Sketch Stands On Its Own

From The San Francisco Chronicle
Pink Section Cover Story 

January 15, 2006
By Delfin Vigil

Yeah, yeah — everyone’s a comedian. But try putting together a comedy festival that’s not based on stand-up and things start to get a little sketchy.

At least that’s what the three co-founders of the San Francisco Sketch Comedy Festival found out.

After meeting at San Francisco State in the ’90s, David Owen, Janet Varney and Cole Stratton formed a sketch comedy group under the moniker “Totally False People.” Their first gig was in front of a hard-drinking, heckling crowd at Rooster T Feathers in Sunnyvale. The day after their debut, the club received messages from confused callers.

“People were like, ‘I didn’t understand,’ ” remembers Stratton, who can laugh about it now. ” ‘What were they doing up there? Was that stage acting or something?’ ”

What they were doing up there was developing what has grown into one of the premier places in the country to perform sketch comedy. Now known as the SF  SketchFest (a.k.a. the San Francisco Sketch Comedy Festival), it celebrates its fifth birthday this month with hella funny people like Rob Corddry of “The Daily Show,” Dave Foley of the Kids in the Hall and writers and performers from “Saturday Night Live,” “Arrested Development” and “Stella.” The festival opened Thursday and runs through Jan. 29 with events at the Eureka Theatre, the Punch Line and Cobb’s Comedy Club in San Francisco and at Mill Valley’s 142 Throckmorton Theatre.

Sketch comedy is a form of funny business that usually involves multiple partners and more comedic foreplay than the typical 10-seconds-to-punch-line penetration of your solo stand-up comedian.

“It’s less lonely,” says Foley, an original member of Canadian sketch comedy savants Kids in the Hall. “Sketch comedy is much more fun than stand-up. You can still have a good time when you’re bombing in sketch comedy because at least you’re bombing with other people.”

Foley’s skit “Dead Diva, a.k.a. the Tribute” opened the SF SketchFest. It was based on the reunion of an all-girl ’80s band that broke up after the lead singer ditched the group for a solo career. Years later, the diva is dead and the other members have a reunion tour to pay off record-label debts.

Doing sketch bits are sometimes the only way to get goofy ideas like “Dead Diva” out of the comedian and onto a stage, Foley says. It’s also more nerve-racking.

“I’m sort of jaded at this point,” Foley says. “But when we did ‘Dead Diva’ in L.A. recently, it was the first time in years I remember feeling a certain kind of nervous excitement.”

Stratton, Varney and Owen, all 29, know the feeling.

“Sketch comedy has such a specific form that needs the right kind of audience,” says Owen, whose showbiz career dates to a third-grade staging of “The Blues Brothers.” “Fortunately there are enough people out there, like Monty Python fans, who understand what it’s all about.”

Fortunately, a lot of big-name comedians also understand what the festival is all about. It’s a cool place for comedy.

“We were half logical when we started contacting comedians. And then we were half, ‘I dunno. What the hell? Let’s see if we can get Fred Willard,’ ” says Varney, whose first big break was landing a part in a slumber party production of “A Huey Lewis Rock Opera.” She now has HBO and Comedy Central gigs under her belt, too.

By avoiding annoying agents, Varney, Stratton and Owens were able to book Willard, along with a number of internationally known jokers, including stars from the Upright Citizens Brigade, MTV’s “The State” and “SNL.”

“First of all, it’s the San Francisco Sketch Comedy Festival and not the Fresno festival,” Stratton says. “Comedians know about the comedy history roots that this city has and want to feel a part of that. Performing in a place like the Eureka Theatre — it’s an intimate, returning-to-the-roots kind of thing.”

An excuse to hang out in San Francisco was definitely part of the lure for Bob Odenkirk, co-creator of the HBO semi-slapstick classic “Mr. Show.”

“San Francisco is the greatest for sketch comedy because the audience is the best,” says Odenkirk, who will perform a skit about “a proud gay grandpa.” “They get it and aren’t afraid of any subject matter.”

To keep the Bay Area vibe real, the festival includes performances by some of our own favorite silly sons, including Will Franken and Brent Weinbach. Their polished acts ought to provide a nice balance for any visiting comedians who will be relying on last-minute improvisation.

“Wait a minute. The sketch festival? That’s next week?” says a half-joking Corddry, the busy “Daily Show” correspondent whose group Naked Babies performs Friday at the Eureka. “It’s as much show as we can put on with the least amount of work.”

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