“Comedy Nerds” Hit The Big Time

From The Contra Costa Times
Cover Story 

January 14, 2007
By Pat Craig

Also published in Oakland Tribune – January 12, 2007 (COVER STORY)

THERE IS a strong Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” parallel here.

They were kids, they put on a show, and now, six years later, they’ve got one of the country’s largest sketch comedy festivals on their hands.

Back then, it was a matter of necessity, when four fresh-faced, funny kids from San Francisco State pooled resources with comical chums from around the Bay Area to launch the San Francisco Sketchfest.

“We just wanted to get a theater for a good, long run, and we couldn’t afford to do it ourselves,” says David Owen, who was a member of the comedy group Totally False People, which masterminded the first Sketchfest. “There were five other groups doing sketch comedy in the area, so we got together with them to afford a month’s rent on the (Shelton) theater, and just did it.”

Growing attraction

Sketch comedy, skits along the lines of what you see on “Saturday Night Live,” had a moderate following in the Bay Area, and the members of Totally False People reasoned each of the groups had its own following, so they could probably draw a big enough audience to the Eureka Theatre to break even. They ended up selling out, and have grown every year since.

The show continues to grow and is now attracting a high-profile array of regional and national talent. During the next few weeks, the San Francisco Sketchfest will feature 40 shows in 10 venues (up from five venues last year), and a lineup that includes some big names in the sketch comedy business, including Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman), Bruce McCulloch (“Kids in the Hall”), the sketch comedy group Stella, members of the Upright Citizens Brigade and a live performance of the TV cult hit “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” with original writers/cast members Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy.

There are still times when the success of the whole thing seems a little surreal, says Cole Stratton, another former member of Totally False People.

“Really, we were all comedy nerds,” he says. “And if you told us back then we’d be bringing in people from ‘SNL’ or ‘Kids in the Hall,’ we’d have been pretty impressed.”

Like Owen, Stratton and the third ex-Totally False People alum, Janet Varney, remain intent on producing the Sketchfest, no matter what else is happening in their careers.

“It’s like a month’s respite from L.A.,” says Stratton, who performs with Varney in a sketch group, Pretty, Pretty Pony, as he awaits word on a pilot he filmed for NBC. “It’s a chance to get back to the city I miss so dearly.”

Varney, who works as co-host of the TBS series “Dinner and a Movie,” also enjoys the connection with San Francisco and the festival, which now seems on the verge of reaching the Big Deal level, to the point where national sponsors and network TV contracts could be the next step.

The prospects are enticing, but the producers admit to mixed feelings about the big time. One of the reasons the festival has been so successful is the fact that it is not bathed in the hot green spotlight of national money and exposure.

Room to experiment

“One of the reasons we’ve been able to attract a lot of these people is because they can come here and try new or different things and know it’s not going to be broadcast on HBO, and they’re not going to sign their lives away in rights,” says Varney. “People can come here with material that isn’t necessarily TV-ready. They can play around and experiment; and that’s something that makes the festival exciting.”

It also allows the festival to run a loose format, and give the concept of sketch comedy the broadest definition.

From a purist standpoint, sketch comedy is a form that involves short comedic plays or scenes — sketches — that have their roots in vaudeville or burlesque, where performers toured the country for years with the same five- or six-minute skit, perfecting it and turning it into a comic jewel.

And since many performers from vaudeville and burlesque became the mainstays of early day television and radio, the sketch, from the wide-ranging comedies of the Sid Caesar show to “The Honeymooners,” became a staple of variety television. That evolved into “Saturday Night Live”-style shows and little pockets of sketch performance, such as Reubens’ “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”

The notion of sketch comedy has expanded to include the sort of character-driven standup originated by Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby.

Then, with the advent of cable television and the demand for more and more programming, the last half-century of entertainment and its earlier influences became available to a new generation growing up in the late-’70s and ’80s.

And that’s where Totally False People climbed on the comedy bus.

“I didn’t really grow up with the standup boom (of the ’70s); I was geared more to the kind of stuff we present at the festival, character-based stuff, rather than the setup/punch line of the standup comedy,” says Owen. “Growing up, Pee-wee and ‘SNL’ were my heroes.”

His video influences ranged from Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd to the Marx Brothers, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen, all of whom danced across the family television screen. Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz were the reigning kings of “SNL” when Owen hit adolescence. And by the time he was honing his performance chops, the “Kids in the Hall” were beginning their television run.

As Owen and the others got to know each other, and began performing, they developed a fondness for this wide range of sketch and story-driven comedy. In addition to their performance skills, they shared an interest in promoting and producing.

“I wrote and produced a stage version of ‘The Blues Brothers’ when I was in third grade, and cast the whole class in it,” he says. “Then, at S.F. State, we produced and performed a new play every week. So we really do have a background.”

Expanding horizons

Owen now produces a number of festivals in the area, and has pretty much gotten away from regular performing. The others see producing the Sketchfest as an essential part of their careers, as a creative activity on its own, but also as a way of seeing that they remain current to the newest twists in the comedy world.

“I think we have to move into bigger and bigger venues each year, just to see if we can do it,” he says. “Our audience is growing, and they seem to look forward to hearing the lineup each year. I’d really like to see this become one of the biggest comedy festivals in the world, on a par with Aspen or Montreal or Edinburgh — be a destination where people come from all over.”

The work of the festival is a yearlong effort, with almost constant communication between the three producers over the phone or Internet. “There’s always a lot of brainstorming sessions about if we think so-and-so is funny or how this guy would work with this other one,” says Stratton. “We’re really always going. We take about a month off right after the festival, but we start right back up again, with the application process, watching tapes and going out to venues to check shows out.”

They have an informal advisory board of sketch experts around the country who recommend acts that may not have reached their attention. “I don’t know if we’d have been able to do the same thing if we’d started later, but this has been a real opportunity to unify comedy in San Francisco,” says Varney. “And we’re really been able to expand outward every year to include different forms to where we can find a home for pretty much anything funny — and, so far, there have been no exceptions.”

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