Harvard Sailing Team
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Harvard Sailing Team

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The best kept secret in music


"Plotting to Make Their Audience Laugh"

In a recent sketch by Harvard Sailing Team, a family stages a teary intervention to inform its patriarch that he has a problem — with his sense of humor.

Performed at the PIT in Manhattan, it’s a solid one-joke skit until the cheerfully awful joke teller (Billy Scafuri) makes a sincere and surprisingly persuasive case for his puns. This detour from mocking to justifying dad humor is short, but filling in this caricature with a sympathetic motivation introduces an unusual twist in sketch comedy: heart.

Harvard Sailing Team is the Al Hirschfeld of sketch comedy: a few fluid strokes from this veteran troupe, which has performed that sketch since 2008, convey a surprising amount of emotion. Its work can be broad and silly as well as low-key and sentimental, but what’s constant is a restless energy fighting against the limitations of the form.

As its name suggests, sketch comedy is usually quick and sloppy, generally starting with a conceit like a trash-talking obstetrician or a marriage proposal at Auschwitz, pushing the idea through a few similar jokes, than adding a surprise. This must happen fast, because sketch, like musical theater, is an art of concision.

Though New York’s comedy scene gives pride of place to performer-driven improv, sketch, where writers are equal partners, is a diverse and growing live field with a huge presence on the Web. The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Chelsea recently added a regular sketch show on the weekend, a more prestigious time slot than weekdays, which signals the growing importance of the form. Certainly the most famous examples are from television, and on Tuesday Comedy Central joins the fray with a promising new series, “Key & Peele.” (One of its first sketches, released early online, has already had more than two million views).

Upright Citizens Brigade’s eight sketch teams (called Maude teams, the counterparts to its long-form improv teams, called Harold) have performed on Monday nights for years and produce energetic, freewheeling scripted comedy. While the Maude teams aren’t as talent-rich or slick as “Saturday Night Live” or Funny or Die, they benefit from fewer celebrity impressions and a wider range of comic styles. It’s hard to imagine “SNL” doing a politically pointed Occupy Wall Street skit.

Some of the Upright Citizen Brigade’s Maude teams, like one named Neighbor Boy, organize sketches around a theme. Others adopt a pronounced absurdist streak, like the delightfully loony Fambly. But the most consistently skilled team is Stone Cold Fox, which the brigade tapped to play Friday nights in the new show “Crisistown,” a high-concept piece billed as a “choose your own adventure comedy.” In sharp contrast to the polished, long-gestating skits of Harvard Sailing Team, this production brims with spontaneity and a hint of chaos.

It begins at a community meeting where a small-town mayor (Brandon Scott Jones, a nimble performer with silky charisma) leads a discussion about how best to use municipal funds: clean polluted water, fight killer bees or erect a Kevin Costner Welcome Center? Democracy in action proves reliably idiotic.

Citizen: Let’s ban bees.

Mayor: We can’t ban bees.

Citizen: Can’t or won’t?

Minutes later, the cast freezes, and a narrator puts the decision to a vote by audience applause. (The crowd went with the Costner center two weeks in a row, which visibly disappointed a few slumping actors the second time.)

“Crisistown,” however, remained less funny than a Stone Cold Fox show in December that wasn’t shackled to this concept. Of course audience participation is standard in improv, but in sketch, where you don’t earn laughs for making things up on the spot, sacrificing curatorial control might be a risk not worth taking.

“Key & Peele,” by contrast, employs a savvy concept proved to work. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, biracial comics who both starred on “MADtv,” introduce skits with casual stand-up, as in “Chappelle’s Show.” Episode 1 offered sweetly self-deprecating takes on manliness and black identity. The sketches were amusing if not inspired, but a recurring gag about Lil Wayne in prison (the driest send-up of hip-hop bravado since Black Sheep’s hilarious, satirical song “U Mean I’m Not”) shows enough promise to suggest they might get there.

Similarly geeky, Harvard Sailing Team, a New York-based group that had a weekly show at the PIT for six years and is playing Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles on Friday, features clean-cut performers in preppy clothes, none of whom went to Harvard or sail. A sketch in which passengers on a raft love the “Guys and Dolls” song “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” so much that they can’t stop dancing, even if it means they will capsize, captures their gee-whiz spirit. And a pitch-perfect satire of the “West Side Story” fight scene (replace Jets and Sharks with Spiders and Comfy Hammocks) exposes them as theater nerds.

Maintaining a precise tone is paramoun - New York Times


Still working on that hot first release.



Harvard Sailing Team is the NYC-based sketch comedy group that has been featured on CBS, VH1's Best Week Ever, Comedy Central.com, College Humor, New York Magazine's Vulture blog, Funny or Die, Andrew Sullivan's blog, The Comic's Comic, Sesame Street, Cosmo Magazine, Jezebel, Gawker and TimeOut NY.

They have appeared live at Montreal Just For Laughs Festival, the Kennedy Center, Caroline's on Broadway, National College Comedy Festival, Charleston's Piccolo Spoletto Festival, Chicago SketchFest, Toronto SketchFest, New York Comedy Festival's Best of Sketch Show, SketchFest NYC and at the UCB NY and UCB LA.

Winners of the Friar's Club Film Festival competition and the 2007 ECNY award for Best Sketch Comedy Group, they perform their hit live show every Friday night at The Peoples Improv Theater in New York City.

Harvard Sailing Team* is Jen Curran, Clayton Early, Faryn Einhorn, Katie Larsen, Adam Lustick, Billy Scafuri, Chris Smith, Rebecca Delgado Smith and Sara Taylor.

(*Harvard Sailing Team is a sketch comedy group. We are not affiliated in any way with Harvard University or its sailing program.)