Flashes in the Pan: The Keenan Revue
Mike Donovan | Thursday, February 6, 2020
Editor’s Note: This is the fifth part in a series featuring local artists from the tri-campus community.
“Music and comedy … and music … and comedy.” Also “musical comedy,” and maybe even “wizards.” All these and more are to be found at this year’s production of Notre Dame’s quintessential sketch comedy experience, The Keenan Revue, head writer Grayson Maker told me Tuesday afternoon.
Despite the Revue’s evident popularity (see: the ungodly line outside LaFun on ticket distribution day), few have seen the madness behind its two hours of music and comedy and music and comedy and musical comedy and wizards. Content on the Revue’s scale doesn’t just materialize on opening night (well, maybe the wizards do). It’s the culmination of several months’ sustained effort — writing, testing, sucking, scrapping, writing more, testing more, sucking more, scrapping again, writing again, testing again and, finally, laughing.
“Skit writing is open to the entire dorm,” Maker said. While most writers “do their own thing,” Maker and his colleagues offer “skit-writing workshops” starting in November. “We pretend like we know how to write them to teach other people,” he said.
“On the first Sunday back from [winter] break, we have a sign-up sheet. [Writers] come down — they can bring their friends” — to present skits to the Revue staff. “This year we did about 70 skits.”
“We rate them on funniness and appropriateness,” Maker explained, “and call back about half of them for skit tryouts two.” For the second round, the Revue staff brings in outside viewers — “student gov and stuff” — to “make sure [the sketches] are actually things we would want to put in front of people.”
During the tryout process, hilarity and vulgarity rarely overlap. “If the central joke of the skit is something that makes you feel deeply uncomfortable, no one’s going to laugh anyway,” Maker said before sharing his standard response sewer level skit humor: “Let’s try it again some other time. And by that I mean don’t ever bring it down again.”
Though after the second round of cuts the Revue technically has a finalized roster, accepted skits still face scrutiny.
“Individual jokes,” Maker admitted, “are tougher. We try to keep it in the clear, but it’s comedy and you do have to push the boundaries.
“Last night we were watching one [of the accepted skits] and there was a joke and we just went, ‘Oh no! That’s not what we meant there!’” Maker said. “I worked on the rewrite this morning. We’ll pretty much do that up until Thursday.
“By the time we get to Thursday, it is what it is. But I think we’re pretty good about it. We’ve only ever had, in my four years, one joke kicked back. Somebody stepped in and was like, ‘You shouldn’t say that.’”
Rejected skits don’t completely disappear.
“We’re planning rejected skit night,” Maker said, referencing an unofficial idea to showcase “mostly ones we thought were funny […] but didn’t get a hint of a laugh.”
Skits that seem funny on the page may flounder under the weight of poor performance. The Revue staff leaves it up to the writers to cast performers worthy of their writing.
“If you write a skit, and it gets in, you get to cast the skit,” Maker explained. “For the head writers, we choose a mix of people we had in mind” alongside talented underclassmen flagged during the tryout process. “For the nine-head writer skits, people will pitch them, get accepted and cast all their friends.”
In the latter case, there are circumstances in which “somebody from the friend group isn’t really into it and everyone else is,” souring a skit that could be “really funny.” But, according to Maker, when it comes to amateur comedy, these lapses in quality are unavoidable.
Sometimes a skit excels in tryouts but falls flat in front of the general audience. Maker recalled one such instance from his freshman year.
The skit, called Christmas Mass Networking, “came out of skit tryouts as the top-ranked skit,” Maker remembered. “We loved it.”
The concept focused on “a business freshman, who went home over break and used Christmas Mass to network as hard as he could.
“The problem was, as we found out later, everyone who rated the skit was a business major, and we thought it was hilarious. But when we brought it in front of other people, they did not get it.”
The skit bombed all three nights.
“I still love it though. I never want to forget it,” Maker assured me.
Most of the time, though, what works in tryouts works on stage.
Maker pointed to his personal favorite, “Administration” from the 2018 production, as an example of a thoroughly successful skit.
“I played Mike Seamon, who is the vice president of campus safety, and I basically was just as paranoid of a person as can be. … It was a compilation of all the emails I had ever gotten from Mike Seamon — probably my favorite character I’ve ever played,” he said.
Maker also dispelled rumors that Thursday night’s performance might, in some way, be edgier.
“[Censorship] used to be a thing because there used to not be any vetting, but that was years ago,” he clarified. “[The writers] used to go out and write two shows, one for Thursday and one for Friday and Saturday because they knew SAO would see all the skits and go ‘No no no no no no.”
Since then, “for at least eight years,” Maker continued, “we invited different student groups to flag stuff and keep it more appropriate. And it’s so much better to have the same show three nights in a row.
“What’s crazy to me,” he further mused, “is how much the Revue has changed. It wasn’t until 2010 that the Revue came to Notre Dame. It was at Saint Mary’s. We got kicked out. I’ve watched old Revues, and they are very cringe-worthy, which was a combination of changing times, and, well, I don’t think there was the same goal of quality that there is now. There’s been a string of … head writers who I think have done a great job in setting the bar a lot higher.”
See the high bar for yourself at 7 p.m. Thursday night, Friday and Saturday in the Stepan Center. Music and comedy and music and comedy and musical comedy guaranteed, wizards a definite maybe.