SF Sketchfest Review: The Jill and Julia Show at Yoshi’s San Francisco, 1/27/10

by Jason LeRoy on January 28, 2010

Julia Sweeney and Jill Sobule

According to the song that opened their winning 90-minute set, comedian Julia Sweeney (best known for her 1990-1994 run on Saturday Night Live) and musician Jill Sobule (best known for singing “I Kissed A Girl” first and so much better) met randomly at the Monterey Bay Aquarium one lucky day not long ago. Sobule cautiously approached Sweeney to express her admiration, but then Sweeney spotted Sobule and pounced her. Their mutual admiration society has led to an ongoing story-song collaboration called “The Jill and Julia Show,” which made its first Bay Area stop last night as part of the 2010 SF Sketchfest.

The setup is simple: Sobule sings, Sweeney tells stories. Sometimes Sweeney sings too, but does not “sing out” as much as Sobule would prefer, which led to much playful reprimanding by the end of the night. Occasionally the songs and stories are combined, and other times they are separate. But always, they are connected. Similarly to how Paul Thomas Anderson crafted Magnolia around the songs of Aimee Mann, Sweeney has gone through her life and found stories that resonate with Sobule’s music. Some were vintage Sobule tracks that Sweeney listened to at the time, while many are from Sobule’s outstanding 2009 album, California Years.

It was a wonderfully refreshing, heartening, and (needless to say) hilarious evening that paid homage to LA’s alternative comedy scene of the early ’90s, from which such talents as Sweeney, Janeane Garofalo, Kathy Griffin, and Margaret Cho emerged. It was exhilarating to see two such accomplished and creative women join their forces and see what happens, especially at this point in their careers – and lives.

They told a story about being invited to a pitch meeting with Fox based on a performance they’d done at Largo in LA. “For some reason I decided to say, ‘I think it’s incredible that you’re thinking about putting two women who are well into their forties on TV,’” Sweeney recalled. “The producer paused and said, ‘Well, why not? Look at The Golden Girls!”

“It was my first pitch meeting,” Sobule added sadly.

Sweeney and Sobule are a natural match. Each has the ability to juxtapose heavy subject matter – Sweeney has famously done several one-woman shows about her battle with cancer and her journey to atheism; Sobule routinely tackles politics, queer sexuality, and religious oppression – with a playful levity and disarming sincerity.

Sweeney told each of her stories – such as a long-term relationship that was destroyed by her obsession with knitting a massive sweater, and a schoolroom-related conversation with her adopted daughter about frog reproduction that spiraled into a Pandora’s Box of animal sex videos on YouTube and the discovery of anal sex – as if she was telling them for the first time, fully reliving the embarrassment and hilarity as though it had just happened.

As for Sobule, she more than held her own. In addition to such effervescently crowd-pleasing selections as “Nothing to Prove,” “Where is Bobbie Gentry?”, “Wendell Lee,” and “Mexican Wrestler,” Sobule was sure to perform her San Francisco-specific material: the oddly poignant massage parlor number, “San Francisco,” and most importantly, the raucous soon-to-be released “Bear Song.” Sobule got the idea while sitting at the 18th and Castro Starbucks, wondering why all the guys were so big and hairy, and eventually learned about it being “Bearbucks,” thus inspiring the song (“If I were a guy…I’d wanna be a bear!”). Just wait till you hear it.

Next time you have the opportunity to watch these two in action, do yourself a favor and check it out. It’s some kind of miracle.

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