By Rebecca Torchia
For Unwind magazine
The scene is reminiscent of a high school lunch table, if high schools served McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A. At least three different conversations are interwoven over one another, all carrying on at once.
At any given time, roughly 10 Sketchup members sit around a table, cycling in and out of chairs as some leave and others arrive. They consume waffle fries and cheeseburgers and chicken. Converging from their various locations around the campus for lunch, this is a group of people who are more than just co-members of the same club.
“To me it feels sometimes like a bunch of people who like hanging out with each other so much that they use comedy as an excuse to get together every week,” said Nick Davis, a dimple appearing in his slightly flushed cheeks as he smiled.
As Sketchup celebrates its 20th anniversary, the group is closer with one another — and more serious in their work — than ever before.
We are Family
The University of Maryland’s sketch comedy group spends a minimum of 6.5 hours a week together, and that’s just for rehearsals. To say the members of Sketchup are close would be an understatement.
They’re a family, even though at times it seems as though they’re all vying for the role of the crazy uncle.
“[In a sketch] I was somebody’s uncle; I was Uncle Hank, the crazy uncle, and my niece was having a nightmare, and I busted in,” Javier Scott, a senior journalism major, recalled as he tried to pinpoint a favorite sketch.
The group’s companionship, however, extends beyond the current members. On a weekend trip to Philadelphia to perform at the Philly Improv Theater, they spent two nights at two different alumnis’ homes.
“It’s a very unique experience to have people I’ve never met house me for an entire weekend just because I’m in that same group they were,” said Davis, a junior computer science major.
The second night they stayed with Jill Resnick, but the first night, they all crowded into Kevin Ruth’s tiny apartment.
“We were just all laying on top of each other,” said Tori Tanner, a junior journalism major.
The apartment overflowed with overnight guests. Tanner shared a bed, but the rest of the group spread across nearly all of the floor space. Some members even found themselves sleeping in the kitchen. Yet, the sleeping arrangements didn’t faze them. In fact, their closeness is often physical.
“We’re a very touchy group,” Anna Dottle, a senior anthropology major, said — a fact that is corroborated by watching them spend anytime together.
At rehearsal, they sit next to each other, or on their laps, while watching their friends practice sketches. They play with each other’s hair. They kiss each other on the cheek. Hugs are shared in greeting and in celebration after a sketch is done. While waiting for her cue in one sketch, Dottle dances to the music playing, rubbing hips with another member and yelling, “Friction!”
Personal space is a foreign concept. Closeness may as well be criteria for becoming a member of Sketchup. Whether the closeness is physical or emotional, it reaches everyone currently in the group, and in Sketchup groups of the past.
“Whether you like it or not, you’re sucked into this environment where they will love you, and you will love them,” said Lauren Mazlin, a Sketchup alumna who graduated in 2014.
“Sketchup Eternal” contains every known — reachable — member of Sketchup since the group’s foundation. It’s also a secret. At least, it’s a secret Facebook page. Within this group, members of Sketchup new and old share personal accomplishments. They network. They learn what other members are doing, and they get to stay in touch.
Many alumni already stay in touch with those with whom they performed. Gabriella Yacyk, who graduated in 2012 after being a part of Sketchup for three years, lives in New York with a slightly younger member with whom she’d acted. However, the Internet group allows them to connect with sketch comedians they may never have met.
Since the creation of the Facebook group, there has been more outreach to Sketchup alumni. Social media also provides information about upcoming performances, allowing people to return and see shows. Typically, only local alumni make it out. For this landmark anniversary however, everyone expects a huge turnout, including having members fly in from California.
No matter from how far away they come, or how long ago they graduated, former Sketchup comedians won’t find any of their old material recycled into the big show. The end-of-the-semester shows feature all new comedy each fall and spring.
This material is put into the lineup through the process of a show vote. This process can take upward of 12 hours. More than 70 sketches are considered, fought for and voted on. The vote must be unanimous for the sketch to be put into the show. Only around 30 will get in, including stage and video works. The process is long and tedious, but working through it with close friends helps make it bearable.
Not only have alumni created bonds with one another through mutual Sketchup participation, but they also created traditions that give the group its staying power.
“There’s ceremony, there’s stories, there’s emotions, there’s traditions, and there’s a ton of fun,” said Adam Shapiro, a Sketchup alumnus. “There was always something that was like, ‘but this is the way it’s always done,’ whether it was rehearsing or performing or warming up for the performance.”
One sketch in the spring show mocks vocal cord warm-ups. Yet in rehearsal for warm-ups — among other games and voice routines — they use an activity called “Circle Jerk.” One person starts with a word. The next person must come up with a word that starts with the last letter of the previous word. Then the following person does the same with the new word. This goes around the circle until someone messes up. That person leaves, and the game begins again. The entire time the members are standing in a circle, bouncing on their toes and doing their best to throw the next person off.
Warm-ups can exercise creativity and vocal cords at the same time. Passed down from generation to generation in Sketchup, it’s the little bits and pieces where alumni often see the most consistency in the group, and while everything else on campus seems to be changing, Sketchup remains.
The togetherness of alumni and current members alike keeps Sketchup strong now and for the future. It’s almost impossible to feel alienated.
“They set up an environment where, I felt like, as somebody who’s afraid of his own shadow, [I] could take risks and do what I thought was funny,” Davis said.
Adam Shapiro joined Sketchup at the turn of the century. He refers to himself as a third-generation member, having graduated in 2002. The last founder graduated in Shapiro’s first year. Since then, Sketchup has undergone big changes to become closer-knit, more professional and where it is today.
Sketchup, still a young group at the time, performed in the atrium of Stamp Student Union while under the leadership of the founders. The atrium was small, however, and couldn’t accommodate their growing audience.
“I think our audience basically tripled around the time that I was there,” Shapiro said. “I think [they] really started to grow after we moved to a different location and started … a different way of advertising and collaborating.”
They move their performances to a lecture hall in Tydings Hall, with plenty of seating for their fans, who include members of Shapiro’s fraternity and other campus groups. The fraternity brothers alone fill nearly 80 seats. Students occupy every space in the lecture hall, including the aisles. Not only that, they line the lawn outside the windows, which are left open during the show to allow those outside to enjoy it as well.
Sometime between those early — third generation — years, and the 10th anniversary show, the group moved their performances to Hoff Theater in Stamp.
Shapiro’s time in Sketchup inspired another big change that has since stuck with the group as well. He chose to make video sketches, in addition to their live performances. Inspired by a show on MTV, the other members almost didn’t let him move forward with this project. He promised to get the cameras and do the editing himself. Video sketches are now an integral part of shows, with at least nine videos in this year’s spring show.
Then around five years ago, check-ins became a part of Sketchup’s weekly meetings. These promoted seriousness about the group, and fostered the family dynamic.
“For some of the years that I was in the group, there was kind of more of a split hangout when rehearsal was over,” said Courtney Nelms, a former member who graduated in 2010.
Brendan Kennedy, who spent three years in Sketchup before graduating in 2012, described a similar experience with the group.
“There were really funny people, really nice people, but at times it did feel a bit cliquey,” he said. “Over time we actually sat down and addressed that like, ‘Hey how are we all feeling about each other?’”
Kennedy said the creative directors at the time thus initially began the check-ins. They sat everybody down, and made them all talk to each other. For a group focused on making people laugh, this wasn’t the easiest task. Students hesitated to talk about their feelings at first, whether because they were unwilling to bring everyone down or because they thought it was unnecessary, but eventually everyone either came around to the idea, or graduated.
Check-ins became a regular ordeal, and each Sunday group members sit down to talk about thoughts that may be weighing on their minds. They can talk about everything from relationship issues to weekly dramas, whether they’re feeling stressed or happy or sad.
“It created this culture of openness and that’s what really, I think, got the whole family vibe going,” Kennedy said.
Another change that brought the group closer occurred only a year or two after check-ins began. Sketchup members bought a house. A nice place in a residential neighborhood off of Metzerott Road, the comedians acquired a place to call their own.
The group previously had a house, but non-members lived in this old house with Sketchup members. The new house is exclusively for those in Sketchup, and has five single-person rooms. It’s perfect for writing, practicing and filming sketches, or hosting alumni and parties.
“I think that’s what a lot of people talk about when they talk about how the house changed Sketchup a lot,” Dottle said. “There’s definitely a big family, social vibe, that has probably been there since the beginning of the group, but also has gotten much more important as the group has gone on.”
It might seem like a juxtaposition, to be serious about comedy. However all talents take hard work and time to improve. Sketchup has begun working harder, and as a result they plan to put on one of their best shows in the group’s history this May.
Davis has only been with the group for a year, but even he can see the improvements. As for their cause, he’s heard enough stories to understand some of Sketchup’s background.
“There was a period in the past … where people would get drunk for rehearsal all the time and not really be able to function,” Davis said, noting a time years ago, before members started to really take their comedy seriously.
“Even before I was in it, around 2004 and 2005, I think it was a lot about camaraderie and just ridiculousness,” Nelms said.
Sketchup has come a long way since its foundation, growing in popularity and professionalism. While the professional atmosphere has grown, past members wouldn’t consider the group they knew during their time in College Park unprofessional. In fact, looking back, many are surprised with how well they did as college students with little to no training in the matter.
“All we know about sketch comedy and writing is what we’ve taught ourselves,” Yacyk said. “It was really really cool to learn from each other in this group and figure it out as we went, but ending up with really solid products.”
Seriousness and professionalism don’t generate hierarchy in Sketchup though. If anything, authority has disappeared with the growth of the family dynamic. The members of the group treat one another as equals, even while Scott and Dottle bear the title of creative directors, and Tanner is stage manager and business director. Additionally, the role of stage manager has grown within Sketchup beyond its technical duties to include taking part in sketch writing and keeping members in check.
“A lot of their duties occur behind the scenes but also as we get closer to the show, and especially during the show, they are very much so a lifeline for us,” Scott said.
Working harder doesn’t mean all the fun is lost, of course. These students are part of the group to perform comedy sketches. Last semester, they performed a sketch with a live pet cat just to keep everyone on their toes — and because it was funny.
The sketch focused on an affluent family who thought their daughter was a pet. Throughout the scene they repeatedly referred to another child who was off at tennis lessons, and the punch line revealed the “child” to in fact be a cat.
“Liz … another member, just happened to have- I guess her sister had a cat? And she volunteered to keep it,” Davis remembered. “It wasn’t backstage; I don’t know where we kept it the entire show. In the [sound] booth, maybe.”
The group enjoys spending time together, even if that time is spent going over lines for the first — or hundredth — time.
“The last week is like, a lot of people’s least favorite time because we’ve done the same sketches dozens of times, and they’re not funny anymore, to us,” Davis said.
The night of the show brings back that excitement. The air is filled with as much nervous energy as the performers, and they’re reminded in the first sketch why they spent so much time reading and rereading their parts. Afraid of forgetting their lines, fudging a costume change or nearly forgetting to do the end of a sketch entirely — all things which have happened — the performers step out to face the crowd. They deliver the first punch line and listen for a response.
“It mainly falls on the first sketch,” Davis said. “Once you hear the sound of laughter you’re like, ‘Okay, we’ve got this. Maybe these are funny after all.’”
It’s been 20 years of sketch comedy, and Sketchup does indeed still got it.