hamburger is working on a country record.
Sketchfest is San Francisco's elevated marriage of music and punchlines. In its seventh year, the January event includes a couple packages of the joking and guitar-strumming variety. Local songwriters John Vanderslice (Jan. 21) and Rogue Wave's Zach Rogue (Jan. 20) are part of the lineup, although they are known more for their earnest poetics than their one-liners. Seattle R&B belter Reggie Watts (Jan. 23 with Hard 'n Phirm) fronts the group Maktub but has also performed standup at festivals around the world, and in 2006 won New York City's Andy Kaufman Award. The Sketchfest program additionally incorporates comedy favorites regularly featured on indie-rock bills, such as Eugene Mirman (Jan. 20), who has opened for the Shins and toured with Modest Mouse and Yo La Tengo. Mirman is on Sub Pop, probably the biggest indie label to bring popular funny guys into the fold, including in its releases discs from David Cross, Patton Oswalt (at Sketchfest Jan. 21), and, of course, Flight of the Conchords.
Although the Conchords' main attractions, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, weren't on the lineup for Sketchfest's "Opening Night Variety Show" last week, I still hoped that that they'd sneak in somewhere. After all, they're in with both the music geeks and the sketch loyalists. Having them perform would've been the perfect coup for the festival — even better than, say, the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, a hilarious cabaret act that has performed at Sketchfest in the past.
On opening night, there were clues that could've paved the way to a surprise Conchords appearance. The event was held at Mezzanine instead of a comedy club. A couple of the HBO show's regulars — Rhys Darby (manager Murray Hewitt), Kristen Schaal (superfan Mel), and the droll Todd Barry (occasional guest) — all took the mike. But alas, the only musical type to sing live that night was headliner Aimee Mann. Her hilarity credits include "being no stranger to performing with comedians" at her Christmas variety shows, but lyrics like "I thought my life would be better somehow" and the song "Save Me" from the Magnolia soundtrack weren't exactly knee-slappers at the end of the night. She did, however, display her sense of humor, opening her set by warning the crowd her material wasn't funny. Noting the attrition in attendance a couple of songs in, she kidded with comedian buddy Paul F. Tompkins that "at least we know no one else is listening" when they flubbed a song. Their banter induced the most chuckles, though, during a cover of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" when they dropped the chorus Tompkins kept mangling in order to analyze the lyrics: It all came down to a desperate BDSM freak pissed that he wasn't getting easy nookie. Pretty funny, too.
The highlight of the evening wasn't musical (even though hosts Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler kicked off the party with a cuddly video for the New Pornographers single "Mutiny, I Promise You"). It was Flight of the Conchords' manager extraordinaire Darby, who, despite being separated from his band, still had the crowd in stitches. He introduced himself by saying, "I used to do standup, so I'm used to adjusting the mike. Now I'm a big star but I'll adjust it anyway." From there he launched into absurd bits of "physical theater," explaining that his art was "like a mime artist, but I've added sound." He was the sound-effects master, mouthing realistic robot bits, bragging about scoring with a mermaid ("Down below she was all halibut"), and scaring off potential dates with an imaginary Inspector Gadget getup.
Of course it wasn't the same as watching Bret and Jemaine deadpan lyrical lines like "In the buff, bein' rude, doing stuff with the food," or smooth-talking that "Tuesday night's the night that we go and visit your mother, but Wednesday night is the night that we make love." But, ah, there's always next year, right? In the meantime, I'll just hope that Sketchfest — and comedians in general — merge with musicians more often. The pressure for laughs can't all land on Diamond Dave.