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Battle of the belly laughs

Groundlings' and Acme Comedy Theatre's apprentice teams go head-to-head Sunday nights.

August 21, 2003|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

Sketch comedy is no joke, but there's never a shortage of fresh talent willing to tackle it. The best times to preview tomorrow's virtuosos are Sunday nights, when the up-and-coming B teams perform at L.A.'s premiere rival skit factories -- the Groundlings and Acme Comedy Theatre.

Located within a few blocks of each other, the sheer proximity of these training-performance venues invites comparison of their apprentice team showcases. With so many of us sorely in need of a good laugh these days, here's the lowdown on lowbrow expectations for the Groundlings' "Rock 'em Sock 'em Sunday" and Acme's "The Sunday Show Reloaded."

What first stands out in a head-to-head are the similarities in show formats. Both venues feature sketches on topical themes written, developed and performed by the team, directed by an A company member (Groundling Karen Maruyama or Acme's Travis Oates), with incidental pop-rock accompaniment from musicians stationed to the left of the audience. Both teams follow some instinctual urge to work the performance night into their show titles, whether it's funny or not.

Beneath the surface similarities, however, are clear differences. Most obvious -- and there's no way to beat around the bush here -- is that the Groundlings are the 600-pound gorilla in this arena, and their overall presentation is more precise and polished than that of their Acme counterparts.

But does that translate into a superior product? Not necessarily.

As the spawning pool for many a high-profile comedian, the Groundlings draw larger audiences. Admittedly, the Acme show was nearing the end of its run and the Groundlings' had just started, but the difference in the companies' ability to pack houses has been consistent over the years. As a result, the Groundlings enjoy a higher level of audience energy, which they utilized quite effectively (Michael Naughton's motivational speaker feasting on hapless onlookers).

Despite the empty seats, however, Acme's smaller audience felt much more loyal and intimately connected to the performers -- (the indignities heaped on Margaret Easley's struggling actress struck a resonant chord). That family camaraderie was also evident in the give and take among the Acme cast of 10, compared to the Groundlings' sprawling, more disjointed 16-member team; you get to know the Acme troupe better.

Along with the Groundlings' larger cast comes more sketches -- 26 (plus several improvs) compared to Acme's 16. Applying my scientific "PB-Hee-Hee 5-Point Rating Scale" to each sketch revealed that the Groundlings more often scored the highest marks for concept (my favorites were a "singing telegram" eulogy delivered by Stephanie Courtney and Kent Sublette to appalled funeral mourners, Liz Feldman's fairy tale princess who comes to regret the kiss she gave that frog, and an ensemble piece involving gushing amateur thespians trying to stage "A Chorus Line" in a 60-foot theater).

Acme scored with some clever concepts as well (Dara McGarry's sex-starved granny accosting Greg Benson's horrified gigolo).

On the other hand, the Groundlings had more duds, with greater overall variance between highs and lows; the Acme show was more consistent.

Moreover, the Acme sketches more often sustained better-scripted and more interesting arcs; the Groundlings' rabbit punches tended to run out of steam sooner (case in point: Acme's perfectly built scene about a boss who comes to dinner with an inflatable sex doll versus a Groundlings similarly themed staff meeting about mysterious trysts with store mannequins), which accounts for Acme's higher overall scores on concept and execution.

On my performance scale, average company scores were equal, though here again the Groundlings had the widest variance. However, the ready-for-prime-time standouts were both Groundlings (Feldman and Courtney).

Both shows are more than respectable, but if I had to pick one Sunday show, I'd go with the Groundlings.

*

'Rock 'em Sock 'em Sunday'

Where: Groundlings Theatre, 7307 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles

When: Sundays, 7:30 p.m.

Price: $12

Contact: (323) 934-9700

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

*

'The Sunday Show Reloaded'

Where: Acme Comedy Theatre, 135 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles

When: Sundays, 8 p.m.

Ends: Sept. 7

Price: $10

Contact: (323) 525-0202

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

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