Sixth Annual SF Sketchfest Live Comedy Makes Its Mark On The National Scene

From The Santa Cruz Sentinel 

January 12, 2007
By Elizabeth Ivanvich

Bay Area sketch performers Janet Varney, Cole Stratton and David Owen first created SF Sketchfest in 2001. “We saw a tremendous opportunity to join forces with other local groups to increase the Bay Area’s awareness of a burgeoning sketch [comedy] community,” Varney explains. The first Sketchfest entertained an estimated 1,900 patrons over 16 days in January 2002, at San Francisco’s Shelton Theater. The festival would expand in size and scope, growing to include performers from all over North America while putting emphasis on local talent.

“Every year, in addition to handpicking terrific up-and-coming groups, we talk about our own comedy heroes and ask, ‘What if we could get so-and-so?’ That question has been asked about people like Fred Willard, Dana Carvey, Amy Sedaris … and they all agreed to participate!” Varney says. Sketchfest attracts the best local and national acts, and keeps them coming back. Bruce McCulloch, David Cross and Stella’s Michael Showalter and David Wain are just some past performers returning this year.

What inspires this loyalty?

“We have always run the festival from the perspective of performers as well as producers,” Varney states. “We want the environment to be fun, relaxed and smoothly functioning, so that the participants can focus on having great shows and enjoying how terrific Bay Area audiences are. I think the way we approach producing the fest has played a big role in the kind of talent we’ve been able to book.”

While some may not think of music and film as important parts of live comedy, they’ve been integral to Sketchfest. “As SF Sketchfest has grown, so has the diversity of what we program,” Cole Stratton notes. “It seems there has been a bit of a blurring of the lines between what is sketch, music, film and improv.” He points out that David Cross and Demetri Martin often tour with indie bands, and Paul F. Tompkins’ comedy act frequently includes musical interludes by the likes of Grant Lee Phillips. “It harkens back to the days of vaudeville, where the shows were a bit of a grab bag. … When it comes down to it, people just want to be entertained. By infusing stand-up and sketch [comedy] with music and film, it broadens the experience.” Accordingly, this year’s closing night show features McCulloch performing songs and monologues with accompanist Craig Northey, with the musically inclined comedy duo Hard ‘n’ Phirm and comic rapper Dragon Boy Suede as openers.

With everything from a Mitch Hedberg tribute to a live Match Game on tap, what do the festival founders anticipate most? Stratton enthuses about the RiffTrax Live show, featuring the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000. “As a comedy nerd who used to have friends over every Saturday night to watch the latest episode, it’s a bit of a thrill to see them live,” he says. Stratton proclaims that the First Annual Filmed Sketch Night will be “the start of something great. We’ve been flooded with more and more amazing taped pieces, and this gives us a chance to showcase some of this great work.” Varney mentions the upcoming live conversation with Paul Reubens: “[He] rarely does public appearances, so it’s particularly cool.”

As the sixth Sketchfest begins, Owen remains ambitious. “We would like to see SF Sketchfest rank among the top comedy festivals in the world. We hope to continue to increase attendance, the number of shows and venues, and to add more interactive events. We also hope that SF Sketchfest will morph into a giant kindly robot that saves humanity from bad, flesh-eating robots.”

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