- Luke Awtry
- From left: Brian De La Bruere, Maggie Phelan, Mike Thomas, Brian Park, Liam Welsh, Kate Farley and Lucy Sopchak
A brief flash of panic hit me as the lights went down for the inaugural performance of Vermont Comedy Club's sketch revue. After all, a well-known show composed of comedy sketches is "Saturday Night Live." And I had somehow forgotten, until that very moment, that I really don't like "Saturday Night Live."
I'm relieved to report that the revue avoided all of SNL's more grating aspects. There were no tired Trump jokes, and the pop-culture references were limited. Nobody, at any point, pretended to be a newscaster. And, most importantly, nothing dragged. In an hour, the show packed in 19 mostly scripted sketches, some of which reached the punch line in less than a minute.
The VCC Summer Comedy Revue, performed by seven cast members, will run every Thursday, Friday and Saturday through August 3. The sketches cover a lot of ground, from a therapist exploiting her patient's tragic background for a movie script to a young woman watching a problematic old romantic comedy with her mother. There is a sexual-harassment-themed cover of the late-'90s song "C'est la Vie" by B*Witched and a frank chat about how to avoid conversations that "edge racistly." Between skits, the stage goes dark momentarily, and then the actors reappear as new characters in new formations. Throughout, the set features only a few chairs.
You might feel sympathy for the actors, all in their mid-twenties, who were thrown into a show with such a madcap pace. But rest assured, they did it to themselves. In the style of the aforementioned late-night show, as well as long-running live shows by troupes such as the Second City in Chicago and Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City, these comics wrote their own sketches. They pitched ideas, developed scenes, identified themes and then pitched again, all under the direction of Julia DiFerdinando, VCC's new creative director, who hails most recently from the Second City itself. She lived in Chicago for seven years and worked in several roles, including that of touring performer, with the famous troupe.
"It's a really collaborative process," DiFerdinando said of the writing. "Each person feels a lot of ownership of the piece."
DiFerdinando described the script as "wacky," an apt summation. It's comedy free of clichés, and the best moments happen when the sketches flip the script on what you expect. There were punch lines that genuinely surprised me — an increasingly rare experience for a person who spends much of her day on the joke-saturated internet. And, though most of the actors are from Vermont, the production isn't about the state specifically.
"I think Vermonters have seen all of the cow jokes they can get," DiFerdinando said.
When DiFerdinando, who grew up in South Burlington, left town at 21, a local comedy scene was all but nonexistent. Now she's 30, back in Vermont as of 2018 and employed by Nathan Hartswick and Natalie Miller, who built a comedy movement from the ground up. They've been producing shows since 2010 and teaching classes since 2011; they opened VCC in 2015 with a bar and a 150-seat showroom.
"When I moved back here, I was like, 'Burlington's cool!'" DiFerdinando said.
This show is the first of its kind at VCC, but she made it clear she had high expectations. DiFerdinando required résumés and headshots at auditions, and the actors, who've rehearsed for eight hours a week since April, are paid.
"Everyone is really hungry for improv and comedy," said DiFerdinando, who also runs summer camps and teaches improv classes in corporate settings. She's confident that Burlington is ready for an increasingly professional comedy scene, but she also believes, with apparent sincerity, that everyone can be funny.
"It's kind of like, 'The world sucks, we're all gonna die, so we might as well have a good time,'" she said of the revue.
The actors clearly share her commitment. They carry off a few truly oddball sketches and ride out sometimes-awkward moments — "Someone give me a scenario. Anyone? Anyone?" — with the ease of professionals. On the night I saw it, the show's only faults were technical, but since they will undoubtedly be addressed before the next performance, it seems unfair to mention them.
Beyond the inevitable polishing, there's room for the material itself to develop during the show's four-week run, DiFerdinando said. For me, the chance to witness that evolution might be a good enough reason to see the revue again.