San Francisco Sketchfest Books Big Talent

From The Oakland Tribune / Contra Costa Times

January 9, 2009
By Pat Craig

It started on a short fuse in 2002, ignited by a half-dozen eager-to-perform Bay Area sketch comedy groups who pooled their money to rent a theater for the ambitiously named San Francisco Sketchfest.

The explosion came the next year when the show’s three producers, David Owen, Cole Stratton and Janet Varney, invited actor and comedian Fred Willard and the Upright Citizens Brigade, New York sketch comedy legends, to perform at Sketchfest 2.

To the amazement of the neophyte producers, the two headlining acts agreed to show up. This immediately gave the festival a legitimacy well beyond its years, says Stratton, who continues to produce the three-week festival with Owen and Varney.

“I think that really turned the corner for us,” says Stratton. “I mean, they didn’t have to come, but they were gracious enough to agree to perform.”

Reverberations from that second festival continue to pulse through Sketchfest, which this year could boast its biggest lineup yet. Willard will be back, this time with Martin Mull to perform a “reunion” of their classic TV comedy “Fernwood 2Night.” The Upright Citizens are also returning, along with another famed New York troupe, the State, which is reuniting for Sketchfest.

The lineup includes numerous other stars of TV shows and movies in an impressive variety of performances. Highlights include Janeane Garofalo in several shows, including a “staged reading” of the TV reality show

“The Hills”; Dana Carvey in conversation with Robert Smigel, who will also lead a live performance of “TV Funhouse” (Triumph the Insult Comic Dog); a salute to “Harold and Maude” star Bud Court; and appearances by Michael McKean, “Saturday Night Live” alums Tim Meadows and Laraine Newman, Rachel Dratch and Andy Richter.

“We’ve gotten a good reputation within the comedy world and locally, but we don’t have a big nationwide reputation,” says Stratton, who notes the producers would rather keep it that way, with the festival intimate and below-the-radar.

Still, the event has booked three weeks of events in 11 venues (nine in San Francisco and two in Marin County), going so far as to hold several shows at different venues on the same date.

“We were afraid of competing against ourselves, but the variety of what we offer has performers that appeal to a wide range of comedy fans,” Stratton says.”

Willard’s looking forward to working with Mull to reprise “Fernwood 2Night,” the classic ’70s TV talk-show parody.

“They asked me if I wanted to come up and do something with one of the Christopher Guest films (“Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind”) or do a night of ‘Fernwood’ with Martin Mull,” says Willard, who quickly decided to pair up with his old partner, Mull, and return to the days of the nightly community access television chat show. “Fred thought we should do it all in character, but I’d like to do some questions and answers and maybe talk a little about the show.”

In preparation for the Sketchfest, Willard says he has been watching episodes of the show that aired weeknights for two seasons (the second as ‘America 2Night’).”I think I have most of the 65 ‘Fernwood 2Night’ shows we did. They really hold up well.”

Willard is pleased to be performing with Mull, who is a serious painter and doesn’t perform “as much as he should” these days.

The comic didn’t seem aware of his role in helping to boost the San Francisco Sketchfest, but he said the festival is something people seem to enjoy, perhaps because the audience got much of its comedy education from “Saturday Night Live” and “Mad TV,” whose last episode Willard will host later this year.

“Festival format is great. You just appear one day, then leave, so it doesn’t take a lot of time commitment,” he says. “And then, San Francisco is a beautiful city to visit.”

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