Spinning Platters Interview: David Owen, Janet Varney, and Cole Stratton: Founders of SF Sketchfest


From Spinning Platters

January 10, 2012
By Dakin Hardwick

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In 2002, three Bay Area comics organized a festival featuring some of their favorite local sketch groups. They dubbed it Sketchfest, and it was a success. The next year, comedy legend Fred Willard joined the event, and every year subsequent year, the event became bigger and bigger. This year’s festival has grown to 2 1/2 weeks long, and features the biggest line up yet, featuring the likes of Eddie Izzard, Amy Poehler, Wil Wheaton, Barry Bostwick, and scores of other people so famous that even your grandparents know who they are. (You may need to ask your grandparents who Barry Bostwick is) SpinningPlatters had the opportunity to chat with founders David Owen, Janet Varney, and Cole Stratton about the evolution of the festival, the struggles of putting it on every year, where to grab a burrito, and a whole ton of hypothetical situations that were good fun to ask. Be sure to go to SFSketchfest.com to check out the line-up and purchase tickets.

How did Sketchfest morph into Podcastfest?

Cole: It seems like every comic we know and love has a podcast nowadays, so it made perfect since to program a bunch of live incarnations in the festival. Audiences love them, and the performers get a kick out of doing them in front of a crowd instead of in their garages or closets. Plus, they make great matinees!

Is the name of Sketchfest limiting at all since you’ve become a complete comedy festival?

Dave: Maybe, but we feel like a lot of people just know us as “SF SKETCHFEST.” A few years ago, we added the subtitle of “The San Francisco Comedy Festival.” It’s kind of like the New Orleans Jazz Festival. Everyone knows them as Jazzfest, but their headliners are bands like The Eagles.

Was there a booking that made you say, “we’ve made it”?

Janet: In a way, I think we sort of keep feeling that way over and over. We never stop feeling amazed when someone we love agrees to perform, and we never just assume we’ll get what’s on our wish list. In the end, that creates a bit of a roller coaster, but it also means that we never take anyone for granted!

What advice do you have to young comics/sketch groups that are looking to play the festival in the future?

Cole: Keep performing live as much as possible, and reworking your material. You can always tell which groups are more seasoned and work hard on their material, and which ones are sloppily thrown together and probably the first time they’ve ever been performed. It’s important to us that every show be fantastic, and we not only want to laugh, but we want to feel confident that you’ll put on a great show. Oh, and we really like cinnamon bread (hint hint).

If Steve Martin and Reggie Watts ever jammed, would the universe reverse on itself?

Dave: Probably not, but it would be fun to watch!

Janet Varney: You’re a bassist. Have you ever had a bass battle a la Scott Pilgrim vs. The World?

Janet: Not yet! But I carry my bass around with me everywhere, all day, every day, just in case. Or should I say, “just in bass?” [punches herself in the stomach]

Cole Stratton: What’s your favorite Drew Carey program?

Cole: That’s tough! As much as I enjoy The Price is Right and The Drew Carey Show, it has to be Whose Line is It Anyway? as it was hugely influential on me becoming an improviser. I started doing short form games much like they do on that show, cutting my teeth doing them with the Cobb’s Comedy Club house group The Riffingtons (we’d go up at the end of a three hour standup showcase in their old location once a week), and Drew, Ryan, Greg and the rest really were an inspiration to me.

If you three were the Marx Brothers (Siblings), who is Chico, who is Harpo and who is Groucho?

Cole: I guarantee you that Dave is Harpo and would silently attack us if we thought otherwise. I’m known for laying down lots of groan-worthy puns, so I suppose I’d be Groucho. Janet speaks with a heavy Italian accent, so she’d be Chico.

Is this the best time for comedy or are there needed gains and improvements?

Cole: I don’t know if its the best time (I was pretty little during the 80s stand-up boom in San Francisco), but it sure is a great time, especially with YouTube and cheap digital cameras making it possible for people to make content and have it seen immediately, as well as podcasts getting people’s comedic sensibilities out there quickly. Our festival audiences are always fantastic and the performers always want to come back and do shows here, so it sure is a great climate for comedy in the Bay Area!

With ten years in the history books, can you breathe a sigh of relief?

Dave: Never. You constantly have to grow and change and try to keep things fresh. Some things are easier 11 years in, and some things are much more difficult.

Sketches and improv are all about being in the moment. Is it important to crystallize these moments or is the fun found in their uniquely short life-spans?

Janet: Until we can finally carbon-freeze sketch performers mid-sketch and use them to placate Jabba the Hut, we’ll never really feel safe.

How has your taste in comedy changed or matured since starting the festival?

Janet: For me personally, I have become a much bigger fan of stand-up. It was the medium I knew least about when we started the fest. I had some favorites, and certainly grew up loving people like Steve Martin, but I was so impressed when I started to check out my own peers.

You’ve worked with a number of comedy legends. Who were you most nervous to meet? 

Cole: Gene Wilder. What do you talk about with Gene Wilder? (For me, it ended up being about the housing market in San Francisco. Really, Cole?) He was such a sweetheart. If I ever met Bob Hope, I wouldn’t know what to say, other than “It’s a guh-guh-guh-guh-guh-GHOOOOST!”
Janet: James L. Brooks. I mean, it’s James L. Brooks.

It’s three in the morning and you get a call about Sketchfest: Who is most likely on the other side of the conversation?

Cole: Dave or Janet. We work 24/7 on this thang!

Have you ever frozen during a performance and what was the outcome?

Janet: I’m sure I’ve frozen during improv sets. But that’s the nice thing about improv- you’re working with a team who’s there to support you, and someone just steps in and helps you out. And then you repay them by stealing back the focus and mugging obnoxiously.

What is the longest sketch or improv scene you’ve ever witnessed?

Dave:When something isn’t working, or a scene isn’t funny, it can be the longest scene ever.

Does Sketchfest have a mantra?

Dave: It’s more of an inside joke than a mantra, but in our first year we had a big celebrity attend a show and the theater owner kept saying “What An Honor” it was to have that person come to the festival. So we constantly say “What An Honor” in a silly way to each other.

Will you confirm the rumor of a Sketchfest Cruise in 2013?

Cole: Tom isn’t available.
Janet: Cole, Dave and I just voted you out of SF Sketchfest.

Can we expect as many actual zeppelins as this year’s advertisements imply?

Janet: It’s actually a cloaked way of us communicating to fans that there will be a surprise Led Zeppelin reunion at Sketchfest. And now I’ve voted myself out of SF Sketchfest as well.

What is the unofficial burrito/taqueria of SF Sketchfest 2012?

Cole: Great question! Our New York comics especially are enthused to partake in the city’s fantastic burritos. Cancun maybe?

If a hurricane, earthquake or zombie apocalypse occurs, what Sketchfest guest/group will be the most efficient survival partner(s)?

Cole: The State. There’s just so many of them.

Whipped cream, banana peels and other comedy lubricants are very hazardous. Has there ever been an injury during Sketchfest?

Dave: What are you, a lawyer?

What is the biggest time for crunch during or before the festival?

Janet: You mean what is the biggest crunch time? Before and during are both fraught with rolling waves of crunch. We’ll get a breather, and then we’ll be hit by another wave of “How are we going to get this (insert action here) done by (insert deadline here) without (insert self-harm term here) ourselves?”

What is the unofficial theme song for Sketchfest 2012?

Cole: “Senses Working Overtime” by XTC? There’s so much going on at any given time in the festival it can be completely overwhelming!

Gordon Elgart & OJ Patterson assisted with this interview. And by assisted, I mean wrote all of the questions so I can take credit for it. 

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