We can think of Keep Tucson Sketchy, Tucson comedy’s leviathan quarterly comedy variety show, as a lumpy, fun-loving rocket spawn of The Federal Trade Commission. That agency’s 1970-ish mandate for Public Access Television generated a constellation of random creative output and a handful of shooting stars, including cult favorite Mystery Science Theater (MST3K).
The late-stage evolution and ultimate collapse of Tucson’s own public access channel, Access Tucson 12, led to a new vision for public access to broadcasting technology. It was funded by the City of Tucson and managed under contract by Brink Media. Brink, which also broadcasts City Council meetings, re-imagined the channel, expanded its portfolio, and gave it a new name: Creative Tucson.
Brink is a long-time, local web development and strategic marketing company. They’re active in Tucson’s visual arts and business communities, with a client list tilting toward the nonprofit sector.
Because their contract work and even experimental volunteer projects look good on a resume, Brink attracts creative people like horchata on a hot day.
One amiable gadfly about the place was Alex Kack, whom some readers may remember as “The Green Shirt Guy.” Around 2017 Kack was also a popular local standup comedian. One night at an open mic, he met Joel Foster, a writer, English teacher and recent Tucson transplant. Kack tipped him off that Brink was looking to add a writer. Foster got the gig.
Brink wanted to inspire more Tucsonans to create original programming for the Creative Tucson channel. One of its principals suggested Foster take a crack at producing a local news show along the lines of The Daily Show.
For that Foster would need a writer’s room, but as the new guy he hadn’t yet generated many contacts. Kack happily lent a hand, posting about the opportunity for the many actors and comedians among his Facebook friends. A dozen or so responded but most eventually fell away. Two who stayed were improviser Rich Aguirre and actor Tom Cracovaner. Aguirre was also an aspiring video tech, and Cracovaner had studied writing with widely respected Meg Files at Pima College. The two had become friends over two semesters of acting classes at Pima.
Cracovaner and Aguirre became the on-air talent of The Scorcher Report. It started as an effort to report and satirize local news, but soon morphed into sketches, bits and parodies of “on-location” footage, interwoven with staged meetings of the Tucson City Council and meta jokes about reporting local news.
According to Cracovaner, “Joel wrote a lot of the city council sketches because he had to sit through a lot of those meetings.” Foster’s writing, he said, “helped us pick up on the (council members) personalities. Eli (Turner) does a really good job of Paul Cunningham.”
The ensemble forming around The Scorcher Report also included Tucson’s presiding funster Frank Powers. In addition to being a reliably energy-amping professional emcee for special events, Foster had run a downtown store called Constant Con. It traded in comic books and graphic novels but highlighted the work of local cartoon and anime artists. Booths, video events, visiting characters and numerous special events created a perennially Comic Con ambiance.
Foster and Powers began working together on side projects, including a full-length feature film they debuted at The Screening Room downtown. A super-low-budget, slightly campy, mind-bending and hilarious romp, the film, called “The Toot Toot Tucson Halloween EXTRA Special,” was an instant cult hit.
By that time, though, the public’s interest in televising their own programs was waning. People who brought original content ideas to Creative Tucson often abandoned them when the level of commitment they would need became clear. Meanwhile the ease and ever-improving quality of online communication, publishing and video sharing was making it easier and cheaper to communicate directly, in real time and any other time.
After about a year, the City of Tucson discontinued its grant, and that was the end of Creative Tucson.
“We were all really just bummed out about that,” Cracovaner said. “We were meeting at least once a week writing a bunch of jokes. We’d record a live 30- minute TV show. It was fun. It was a nice challenge. And then it was over.
“But we’re still funny. We can still do something. Maybe a sketch comedy show. Let’s have a writer’s meeting. We’ll see who’s interested. I asked a bunch of my acting friends and some writing friends. Rich posted to some comedy sites to get comedians there. Our first meeting was at Epic Café and, unfortunately, we scheduled it on an open mic night, and people were jumping up ‘Oh! I’m sorry, I gotta go do a set!’”
“I expected maybe three people to show up,” said Foster, laughing. “So seeing all those people, I was, like, ‘Okay! I guess we’re doing this thing.’”
Cracovaner had been impressed with the movie Foster and Powers made. “At the Screening room, you can interact with the audience in a theatrical way,” he said, “and they did that. At the end of the film, Frank was in character on stage.
“And just seeing that, thinking about the possibilities as an actor, to be able to act onstage with a video that you acted in is a really good opportunity.”
That insight inspired the innovative infrastructure around the Keep Tucson Sketchy hit multimedia comedy show. It alternates between live action and video to keep the audience engaged through scene changes and technological coordination.
“SNL has multiple stages,” said Foster. They’ll have a sketch set up on one stage and then another on another, so they can rotate among them. But we film a lot of sketches on different locations and mix them in.”
The videos alternate and even sometimes offer surreal commentary about what has happened or will happen onstage. In fact a favorite KTS motif is to write and perform self-referential sketches or sketches about the context of what’s happening in the show.
By far the strongest feature of Keep Tucson Sketchy is its ensemble character. This crew respects and enjoys the heck out of each other. Having multiplied out from the original Creative Tucson bunch, the company now includes stage tech wizard Collin Chomiak; local standup great Allana Erickson-Lopez, who is KTS house manager; Chicano Comedy Show host Jesus Otamendi; TIM comedy teacher and popular standup comic Rory Monserat; and a score of others who are always welcome in and out.
Foster stressed, though, “It really doesn’t do justice to try to give everybody job definitions. Allana’s written some of the funniest sketches in our group. Eli’s not an actor, but he’s performed some of the best roles. So many people that you might never think of as being major players are major players in our group. Rory, in my opinion, is the best actor in the group.”
“What I’ve seen in this group” Foster said, “is that people rise to fulfill something that’s beyond them.”
Cracovaner added, “We’re better than the sum of our parts. I would say that in the beginning Joel and I kind of set the bar, and then everyone else raised the bar, and I’m going to have to grow to just stay with it, man. These people are freaking good.”
Keep Tucson Sketchy presents their annual Best of KTS show at 6:30 and 9 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 13 at The Screening Room, 127 E Congress Street. Featuring the best sketches from the past three years, the show will be threaded with live commentary about what sketches should have been chosen instead. We’ll see the KTS camaraderie unravel as they weave fresh magic from their past. KFMA’s Beef Vegan hosts; Rae L is the musical guest. Tickets are $10 via eventbrite.com, $15 if available at the door. KTS shows often sell out.
Laughs to lighten the weekend
El Jefe Cat Lounge, 3025 N. Campbell Avenue, (presales at eljefecatlounge.com/reservations) $18, BYOB and snacks, 7 p.m., Kitty Ha Ha Comedy for Cats hosted by Lady Ha Ha Comedy.
Laff’s Comedy Caffe, 2900 E. Broadway Boulevard. (presales, reservations and performer details are at laffstucson.com) $15, $20 preferred seating. Friday and Saturday, Aug. 5 and 6, 8 and 10:30 p.m., featuring Vince Morris’s candid comedy about race, family and relationships.
Tucson Improv Movement/TIM Comedy Theatre, 414 E. 9th Street. (presales at tucsonimprov.com) Thurs., Aug. 4, $7, 7:30 p.m., Power Throuple + Beefeaters + Don’t Vote for Us; 8:30 p.m., The Dirty Tees. Fri. Aug. 5, 6:30 p.m., free jam. 7:30pm, $7, The Soapbox with Jamie Marilyn Larson; 9:00 p.m., $7, Stand Up. Saturday, Aug. 6, $7, 7:30 p.m., Set Unlisted; 9 p.m., $7 The Dirty Tees.
Unscrewed Theater, 4500 E. Speedway Boulevard. (presales at
unscrewedtheatre.org), $5 kids, $8, live or remote; Fri., Aug. 5, 7:30 p.m., From the Top musical improv; Saturday, Aug. 6, 7:30 p.m., Not Burnt Out Just Unscrewed.