SF Sketchfest: Big Laughs

From The San Jose Mercury News

January 15, 2009
By Mark de la Vina

Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, SF Sketchfest didn’t establish itself overnight. But what started in 2002 as a weekend showcase of San Francisco sketch comedy groups has mushroomed into one of the most acclaimed — and certainly one of the coolest — comedy gatherings in North America.

And the 2009 edition of Sketchfest — which kicks off tonight with a live version of the Cartoon Network’s “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” — features the festival’s strongest lineup ever.

While the 130-act, 17-day schedule is dotted with performers well known outside the realm of comedy geekdom, it’s a reunion of the comedy troupe known as the State that’s this edition’s crowning achievement. The group’s appearance marks the first time that all 11 members have performed as the State in more than a decade. Other highly anticipated shows feature Triumph the Insult Comic Dog creator Robert Smigel, original “Saturday Night Live” cast member Laraine Newman, “Spinal Tap” star Michael McKean and “Mad Men” leading man Jon Hamm.

This year’s Sketchfest also has perhaps the most varied lineup in the festival’s eight-year history.

At 11 venues around the Bay Area, there will be screenings (“Harold and Maude,” featuring an onstage interview with star Bud Cort), interviews (Dana Carvey talking to Smigel) and an inspired reading of celebrity autobiographies by the likes of Scott Thompson (Kids in the Hall). It’s a measure of just how far SF Sketchfest has expanded beyond the limits of sketch comedy.

“Our focus was sketch when we were starting out, but we realize that’s not the deepest of wells,” says David Owen, one of the three Sketchfest co-founders. “We’ve really expanded the festival to include all things funny.”

“And anything we like,” added fellow co-founder Cole Stratton. “We like so many different kinds of comedy, from really subtle things like ‘Harold and Maude’ to ridiculous, silly things, like Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.”

The lineup continues the festival’s tradition of recognizing icons of comedy. In recent years, Sketchfest has tipped its sombrero to the cast of such TV shows as “Mr. Show,” “The Kids in the Hall,” “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and “Freaks and Geeks,” or hosted tributes to the likes of Gene Wilder, Paul Reubens and the staff of the satirical newspaper the Onion.

This year, Owen, Stratton and fellow founder Janet Varney might have outdone themselves in not only reuniting Fred Willard (“Best in Show”) and Martin Mull (“Roseanne”) for a homage to their late ’70s satirical TV talk show “Fernwood 2 Night,” but also managing to enlist someone from just about every major comedic enterprise of the past three decades.

Included in the mix are members of sketch groups Kids in the Hall and Upright Citizens Brigade as well as cast members from such TV series as “The Office,” “The Ben Stiller Show” and “The Daily Show.” The lineup also includes “Saturday Night Live” cast members (Newman, Tim Meadows, Janeane Garofalo, Jason Sudeikis) from various phases of the program’s three-decade history.

“Every year, we’ve certainly had some of our comedy heroes,” says Varney, also an actress who recently appeared on HBO’s “Entourage,” “but this year, it feels like we have more legends in a single month.”

Varney and her associates started Sketchfest as members of Totally False People, a defunct sketch group that lifted its name from a line in a Kids in the Hall concert program. That weekend of shows at the Shelton Theatre in 2002 also featured the troupe Kasper Hauser, which has performed every year at the festival and will return for 2009.

What has made the festival so appealing to both comedy aficionados and performers is that the trio approach programming of the annual event with the zeal and attention to minutiae that would be lost on all but the most dedicated fans.

State member David Wain, who directed the hit comedy “Role Models,” has been featured at the festival three times, as a soloist and as a member of the sketch group Stella. For him, returning to Sketchfest, especially with the State, was a no-brainer.

“Sketchfest seems to be the most performer-oriented and most comedian-friendly comedy festival,” says Wain, who is also appearing at the Sketchfest screening of his film “Wet Hot American Summer.” “They appreciate what these people do and build around it whereas some of the other festivals I’ve been to have been far more industry geared.

“This one seems to be about fans.”

SF Sketchfest

When: Tonight Through Jan. 31
Where: 11 Venues In San Francisco And Marin County. Go To Www.sfsketchfest.com For Details.
Opening Night: “Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” 8 P.m., Mezzanine, 444 Jessie St., San Francisco.
Tickets: $10-$35; $300 For A Pass To All Shows At The Eureka Theatre; (415) 584-2941; (866) 468-3399; Www.sfsketchfest.com

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