Are Kasper Hauser's members the funniest people in San Francisco? Just try not busting a gut over the sketch troupe's new SkyMaul: Happy Crap You Can Buy from a Plane, a takeoff on the SkyMall catalogs you find on airplanes. An uncanny takeoff. It's stuffed with lovingly photographed faux products (including Our Safest Electric Jungle Gym, a steal at $599.99) and excessively cheerful copy (for the Racial Globe Toaster: "Press any country, and your toast will toast to the shade of its inhabitants' skin!").
If you've seen Kasper Hauser live, you've witnessed their ability to write sketches that mash up the familiar and the absurd. And then there's Kasper Hauser's Web site, www.kasperhauser.com , which further showcases their talent for injecting surreal elements into a variety of media: short videos ("A Solution for Male Camel Toe") and the popular Kasper Hauser Comedy Podcast, plus a takeoff on Craigslist that's equal parts bizarre and hilarious. The busy comedians are also working on a pilot proposal for Current TV.
As the quartet prepared for SkyMaul-themed shows at both the Chicago and San Francisco Sketchfests (local performances are Jan. 17, 19, and 21), I visited KH HQ in the Mission, where Dan Klein, Rob Baedeker, James Reichmuth, and John Reichmuth former Stanford classmates who've been performing together since 2000 chatted about parody, creativity, and the importance of staying staunchly San Franciscan. (Cheryl Eddy)
SFBG Have you noticed that audiences have more awareness of sketch comedy, given the rise of festivals like SF Sketchfest? Or do people still want to yell things out like it's an improv show?
JOHN REICHMUTH I don't really like to use the word sketch very much because it usually gets a bad reaction. That is what we are, but people take that as sort of a euphemism for "quick and undeveloped" and "over the top." "Zany." We hate the word zany random, zany, silly. Those are just words that mean that the person did not watch you. [Other members laugh.] I think that each city that has a sketch fest has seen [awareness of the form] grow. Clearly, it's happened in San Francisco; what you have is an audience with much more clearly defined expectations.
SFBG What can audiences expect from this year's show?
ROB BAEDEKER With SkyMaul, we adapted material from the book and then used some old characters and sketches and sort of cobbled together a show that's new in most ways.
JOHN REICHMUTH It's a narrative about the company, the imaginary [SkyMaul] company, but it's surreal like we are. It just sort of transcends time and space and physical laws.
SFBG How did you come up with the premise for the book? Obviously, everyone who's been on a plane has seen a SkyMall catalog.
DAN KLEIN We'd fly to festivals, basically, and we'd grab the SkyMall....
JAMES REICHMUTH We would write captions above [the photos] and try to crack each other up.
KLEIN We have a great book agent, Danielle Svetkov, who actually came to us and said, "You guys gotta have a book in you somewhere." When we gave her the proposal, we had two offers in two days.
JOHN REICHMUTH We also started the proposal with the words "fuck you." [Everyone laughs.] It said "Fuck you. No, I'm serious. Fuck you that is such a great idea."
BAEDEKER That was all in quotes, and then it said, "That's what people say when they hear that we're working on this book."
JOHN REICHMUTH That is actually how we pitched it. The first words of our pitch were "fuck you." But one of the things that we deal with now is wanting to make sure people read the book we don't want people to think that it's just funny photos but to find the little gems in the writing.
SFBG Anything that didn't make it into the book?
JAMES REICHMUTH Our publishers suggested very few changes contentwise. There were two products that they said no to: al-Qaeda action figures, which I'm sure someone has done, and the "One True Cock Ring." But that was more of a Lord of the Rings copyright thing.
SFBG You've obviously found ways to channel your creativity into a variety of avenues, not just live performance. How has living in San Francisco influenced you?
JAMES REICHMUTH As a comedian, staying in San Francisco is to really choose to have a different kind of career. The biggest choice you make as a comedian is to not move to LA or New York.
JOHN REICHMUTH It takes you off this track where you're waiting for someone else to validate you or make you into a star or something. You just make your own business. You create something different.
SFBG You've performed in SF Sketchfest every year since its inception. What's your take on the festival?
JAMES REICHMUTH If you look at the lineup now, it's one of the best comedy festivals in America, without question. Their ambition every single year is astounding, and it's all Dave Owen, Janet Varney, and Cole Stratton who just make this happen. The thing that's so great about it is that it's not just sketch comedy it's basically everything but straight stand-up. And straight stand-up is the one kind of comedy that everybody in America has seen way too much of. So anything they see at the festival is bound to be surprising to them as well as being at least as funny as anything they've seen before.
SFBG When you're writing, do you have a pretty good sense of what's going to be funny to an audience?
KLEIN There have been a couple of things that have made all four of us laugh over and over and just if the audience doesn't laugh at some point, you just gotta give up and move on.
JAMES REICHMUTH It's pointless to say something like "Well, that audience didn't get it." It's either a success or a failure. Finding your audience is one thing, but it's, like, they laughed or they didn't. We try to avoid being hack or cheap
JOHN REICHMUTH Or topical.
JAMES REICHMUTH In the end, it's just all about laughs.
KLEIN If you can get the whole audience, then you get them crying and laughing so hard they're spitting on the people in front of them.
JOHN REICHMUTH As a comedian, I think getting people to spit stuff out is number one. *