The Sydney Goldstein Theater’s “masks only” policy not only determined my 2023 SF Sketchfest attendance, it made perfect sense for two recent shows. Both were for tributes to comedy legends—all of whom were over 60 —and we’d love for these irreplaceable talents to stick around a while longer.
The first guest of honor admitted to having already caught COVID twice. Incidentally, the sold-out audience for this show included someone wearing a Flo Mask, making it the first time I’ve seen one worn in public. Over the course of the two-hour, intermission-free show, my Aranet’s CO² readings would top at 1355ppm before finishing around 1101ppm.
This was for The Roast of Bruce Campbell: cult film icon, pal of Sam Raimi, and author of the book If Chins could Kill. The beloved industry journeyman was there to be lambasted by a handful of friends and admirers: roastmaster Dana Gould; comedians Kevin Pollack and David Allen Grier (who joked “I took off my mask for this?” and put on a surgical after his speech); actor Dana DeLorenzo (Ash vs. Evil Dead); Nick Sahoyah as Ted Raimi (out with a foot injury); Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson; and SF’s very own Peaches Christ. All of them came together to lambaste some guy from Michigan who wore an ascot.
In a way, Campbell’s silk neckerchief was the perfect metaphor for the event itself: the roast comes from a bygone era of comedy when its tongue-in-cheek cruelty was meant to circumvent the real cruelty of the era; and yet, the roast evolved, revealing itself as a genuine (if acid-tongued) act of affection by those who know the guest of honor. After all, if you can’t laugh at yourself first, you have no business in comedy.
And oh, how our group did burn Campbell! It says a lot when the (for lack of a better term) “weakest” speech came from DeLorenzo—not because she was bad, but because she wasn’t a seasoned comedian. Yet, she got mileage out of being the only one on the dais who didn’t remember the Carter administration. Roastmaster Gould kept the show well-oiled, from honing in on the Jewish Pollack as “the reason Kanye didn’t show up” (Pollack himself had fun with the theatre’s name) to claiming all of his jabs Campbell were written about Bruce Villanch, “but they still work!”
Peterson’s mere presence got the loudest ovation, and Peaches Christ, who fulfilled this same duty for Broke Ass Stuart not too long ago, was the very sarcastic bitch we all know and love, noting that ordained minister Campbell has “married more freaks than Liza Minnelli.”
But the night was won by the roast subject himself, who got as good as he gave and basked in the fact that his name appears in a handful of blockbusters (like the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man series) and a metric ton of straight-to-video shit (the Maniac Cop series). The show ends with Campbell turning his back and inviting the audience members to shout the titles of the worst flicks they’ve seen in him in before he turns around.
“You want your money back?”, he asks. “Suck it, bitch!” The applause was deafening.
The Goldstein could have used more than elderly volunteers for the 50th Anniversary Tribute to Cheech and Chong. That was the night two drunken anti-maskers made their way into the theatre, removing their face coverings and going on slurred anti-mask rants before the show, and being belligerent assholes during it. The 90-minute show would top my Aranet at 1063ppm, and I have no doubt it all came from these middle-aged cry-babies.
Thankfully, the event itself was well worth the headache. Rolling Stone founder Ben Fong-Torres served as Skipper Dan on this river cruise down the career of the comedy duo. Cheech showed up casual-formal (sport coat over comfy clothes), Chong wore sweats, jeans, and sneakers of mix-matched colors, one of which was Niners red and gold.
It starts with them wanting to be a musical act (Chong having worked for Motown and Cheech having grown up amongst musicians) to starting a strip-club based Cityworks Theatre in Vancouver, creating burlesque acts without them even knowing it. After sneaking back into the US, they made their way to LA where they frequented Black clubs and eventually began opening concerts for The Isley Brothers and Marvin Gaye. It was then that they began improvising the stoner schtick that would become their trademark.
The rest, as they say, is history. Well, history mixed with lawsuits, divorces, films, albums, arrests, international success, and, now, the legal cannabis biz.
Like the best improv, it’s tough to say where the scripts started and the ad-libs began with the two. Chong mentions having learned improv in SF as a fan of The Committee, the same group who frequently turned down collab offers because they felt the duo were copycats. We learn each of their philosophies of comedy, as explained in their respective books and repeated by Fong-Torres: Chong’s is that “Comedy is like mountain-climbing—one wrong step’ll kill ya”; Cheech’s is that comedy is akin to music, with one note leading directly into the other.
It’s when they discuss their mid-‘80s break-up (due to wanting to take the act in different directions) that two affectionately bicker in such a way that audience members began equating them to an old married couple. And why not? We’ve moved past the idea of the picture-perfect couple who never argue, so why not the same with professional couples? They had to hit a rough patch and separate before reuniting for the long haul. By definition, 50 years of history will have a row or two, which is what make the resultant laughs all the more valuable. Ben Fong-Torres gave a rough outline of the duo’s career, but the two themselves added shade and color over 90 hilarious minutes.
One can only hope that Cheech, Chong, Bruce Campbell, and everyone at Sketchfest is healthy enough to put appearances next year.