Funny Business SF Sketchfest Is A Serious Concern To Comedy Lovers

From The SF Bay Guardian

January 10, 2007
By Robert Avila

The world has rushed headlong and with questionable taste into 2007. Whatever else that implies, it wouldn’t be funny if not for SF Sketchfest. The annual comedy showcase, which sails in buoyantly every January, grows fresher by the year, despite being nearly as old as this increasingly passé century.

Admittedly, the Bay Area has several admirable places to go for comedy — evergreen locales like Cobb’s, newer nooks like the Dark Room, and a couple yearly improv festivals, for example.

But since its inception in 2002, SF Sketchfest has not only made room for more, it’s featured unique programming that only gets savvier.

“Each year we like to add new elements,” cofounder David Owen says, “new acts, new venues, new styles of comedy, new workshops and interactive events.” Audiences, meanwhile, have responded with enthusiasm. Houses are packed, and the lineup is almost always impressive. To run down the roster of SF Sketchfest 2007 is to press nose to glass and ogle the comedy candy on display: Upright Citizens Brigade’s Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh; MadTV ‘s Andrew Daly; Mr. Show ‘s David Cross and Bob Odenkirk (albeit in separate acts); Naked Babies (with Rob Corddry of Daily Show fame); a tribute to Paul Reubens (that’s Paul “Pee-wee Herman” Reubens, of course); and much more.

Although Owen says the plan was always to grow SF Sketchfest into something bigger and better, he and colleagues Janet Varney and Cole Stratton originally conceived of the project in narrower, rather pragmatic terms — namely, as a means of getting their own act, the comedy troupe Totally False People, an extended run on a downtown stage.

“We frankly couldn’t afford to rent a theater on our own,” he says. “So we teamed up with five other Bay Area groups — and we called it SF Sketchfest.” Six years later, Owen looks back on this modest scheme with some justifiable awe. “When we were first putting it together, I don’t think we ever dreamed it would be where it is today.”

There was plenty of magic even in that more low-key first year. But SF Sketchfest almost immediately reached out to national acts, which have seemed only too willing to oblige. The program has since blossomed into a sweet-smelling potpourri of wit from around the country while staying true to its original impetus by giving ample room to local groups such as Kasper Hauser, Killing My Lobster, and deeply strange soloist extraordinaire Will Franken.

If casting their net nationally while maintaining the fest’s original commitment to local acts takes considerable work (“Every year it’s a bit of a jigsaw puzzle,” Stratton says, “only we don’t have a picture to work off of”), Sketchfest’s directors have, to their credit, repeatedly struck a fine balance, producing a formidable mix of major headliners and more up-and-coming comedians. “It gives audiences a chance to see groups they love with potentially the next big thing, and it gives the performers enthusiastic, packed houses,” Stratton says, explaining the strategy. “We probably put together 50 calendars before we can put a lock on things, but it always comes together beautifully.”

“We’re so particular about what we program every year,” Varney says.

“There isn’t a show in the calendar that we’re not incredibly excited about.” Still, Varney cites among the festival’s particular strengths this year its “more interactive side,” including workshops in comedy screenwriting (with The Baxter ‘s writer-director-star Michael Showalter), sketch writing (with San Francisco’s Kasper Hauser), and an improv master class (with Upright Citizens Brigade’s Matt Walsh). “These are seriously respected people offering their expertise,” she says. Moreover, she promises with understandable confidence, “The workshops are going to be tremendously fun.”

Then there’s TV-style audience participation. “Some of the performers from the ‘Comedy Death-Ray’ show [David Cross, Maria Bamford, and Paul F. Tompkins] will be doing their version of the old ’70s game show Match Game. Jimmy Pardo hosts the show, and it’s a really fun, relaxed environment where the audience gets to both participate and to see the comedians think on their feet,” Varney says.

“And of course,” she adds, “we’re really excited to honor Paul Reubens at this year’s SF Sketchfest Tribute.” The event — which in years past has saluted the likes of Amy Sedaris (2004), Dana Carvey (2005), and Cross and Odenkirk (2006) — includes an audience Q&A with Reubens after he has a sit-down conversation with journalist Ben Fong-Torres.

Closing night builds to a crescendo of sorts with a program of music and comedy, featuring Kids in the Hall veteran Bruce McCulloch (2005’s hilarious opener, back for more with accompanist Craig Northey) and two returning Los Angeles acts, the fine duo Hard ‘N Phirm and comedy rapper Dragon Boy Suede.

“Sketch is very strong right now,” Stratton notes. “I think sites like YouTube are ushering in a new wave of sketch groups. High-quality cameras and editing equipment are readily available, so a lot of funny things are being produced and immediately snatched up online.” It’s had a feedback effect on the comedy circuit. “A lot of groups mix their filmed stuff with live performance and tour festivals with it, a trend we’ve noticed increasing in the last few years. With festivals popping up in Chicago, Portland, Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Vancouver, sketch is in high demand.”

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