From The San Francisco Chronicle
January 3, 2002
By James Sullivan
If comedy is not pretty, it’s even less easy on the eyes before lunchtime. But here they are on a drizzly Saturday morning, two dozen bleary-eyed performers from the San Francisco Sketch Comedy Festival, milling around the cozy Shelton Theater near Union Square, waiting to have their pictures taken.
Four colleagues in the corner are slipping into tattered clown suits. One guy wanders by in thick glasses and a mashed-up fedora; another fellow slouching in the second row seems to have forgotten he is wearing a Tommy Chong special: a long, greasy black wig with a built-in bandanna.
Sketchfest, which opens tonight and runs through Jan. 27 at the 75-seat Shelton, was designed as a romper-room round robin for some of San Francisco’s finest comic misfits. They may not be pretty, but they know how to put on a brave face.
While stand-up comedy is a grueling business, sketch comedy might be an even harder sell. Boozing, chattering crowds weaned on one-liners and sex and toilet jokes often don’t have the patience to follow a creative premise through to its conclusion.
“We can keep their attention a lot better in a theater,” says Cole Stratton, whose four-person group, Totally False People, is organizing the event. Creating a sketch comedy showcase benefits all the groups, which often have a tough time landing gigs at conventional comedy clubs.
“A lot of people don’t even know what sketch comedy is,” says Stratton, like the other three members of his group a recent graduate of San Francisco State University. “For us, it’s elementary. We grew up with ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘Monty Python.’ “
San Francisco has always been a fertile breeding ground for comedy, as Sketchfest makes clear. Al Madrigal, the guy in the Tommy Chong toupee, says he was inspired to try comedy because his Sunset District neighborhood was full of professional jokers.
Mike, Howard and Christopher Meehan, collectively known as the Meehan Brothers, grew up nearby. Around the corner was former San Francisco Comedy Competition winner Mike Pritchard; Margaret Cho lived a few blocks away.
“Comedians would come over to write on the Meehans’ front step,” Madrigal says. When he and his friends went out riding bikes, they would marvel at the cool living the neighbors were making.
Madrigal, 30, is now a member of the hilarious Fresh Robots sketch group. On Saturday, he and his partner, former Mock Cafe coordinator Mike Spiegelman, were talking about their third member, Colin Mahan, who recently moved to Los Angeles to tend to his budding TV career. Mahan has an “SNL” audition coming up, but he’ll be in San Francisco for Sketchfest.
The festival features a rotating schedule of two groups daily. There are six in all: Besides Totally False People, the Fresh Robots and the Meehan Brothers, the lineup includes the clown-suited absurdists Kasper Hauser, the social satirists White Noise Radio Theatre and the simply outrageous Please Leave the Bronx. All six acts will share the stage during the final “cabaret” week, with each presenting a condensed set daily.
Each group brings something unique to the festival, says David Owen of Totally False People. “I like to call the Meehans the Irish Marx Brothers on acid. Please Leave the Bronx are the Sex Pistols of sketch comedy, and Kasper Hauser is from another planet.”
As soon as the festival came together, groups from up and down the West Coast began asking how to get involved. Seattle and Los Angeles have been developing healthy sketch-comedy scenes to rival Chicago’s long-running Second City, but the fledgling Sketchfest seems as if it has the potential to become a real focal point.
The Shelton, in San Francisco’s theater district, is a strange place for most of the performers. They’re used to the low-maintenance settings of the Marsh’s Mock Cafe or, more recently, the Spanganga, a no-frills performance space in the Mission just opened by Please Leave the Bronx’s Sean Kelly.
For Sketchfest, they’re going uptown. ” ‘Stomp’ is a block up, and the ACT is just around the corner,” Stratton notes. “That’s just weird.”
All of the performers are eager to help the Sketchfest succeed. Almost all of them are on hand for the photo shoot. “This is the first time we’ve had this many of us in a room,” says Owen.
“It’s like Woodstock!” someone cracks.