SF Sketchfest – now it’s all over town


From the San Francisco Chronicle

SF Sketchfest – now it’s all over town
by Peter Hartlaub
Sunday, January 20, 2013

READ ONLINE

The SF Sketchfest comedy festival started as a means to be seen for David Owen and co-founders Janet Varney and Cole Stratton.

The San Francisco State theater majors were just out of college and tired of playing coffee shops. Their sketch group Totally False People joined forces with five other local comedy teams and rented out the tiny Shelton Theatre.

“That first year it was purely (because) we wanted to perform,” Owen remembers. “We never imagined we would be inviting people from around the country or that we would ever have any celebrities. It was just a local little sketch comedy showcase.”

The 12th festival, which begins Thursday, has expanded tenfold – with 26 venues, more than 100 events and frequent tough decisions when two can’t-miss acts perform at the same time. But Sketchfest has managed to maintain some of that “little sketch comedy showcase” feel. There are no big corporate overlords, and very few of the participating comics are promoting anything specific. Many are trying out new works or joining in one-of-a-kind events.

Along with a few more straightforward presentations (a “Portlandia” tribute and John Landis’ “Animal House” anniversary screening) are some off-the-wall additions. Maya Rudolph will be in attendance with her Prince cover band Princess. Children’s book author Mo Willems makes his Sketchfest debut.

Comedian-musician Reggie Watts will present his second “Reggidency,” three shows featuring a dance troupe, jazz artist Robert Glasper and fellow sonic experimenter Michael Winslow. The Glasper and Winslow shows are live without a net – Watts hasn’t performed before with either artist.

“With me and Michael Winslow, no one in the audience knows what that’s going to be like,” Watts says. “don’t know what it’s going to be like. So it’s equally mysterious for me as it is for them.”

That’s not a complaint. Watts, in his fourth year at the festival, says Sketchfest performers feed off each other, and also feel inspired by the legacy of comedy in San Francisco.

“It’s great for a city to have something like that. Audiences in San Francisco are just really receptive to good comedy,” Watts says. “When I go to the Punch Line, and go to the green room, I see the portraits of performers. And it’s everybody. Anyone you care about, at least in the American comedy scene.”

Owen says Sketchfest is worked on year-round, with thousands of e-mails passing among the three co-founders. (Owen lives in San Francisco, while Varney and Stratton are now in Los Angeles.) Sketchfest has a high rate of return among top comics; Fred Willard and the Upright Citizens Brigade, the festival’s first big-name headliners in 2003, will be back in 2013.

The wish list gets more ambitious each year – Owen admits that they’d love to host a Monty Python reunion – but the goal is the same.

“It’s very important for us to keep that independent feel, to keep that homegrown feel,” Owen says. “Because that’s our comfort zone.”


Accompanying this article are 10 Sketchfest events picked to exemplify the diversity of the festival. We tried to highlight some of the off-the-beaten-path choices. See the full schedule at sfsketchfest.com.

Night of the Shorts IV: Riffizens on Patrol (Jan. 24): The “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ crew opens Sketchfest 2013, mocking a series of PSAs, educational videos and other shorts, with a guest crew including Adam Savage of “Mythbusters” and Kristen Schaal of “30 Rock.” 8 p.m. Castro Theatre; $30.

Judge John Hodgman Live! (Jan 25): John Hodgman and Jesse Thorn bring their brand of podcasting justice before a live crowd, with musical guest/expert witness John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. (Thorn returns one night later to present his Bullseye podcast at the Punch Line.) 10:30 p.m. Marines’ Memorial Theatre; $30.

The Thrilling Adventure Hour (Jan 26): Staged like an old-timey radio show (complete with commercials!), performers including Colin HanksRider Strong and Reggie Watts headline this comedy flashback created by Ben Acker and Ben Blacker. 7 and 9:30 p.m. Marines’ Memorial Theatre; $40-$50

Reggidency Part 2: Michael Winslow (Jan. 28): Reggie Watts hosts his three day Reggidency from Jan. 27-29, also performing with the Amy O’Neal Dance Crew and Robert Glasper. But we’re most excited about this pairing with stand-up veteran (and “Police Academy” beat-boxer) Winslow, whose talents should mesh well with the eclectic and musical Watts. 8 p.m. The Independent; $29.50

SF Sketchfest Tribute to “Portlandia” (Jan. 30): Sketchfest is changing its tribute style this year, honoring two shows currently on the air – “Portlandia” and “Children’s Hospital.” Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein and Jonathan Krisel will attend, with Adam Savage moderating. Sold out at press time. 8 p.m. Herbst Theatre; $25.

Comedy NightLife at the California Academy of Sciences (Jan. 31): One of the most eclectic venues with one of the most talented lineups, Chris HardwickGreg Proops, “World War Z” author Max Brooks and Will Franken headline a comedy grab bag of stand-up, podcasts and more. 6 p.m. California Academy of Sciences; $12.

Plus One Podcast with Kevin Smith and Jennifer Schwalbach (Feb. 6): One of several popular podcasts being recorded at Sketchfest, including The Smartest Man in the World with Greg Proops and the Nerdist Podcast with Chris Hardwick. Smith made it big as a director, but never lost his passion as a fan. 8 p.m. Cobb’s Comedy Club; $25.

Celebrity Autobiography (Feb. 9): Guests including Janeane Garafalo, Fred Willard and Maya Rudolph perform live readings from real-life celebrity autobiographies. The same group returns for a second show on Feb. 10. 8 p.m. Marines’ Memorial Theatre; $50.

Hail to the King, Baby: An Evening With Bruce Campbell (Feb. 9): B-movie demigod Campbell in conversation with Patton Oswalt, framing a screening of “Army of Darkness” in the best theater in San Francisco. 8:30 p.m. Castro Theatre; $25.

Don’t Let the Comedians Do Story Time (Feb. 10): Children’s book author Mo Willems headlines the Sketchfest’s first family-focused comedy showcase. The picture book sketch comedy will feature parent/comics including Laraine Newman, Maya Rudolph, Patton Oswalt and Andy Richter. Sold out at press time. 11 a.m. Kanbar Hall at the JCCSF; $18.

SF Sketchfest: The 12th annual festival opens Thursday and runs through Feb. 10. Various San Francisco venues. For full schedule and tickets, go to sfsketchfest.com.

Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle’s pop culture critic. E-mail: phartlaub@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @peterhartlaub

Back to Menu