SF Sketchfest: ‘Airplane!,’ ‘Saturday Night Live’ and much more

From San Jose Mercury News

January 6, 2011
By Mark de la Vina

It’s the classic arts and entertainment startup tale, complete with impassioned idealists turning a modest weekend event into a cultural juggernaut.

SF Sketchfest, which kicks off its 10th season next Thursday, began in 2002 as a labor of love for a trio of sketch comedy players just looking for a performance home. Emboldened by their 2003 booking of “Best in Show” cast member Fred Willard and the acclaimed comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, the founders jotted down their pie-in-the-sky wish list of dream performers whom they hoped to one day feature at Sketchfest.

On the list: Monty Python, Kids in the Hall, Conan O’Brien and “Saturday Night Live” cast members.

“We just found it recently, and the majority of the stuff on there we have since had on the festival,” says Cole Stratton, the co-founder of Sketchfest which runs through Feb. 5 at eight different venues in San Francisco.

This year, Stratton and fellow founders Janet Varney and David Owen continue to cross names from their checklist.

“SNL” cast members Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman and Don Novello (aka Father Guido Sarducci) appear on Jan. 30. On Jan. 20, there’s the “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” tribute, with Shandling and writer Alan Zweibel, that will be moderated by “Scrubs” star Zach Braff. And on Feb. 5, there will be a 25th anniversary nod to the film “True Stories,” featuring David Byrne of the Talking Heads.

The Sketchfest programming has always Advertisement seemed slightly dusted by serendipity, and this year is no exception

The lineup features a Jan. 31 tribute to “Airplane!”, which late last month was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. The film’s writing and directing team of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker will be joined by cast member Robert Hays in celebrating the enduring comedy classic.

The reason for including the “Airplane!” tribute in this year’s lineup is based on the same, rigorous screening process that has long colored festival programming over the years: The founders are ultimately fans wanting to add this pay tribute to an iconic piece of comedy they have always loved.

“Every time it comes on TV, I stop to watch,” Owen says, “and I laugh just as hard as the first time I saw it.”

What the average audience member might see as simple cinematic absurdity is to the Sketchfest founders a pivotal film that ushered in an entire genre. “Airplane!,” like such other Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedies as the “Naked Gun” films, cleared the path for the Wayans brothers’ “Scary Movie” spoofs as well as a host of flimsier big-screen pop culture parodies.

Like other Sketchfest events, such as the Feb. 1 comedy writing award presentation to filmmaker James L. Brooks (“Terms of Endearment”), the “Airplane!” tribute also helps more serious comedy fans put something they hold dearly into the larger context.

“Airplane!” was a parody film that played fast with the puns when it wasn’t featuring Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack or Peter Graves spouting ludicrous lines, often with all the liveliness of a toll booth. And much as previous Sketchfest audiences might have learned how comedian David Cross was inspired by Monty Python or that talk-show veteran Dick Cavett has roots in stand-up comedy, fans will see that “Airplane!” stands on the shoulders of such comedic fonts as Mad magazine.

That doesn’t diminish the groundbreaking nature of the film when it was released in 1980. “We went through so many year of trying to get the financing for ‘Airplane!’ that we kept telling people this was going to be a big hit,” David Zucker says. “We absolutely believed it would be just that. Here, we had a machine gun in the Civil War. Nobody had seen this kind of humor before.”

The “Airplane!” tribute is bittersweet in that the Sketchfest founders had approached actor Leslie Nielsen about participating, including just few weeks before his death on Nov. 28. His role in “Airplane!” as well as the “Naked Gun” movies would have made him a perfect fit for the event.

“Leslie said he would have paid us to be in ‘Airplane!’ ” because it was such a departure from the serious roles he regularly landed, David Zucker says. “He was a real closet comedian, and that’s all he did after ‘Airplane!’ He was a fish in water — and was always that way off screen.”

Sketchfest will celebrate another sort of comedic legacy — its own — when the original six acts that performed in 2002 will reunite for a show on Jan. 17. Varney, Stratton and Owen, who with Gabriel Diani perform as Totally False People, will join the Meehan Brothers, Please Leave the Bronx, White Noise Radio Theatre, Kasper Hauser and members of Fresh Robots to acknowledge this ambitious festival’s humble beginnings.

“It’s going to be a trip,” Stratton says. “We still have to make our set list!”

“We haven’t even discussed this,” Owen says. “We’re too busy putting together this festival!”

SF Sketchfest

When: Next Thursday Through Feb. 5
Where: Eureka Theatre, Castro Theatre And Other Venues Throughout San Francisco
Tickets: $15-$60; $300 For A Pass To All Shows At The Eureka Theatre; 415-584-8538

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