Laughing It Up At SF Sketchfest

From San Jose Mercury News

January 14, 2010
By Mark de la Vina

Each time SF Sketchfest gears up to deliver its dizzying mix of all things comedic, the same question inevitably arises: Is this really a sketch comedy festival?

With a 95-show lineup that includes everyone from “Weird Al” Yankovic to Monty Python’s Terry Jones to the cast of “Reno 911!” — not to mention a tribute to beleaguered “Tonight Show” host Conan O’Brien — sketch comedy might seem an afterthought. But the festival, which kicks off tonight and runs through Feb. 2, hasn’t yet forsaken its comedy-nerd roots.

The Upright Citizens Brigade and assorted past and present “Saturday Night Live” cast members continue to wave the kind of sketch comedy flag that festival founders David Owen, Cole Stratton and Janet Varney planted in 2002 when they started this as a more modest weekend event. Though the lives of the trio have diverged — Varney and Stratton have since moved to Los Angeles — the founders have continued to build on their early success by programming more just sketch.

“The festival is about what makes the three of us laugh,” Stratton says. “That’s been the theme every single year.”

“If this were a jazz festival,” Varney says, “we probably would not program Kenny G.”

Sketchfest in recent years has carved out new specialty areas, such as tributes to movie comedies and shows that blur the line between music and comedy. Fred Willard, who took part in last year’s “Fernwood 2 Night” reunion, will host a screening of “Waiting for Guffman.” Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of “Tim and Eric, Awesome Show, Great Job!” will open the festival tonight with the Pusswhip Banggang Music Show, a mock band a la Tenacious D.

The appeal of Sketchfest is that its festival directors continue to enlist a broad sampling of both legends and up-and-comers who put their own spin on performance. Among the choices: a reunion of the original “Mystery Science Theater 3000” cast, including Joel Hodgson, in “Cinematic Titanic”; assorted talk show-style events, such as Greg Proops Chat Show with Linda Cardellini and Michael Penn; and a screening of the Marx Brothers’ “Animal Crackers,” hosted by Dick Cavett.

Almost lost in the Sketchfest flurry is that Stratton, Varney and Owen started the festival in part to have a fun performance opportunity. Though running such an ambitious festival takes precedence over hitting the stage, Varney and Stratton will join the likes of Jimmy Pardo and Rachel Dratch in various shows.

Owen, a founding member of the comedy group Totally False People, says running things behind the scenes keeps him busy enough. “The only performing I’ll be doing,” he says, “is three-card monte in the lobby.”

Six SF Sketchfest shows you need to see this year:

Paul F. Tompkins Show, 8 and 10:30 p.m. Friday, Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco; $25. The former “Best Week Ever” host brings this sketch variety goulash to town with guests Dave Foley (Kids in the Hall), actress Illeana Douglas and musical guest Grant-Lee Phillips.

Tribute to Conan O’Brien, 2 p.m. Sunday, the Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco; $30-$50. The drama of NBC’s proposal to reschedule “The Tonight Show” has grabbed headlines, but that shouldn’t put a damper on the homage to O’Brien, who has logged time on “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons” before his rise as a talk-show host. Sidekick Andy Richter will join Conan on stage, with Jimmy Pardo hosting.

Inside Joke: Monty Python’s Terry Jones, with “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” 7 p.m. Jan. 21, Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., San Francisco; $20. Sketchfest organizers landed their first Monty Python member for this 35th anniversary presentation of the troupe’s classic movie. Hosted by Carl Arnheiter.

Sitting and Talking with “Weird Al” Yankovic, 2 p.m. Jan. 23, Cobb’s Comedy Club, 915 Columbus Ave., San Francisco; $20. In case anyone has wondered whether the parodying musical wonder has lost a step, his White Stripes spoof/tribute to Charles Nelson Reilly on YouTube will tell you otherwise. Chris Hardwick of Hard ‘n Phirm interviews Weird Al.

An Evening with the “Reno 911!” Sheriff’s Department, 8 and 10:30 p.m. Jan. 23, Cobb’s; $30. Many of “Reno 911!” cast members have played SF Sketchfest, but collectively reprising TV roles onstage is a rarity.

The SF Sketchfest Comedy Writing Award: John Hodgman, 2 p.m. Jan. 30, Cobb’s; $25. Writer-performer John Hodgman is perhaps best know for playing the PC in the “Get a Mac” TV ads, but he’s also an accomplished writer whose credits range from “The Areas of My Expertise” to his work on “The Daily Show.” “In conversation” with “Zeitoun” author Dave Eggers.

SF Sketchfest 2010
When: Tonight through Feb. Where: 11 venues in San Francisco and San Rafael Tickets: $10-$50, $300 for a pass to all shows at the Eureka Theatre. 866-468-3399, (which also has the complete schedule)

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