The concept of Set List is simple. Yet to most comedians (even the most seasoned) the idea represents a yawning hell's mouth of the purest terror. Set List requires that each comic take the stage without any prepared material. Each is given a list of five or six topics. Using each of those topics in succession, the comic must improvise a 15-minute set.
On Friday night at Cobb's, SF Sketchfest hosted an edition of Set List featuring seven well-established comedians (plus one surprise addition) who, despite professions of discomfort and anxiety, made mostly effortless magic out of the show's daunting challenge.
Bay Area native and podcaster supreme Greg Proops (he of Whose Line is it Anyway?) worked through his set sketch-style, improvising multi-character scenarios for several of his topics, which included "Crucifixion Backstage Pass" and "Lost Shakespeare Play." Watching Proops tackle the latter was jaw-dropping. Here was a man speaking in plausible Elizabethan English and making it funny at the same time. I had never seen anyone improvise Shakespeare before -- or even thought it was an option.
Chelsea Peretti (a writer for Parks and Recreation) sailed through her set unflinchingly. She was funny, fast, and off-the-cuff. Like Proops, her 15 minutes seemed so polished and professional that the act of improvisation was almost invisible. Although not her funniest joke of the evening, Peretti's brief imitation of "all pornography" made me spit-take.
Other comics didn't have such an easy time of it, but they brought the audience with them as they wrestled with the show's format -- and in some cases that improved their work, making it frank, sympathetic, and funnier. Jon Dore, for example, covered several of his topics with extraordinary inventiveness ("Partial Birth Announcement" had Dore announcing that his wife had given birth to a fetus that was all waist and legs). But when his final bit sort of fell apart, Dore insisted, "No applause. I will leave the stage in silence. That's what I deserve." Of course, he received generous applause for a seat that was mostly very strong.
The final comic scheduled to appear was Eddie Pepitone, whose trademark volcanic delivery proved surprisingly amenable to Set List. Among Pepitone's assigned topics was "Suck It Factory." True to his nature, Pepitone equated the entire United States to a "suck it factory," where new arrivals are greeted at the borders with an invitation to put something in their mouths and suck it. He also advised anyone in college to prepare themselves for at least 10 years of hard labor at the Suck It Factory upon graduation. Pepitone closed the show with high energy and raucous laughs, never missing a beat. As with Proops and Peretti, I wish he had had more time.
Emcee Steve Agee returned to the stage to wish us a good night, but he paused to explain that at shows of this type, local up-and-comers are added on at the end to get stage time and hone their craft. In an evening of hardly anything but highlights, what happened next was an extraordinary moment -- the comedy equivalent of being at the Village Vanguard in the 1960s to see John Coltrane, only to have Duke Ellington sit in on a few tunes.
The "local up-and-comer" was Robin Williams, who was greeted by pure ecstasy. Williams immediately launched into his set, staying true to the format, and brought the house down. There was an emotional element behind Williams' appearance, of course -- the native son returning to the city where he developed his talent as a comedian. Even more obvious, though, was Williams' unflagging improvisational ability. What we saw Friday was not a reminder of greatness, but greatness itself. Williams bored head-on into each topic, riffing with the same extraordinary agility he has always displayed in a stand-up setting. He worked through each of his assigned topics, and he addressed the final one as a matter of pure comic intuition -- by the time he got around to looking at the set list itself to check the final topic, he had already covered it.
The audience screamed for more, like a jazz or folk crowd of yore. Williams obliged, improvising for another 10 minutes or so. When Pepitone screamed, "Apple butter!" from the back of the house, Williams created an entire commercial for the product, being sure to mention the ever-present grit in the jar and, of course, its lubricative properties.
SF Sketchfest continues through Feb. 4 at various San Francisco locations.