Seeking Out The Funny, SF Sketcfest Mines The Web

From The New York Times / Bay Citizen

January 27, 2012
By David Downs


The threat of online piracy to the entertainment industry has been all over the news thanks to a set of Congressional bills, but Cole Stratton, co-founder of the 11-year-old San Francisco comedy festival SF Sketchfest, could not be more pleased about the current intersection of comedy and technology.

“I do think we’re living in a golden era of comedy,” he said.

And Silicon Valley is powering the boom.

Sketchfest was founded as an outlet for San Francisco improvisational comics to perform live, but it has hit its stride mixing comedy stars with talent emerging from the Web. The 17-day festival began last weekend and runs through Feb. 4. It has grown to 450 comics — including Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Eddie Izzard and Drew Carey — appearing in 110 shows.

While mainstream successes like Ms. Poehler and Mr. Rudd headline events, festival organizers say the bulk of their programming reflects comedy’s new reliance on the Web, where comedians can create, record, promote and distribute their material with ease.

According to members of Kasper Hauser, a San Francisco comedy group composed of Dan Klein, James Reichmuth, John Reichmuth and Rob Baedeker, the online-heavy programming is unavoidable.

“If you were a comedy festival that was not dipping heavily into the new media of Twitter, YouTube and podcast stars, you would be totally out of sync with the times,” James Reichmuth said.

However, industry veterans also said that new media’s power of amplification can impede creativity as well as enhance it — and a popular YouTube video performance does not necessarily translate in front of a live audience.

For Sketchfest, the Web-first strategy starts with booking. The festival went paperless for the first time this year; almost all auditions are done over e-mail, Mr. Stratton said. He and David Owen and Janet Varney, his co-founders, discover new talent by swapping links.

The approach seems to be working: as of Thursday, 18 shows had sold out.

The primacy of one innovation, podcasting, is even more apparent among comics this year. Ten podcasts will be recorded live at SF Sketchfest, including the first appearance by the director Kevin Smith doing his very popular “Smodcast” live. Also notable is the appearance of Drew Carey, the “Price is Right” host and comic icon, who joins Mr. Stratton and Vanessa Ragland for their “Pop My Culture” podcast on Jan. 28.

For some industry veterans like Marc Maron, host of the wildly successful podcast “WTF with Marc Maron,” reaching audiences directly was a game-changer.

“I’m able to sell out shows, which I’ve never been able to do in my 25 years of working,” Mr. Maron said. “That’s a whole new universe for me, and all of that is directly because of the podcast.”

Other tech tools are also on display at Sketchfest. For instance, a group of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” alumni, known as Rifftrax, sync sound files to any movie, dodging copyright to make money mocking popular targets like the “Twilight” trilogy.

Shows like this Saturday’s “Rick Overton: Substitute Global Ambassador” rely on PowerPoint-style technology, while Superego, a comedy troupe, used two laptops last week to bring to life a live radio show version of their hit podcast.

Kasper Hauser, no stranger to online comedic efforts (they got national attention with their satire of the radio show “This American Life”), also work offline with both improvised and scripted sketches. James Reichmuth said a blog post on gave them their break, in contrast to the old entertainment industry nepotism.

“Back then it was like, ‘Well, my uncle knows somebody who works at Paramount and he can read my spec script.’ Now the thing to do would just be skip that step entirely and make a video and do Twitter or whatever,” he said.

But democracy is also messy. Without filters, comedy veterans say that the field has gotten more scatological, amateurish and exhausting.

“The democratization part is absolutely real,” James Reichmuth said. “It does two things, though. It goes high and it goes low.”

Mr. Stratton said his team is very wary about booking Web stars without seeing live show footage. “We don’t know if it translates to a live show,” he said.

Also, the acceleration of comedy has changed the joke-writing process. In the past, comics would hone material by working the stage at comedy clubs, without the fear of unauthorized recordings. Jokes now have a much shorter half-life, and comedians howl over premature dissemination.

“It may be a joke they’re working on, or a joke they wanted to put on a record and now all of a sudden it’s available to everyone,” said Mr. Maron.

The Web also breeds an addiction to comedic content mere mortal comics cannot feed. “The creative competition with the machine is ultimately what you’re up against. And constant gratification is not something a human being can deliver,” Mr. Maron said.

For better or worse, though, there is no going back. Some comics might protest, but as Mr. Stratton noted, “a year from now they’ll have a podcast. Guarantee you it.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: January 27, 2012

An earlier version of this article misidentified the co-host of the podcast “Pop My Culture.” She is Vanessa Ragland, not Janet Varney.

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