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Will your Sketchfest be great? Place your bets

Sitting through 10 hours of live sketch comedy, as I did last weekend, you learn a few things.

That it requires fortitude and patience by the truckload. You learn that like in improv, the majority of performers — bless their enthusiasm — reside in that middling death zone of meh. You learn that it's worth wading through the chaff to stumble upon a promising team.

Within sketch comedy, there are two types of fans: Those who breathe it in (i.e. they can quote Terry Twillstein lines from Mr. Show). These people equate the 188 shows at the 13th Annual Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, at Lakeview's Stage 773, to Valhalla. Then there are the fair-weather fans (i.e. their favorite Saturday Night Live skit is "More cowbells!") — and for those, the sketch festival is something of a crapshoot.

With 159 groups (including teams from Italy and England), the festival format presents an embarrassment of riches. Four shows are put on simultaneously every hour; most groups perform once, while higher-profile troupes play both Friday and Saturday night slots. The most frequent question asked by attendees is: Which shows to see?

You can go by the recommendation of the festival staff, who will help select a show based on your style of humor. Or, if you're most people, you read through the program and pick a sketch group on the strength of their self-written bios.

Trouble is, this is a terrible way to gauge the quality of a sketch group. Here's one team's biography: "We are a band. We do songs. They are funny." Another: "These two are dummies! The good kind of dummies! The kind of dummies you want to be dummies with too!" So on and so forth, 157 more jokey pitches to buy a $15 ticket.

It's like picking a curtain on "Let's Make a Deal" and not knowing if it's a Tahitian cruise or a zonk. For one show on Friday night, I sat next to the father of a friend. He likely walked into the performance of Brooklyn trio Boat with PG expectations. When I saw them last year, Boat successfully skirted the line between crass and clever. This year, the humor felt more tasteless and obvious (nonstop sex jokes), plus they were beset by technical problems. Even with the theater packed, the applause was more scant than usual, and the room felt uncomfortable. By the end of the show, I looked over to my friend's father and broke the silence. "Well, not what you expected, eh?" He replied with an indignant: "No."

After seven years of attendance, I've learned there is no authoritative way to cover the festival. It's impossible to compare its critical success from year to year. It comes down to which theater you decide to peek your head inside, plus luck. And the odds of stumbling into a great show is about the same as rolling lucky sevens: 1-6.

One of those was a promising New York City group called Pop Roulette. The members are 10 fresh-faced millennials who sing and dance R-rated choreographed numbers with the earnestness of an ABC after-school special. It's a premise so good, it's a shame they don't build upon their opener more: A "High School Musical"-esque showstopper about how they're young and beautiful and never going to die. Their songs have a low-fi, composed-in-GarageBand charm, the scenes rooted in their orbit of pop culture — crazy girls on Facebook, vodka soda and "gay scarves." If Pop Roulette could circle back to that "oblivious 20-somethings" motif more, this would be a strong enough group to become a festival mainstay.

That's what seems to be missing from most teams: a singular point of view that carries through the show. Many are content with presenting a dozen scenes in 50 minutes, jumping from premise to premise, hoping the humor and absurdity were enough to piece together a whole show. That's not enough to stand out in a crowded field.

The Late Live Show, formerly of Chicago but now based in Los Angeles, was one team with a strong thread. They put on a talk show (Friday's guest was "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" host Peter Sagal) with a surrounding cast not unlike the Mighty Carson Art Players. One monologue Saturday night of an Andy Rooney in hell was particularly sharp.

Other observations from a 10-hour comedy binge: "Listen, Kid!" is a New York team that was silly and smart, breaking free from the template taught in sketch comedy writing 101. (Phil Collins sits in on Jimmy Fallon's house band and only plays his "In the Air Tonight" drum fill.) Chicago's Kerpatty, two lovable lugs, is a reliable duo in the many years they've performed at Sketchfest; their show Friday devolved into an audience dance party. New York's Murderfist was equal parts surrealism and shock comedy, oblique at times but digs deeper than surface-level laughs. Then there's the lush harmonies of The Cupid Players, who have an open run at Stage 773 and played on home turf Saturday. The veteran Chicago group (directed by Sketch Festival director Brian Posen) puts the "professional" in professional comedy show, honing their love-and-relationship musical to a lean and tack-sharp act.

When: Through Sunday

Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.

Tickets: $14-15 at 773-327-5252 or

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