Since its 1997 inception, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival is notable for discovering new and unique talent each and every year. While there is no exception to that rule this year, the festival also makes it a point to welcome back previous performers, particularly those whose continued success was a direct result of that very first year that the Fringe Festival gave them a green light to take the stage.
One such performance is “The Flat Earth,” which marks its fifth straight year as a Philly Fringe Festival staple. Composed of local area sketch comedians Matthew Schmid, Jacquie Baker, and Rich Lee and directed by Paul Triggiani, “The Flat Earth” was formed in 2012 as the first in-house sketch comedy team for the renowned Philly Improv Theater (PHIT) in Rittenhouse Square. In spite of its infancy, that year’s Philly Fringe Festival accepted their audition.
“To start the group from scratch knowing we had to put up an hour long show to premiere at the Fringe Festival was pretty daunting,” co-founder Schmid admits. “Since making the choice [to have actors double as writers, and vice-versa], we’ve really locked in on our group’s voice.”
That voice is responsible for material that is admittedly absurd and silly, but at the same time also personal and even a little dark. “We tend to not write sketches with a lot of jokes, but to craft absurd situations and commit to performing them as straight as possible,” Schmid explains.
One of his favorite sketches to perform—and a Fringe Festival favorite, no doubt—is dubbed “Class Reunion” and is told entirely with props. “Without spoiling anything, the sketch has no actors, and zero dialogue, and is really just a single joke told through props left out on stage,” Schmid says. “Once the lights come up the audience always has to take a moment to figure out what is going on and you can actually hear the ripple effect of the audience realizing the joke one at a time. It’s such a rewarding sketch to do because the joke is told 100% visually.”
Sketch comedy is a blend of comedy and theater, two elements which couldn’t be further apart. Schmid admits that the very nature of the festival was uniquely instrumental at attracting people to “The Flat Earth.”
“The festival really gets a lot of folks to come see performances they might not otherwise check out or even be aware of,” Schmid says. “More often than not, our normal audiences tend to skew toward comedy crowds, so Fringe Festival is a great way to get theater people into seats.”
“The Flat Earth” has certainly come a long way since its humble beginnings at the 2012 Philly Fringe Festival. The troupe has performed in cities and at festivals throughout North America, even winning “Best New Act” at the 2016 Montreal Sketch Fest. Additionally, “Burr,” a video sketch that replaced Scarlett Johansson’s voice in the recent movie “Her” with clips of comedian Bill Burr, went viral in 2014, being picked up by the Nerdist and the Huffington Post.
In spite of their international and virtual successes, “The Flat Earth” is still proud to call Philadelphia home and has been instrumental at strengthening and expanding the local comedy and improv scenes.
“The comedy scene as a whole feels like it's really growing in a great direction,” Schmid notes, pointing out examples like the expansion of PHIT, the 2016 opening of Good Good Comedy Theater and the annual Philly Sketchfest festival.
If you go:
The Flat Earth at Philadelphia Fringe Festival
Sept. 20 through Sept. 24; $12
The Adrienne Theater Mainstage
2030 Sansom St.