LAKEVIEW — Twelve years after its inception, one of the nation's biggest sketch comedy festivals is returning to its roots.
The Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival spent many years evolving into huge, two-week event, and artistic director Brian Posen eventually started adding events beyond sketch comedy performances, like writing workshops from established writers or panels with celebrities.
But this year's festival, starting January 3 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., will be all about the artists—just like when it started in 2001. No more workshops; no more panels, Posen said.
"[Celebrity] is not what the festival's about," Posen said. "It's about grassroots, cutting edge. It's the next groups that are going to pop."
And SketchFest performers do go on to pop. Danny Pudi, now on NBC show Community, once performed at the festival with Stir Friday Night! and Siblings of Doctors. Tim Robinson and Cecily Strong, both new cast members on Saturday Night Live, have performed for SketchFest, too.
The festival, which features 145 sketch groups, wants artists to express themselves with no rules or constraints, Posen said. Comedic groups from Chicago and across the country must write new material each year to perform.
"Sketch comedy, unlike the majority of art forms, you the artist get to express your point of view and your own voice," he said.
A return to concentrating on performances means a greater focus on those voices, Posen said. For performers, who don't get paid and must cover travel costs if coming from afar, it's an opportunity to showcase to fellow comedians.
The result: a "sketch buffet" where a variety of writers show off their best material from the year, said Barry Hite, a Second City touring company member and regular at iO improv theatre who will perform "Barry Hite: Charisma Machine" on Saturday, Jan. 12 at 7 p.m. during the festival.
"You get to sample all these styles and forms [of comedy]," Hite said. "It's totally your own voice. There's no one telling you you can't do something."
The Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival starts Jan. 3 and ends Jan. 13. You can see a full lineup and buy tickets at chicagosketchfest.com. More seasoned groups perform on Fridays and Saturdays. Only Chicago groups perform on Thursday, and newer groups perform on Sundays.