Interview: Janet Varney, SF Sketchfest

From Dead Frog: A Comedy Blog

January 23, 2006
By Todd Jackson

In Since 2002, Janet Varney has been one of the co-organizers of San Francisco Sketchfest. For over two weeks, San Francisco’s funny per capita takes a huge spike from the large descent of talent on the bay area, this year including Mr. Show, Fred Armisen, UCB, Michael Showalter & David Wain. The festival is in its last week now, with many great shows to come. I talked with Janet about San Francisco’s and sketch comedy’s place in the industry right now.

When I Think Of Some Of The Most Beloved Comedy From The Past 20 Years, Sketch Comedy Takes Up A Large Amount Of It. But Most Comedy Festivals Center Firmly On Stand-Up. Why Do You Think That Is?

For one thing, it’s much more expensive to put up and pay a group of people at a festival, opposed to flying out and compensating just one person. Then there’s also the matter of the “Industry” wanting to make development deals with solo stand-up comedians rather than with conceptual sketch groups. But the festival situation is also a reflection of the day-to-day problem sketch groups can face, which is that there are generally far fewer sketch comedy venues than traditional stand-up clubs. James Reichmuth of Kasper Hauser made a great point when we did “Fresh Air” on KQED this morning (along with Rob Baedeker and Cole Stratton): if you’re a developing stand-up comedian, there are a series of steps you can take to get seen, work on your material, and potentially make money playing gigs. It doesn’t really work that way for sketch comedians. Sketch comedy doesn’t typically get booked at comedy clubs, and it can be very expensive for a group to rent a theatre (which is often a better environment for the way sketch works). That’s why places like the Mock Cafe, or the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in NY & LA, are so important. And finally, despite the large number of sketch shows and groups that can be cited as hugely influential in comedy, some people still don’t quite “get” the sketch thing. For example, somehow, year after year, we keep having to explain to people that sketch isn’t improv. Of course sketch can derive from improv, but… you get the idea.

Stand-Ups Can Be Classified To Some Degree (Observational, Political, Def-Jam, Prop ), Which Can Help Unify A Show To Attract An Audience. What Are The Challenges Of Grouping Sketch Comedy Groups Into Shows, Which Seem Not As Easily Classified?

Great question! That’s something we face every year. When going through the giant amount of submissions and making the always-difficult selections, we do try to be mindful of who we’re going to be putting on a bill together. What’s great is when we actually try putting two or three groups together with very different sensibilities and it works; it’s a cool way to expose audiences to different styles. But generally, we do try to create a night of comedy that will have a sort of flow to it. Wow. I just made that process seem so much more pretentious than it actually is.

Premise-Based Sketch Comedy Seems Almost Extinct On TV, But It Thrives As Live Entertainment. Why Do Ideas Dominate One Medium And Wacky Characters And Catch-Phrases Dominate The Other?

Mmmmm. I fear that the fact that we’re talking about television nearly answers that question in and of itself. I think for networks, wacky characters and catch-phrases feel safer. They’re instantly accessible and don’t require as much intellectual investment on the viewer’s part. That’s not to say that a great character, who just happens to have a funny catch-phrase, can’t have merit (pretty much any character that Fred Armisen does comes to mind, for example), but overall, it seems like television is interested in the quick sell. Live shows don’t have that same kind of behind-the-scenes pressure, and groups can really let their concepts breathe, particularly when they’re premise-based. And then once in a blue moon you get a show like “Mr. Show”, which did everything and more, amazingly.

San Francisco Has A Great Comedy History, But Does It Suffer In Relevance Because Of A Talent Drain Due To Its Proximity To Los Angeles?

People may migrate to Los Angeles because that’s where you’ve often a better chance of making a living doing comedy, but that doesn’t change the history of comedy in this city. And the history is still being made – The Purple Onion, where the Smothers Brothers went up when they were getting started, is still showcasing amazing new talent (as booked by one of my co-producers, David Owen!). Patton Oswalt is one of the best comedians around, and he lived here. Ditto Brian Posehn, Janeane Garofalo… and a ton more.

Ask just about any LA-based comedian who has come from San Francisco, and they’ll tell you how important San Francisco still is to comedy. That’s a huge reason we’re able to get the caliber of talent at our festival that we do. This is a great place to do comedy – either to hone it before trying out the New York or Los Angeles scene, or to stay here and be beloved by some of the best audiences anyone will ever get, anywhere. Comedians from San Francisco, at least the ones we know, seem to love to come back to perform here (myself included!). And comedians who have never played here are consistently amazed by how intelligent and savvy these audiences are. I think regardless of San Francisco’s proximity to Los Angeles, it will always be relevant.

There’s A Lot Of Talent Coming To Town For The Festival, But What Are Some Of The Homegrown Teams At The Festival And How Do You Hope They’ll Benefit From The Fest?

We’re proud to have Kasper Hauser back for the 5th consecutive year – they’re one of the groups that helped us found the first SF Sketchfest. But they don’t need us — they’ve got an enormous fan base and a book coming out. I guess we’re just lucky they agreed to come back! We’re also happy to have the very popular Boom Time (formerly Bodies in Motion). Prank the Dean will be doing shows for the second consecutive year, and we have a great night of Emerging Sketch with groups we’re just getting to know. We also have a few San Francisco veterans, formerly of Totally False People and White Noise Radio Theatre, returning with Los Angeles compatriots: Diani and Devine, Pretty, Pretty Pony, Oh, You and Your Bone Spurs, Cole Stratton, and Fempyre.

And in terms of how Bay Area groups will benefit, let’s see… hopefully the roster of talent on our schedule, both local and national, will reflect how much great comedy there is out there, and keep the enthusiasm for the homegrown teams going year-round. But again, I’m not going to pretend that any of them need us for that.

What Has Been The Highlight Of The Festival For You So Far?
That’s a really, really tough one, but I’ll go with my first instinct: The Paul F. Tompkins Show.

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