SF Sketchfest: Conversations with San Francisco comedy festival founders Janet Varney, Cole Stratton, David Owen
By Crisman Richards
Monday, January 20, 2014
In the dark of winter, hundreds of the most joyful people imaginable descend upon San Francisco for the funniest cult this side of Jonestown: SF Sketchfest. The 18-day occupation from Jan. 23 – Feb. 9 — details here — celebrates established favorites and up-and-coming personalities in sketch, improvisation, stand-up and this golden age of podcasting while simultaneously commemorating the history of comedy. Below, Laughspin talks with festival co-founders Cole Stratton, Cole Stratton and David Owen (pictured above with Conan O’Brien).
Laughspin: How did you originally meet Janet and Dave?
CS: We went to San Francisco State together. We were in a sketch group called Totally False People. We became roommates and friends and worked at a video store together. We initially started the festival because we needed a place to perform as a sketch group. We banded together with five other sketch groups to rent a theater for a month and called it a festival. It was us, Kasper Hauser, The Meehan Brothers, White Noise Radio Theater, Please Leave The Bronx, and The French Robots. We rented the Shelton Theater in Union Square.
You can’t just rent a theater for a show, you have to rent it for a whole run. Or you had to do it at a comedy club where people don’t understand anything if it isn’t stand up. So we rented the theater for a month and called it a festival. The rest is kind of history. The second year we moved from the Shelton to the Eureka, opened it up for other groups to submit, and got a few headliners. We got the Upright Citizens Brigade (the three guys, at least. Amy [Poehler] at that point, was not with them) and Fred Willard’s Hollywood Players. That was the start of it. It ballooned from there.
Laughspin: How do you choose whom to tribute each year?
CS: For us the criteria initially was who do we respect in comedy, who is influential to us, who should we pay tribute to. Amy Sedaris was first, I think Dana Carvey was second. We did Paul Reubens and Mr. Show and moved up from there.
As we got bigger we decided in addition to a tribute we would give out a comedy writing award to honor people behind the scenes. We did Robert Smigel (Triumph the Insult Comic Dog) and John Hodgman who obviously writes funny books. We tribute people who are doing important work in comedy — or who once did. We pay tribute to things that are current as well, like Portlandia and Children’s Hospital. Anything we feel is important to the world of comedy and that we respect.
Laughspin: Like Conan.
CS: Conan’s (2010) tribute was scheduled during the festival proper, but that was two weeks after everything went down at NBC. For the longest time we kept saying he’s still coming, he’s still coming, he’s still coming. Then he was basically told he couldn’t go do this right now. It was in limbo for awhile. Eventually he said he was going to be in San Francisco, can we make it happen? We had about a week to put it together. The Herbst Theater (where it was originally) was still available. People who originally had tickets had a 24-hour window to be first again before we put the tickets on sale. It was initially supposed to be Jimmy Pardo interviewing him, but Pardo couldn’t make it this time. So we got Patton (Oswalt). He is a big fan of Conan and volunteered to do it. They showed up at the theater and they’d already been drinking a little bit. They ended up pouring back bottles of red wine on stage. It turned into this three hour night of amazing comedy.
Laughspin: Is there a show that you kick yourself for missing?
CS: We’re pretty good about being able to secure archival footage for ourselves. So if I wasn’t able to be at a show, at least I could still see it. That’s where a lot of our Nerdist Channel clips are coming from. We didn’t have any ideas outside of having these archival clips in our vaults. The fact that we’re able to put pieces of them up now is exciting to us. Hopefully people enjoy what we do put out there.
We did the Dave Hill Explosion, this weird variety show hosted by Dave Hill out of New York. That night I was over with Bill Corbett for a Mystery Science Theater Show I had put together. I definitely wanted to be there, but during the Dave Hill Explosion the guests were Dick Cavett and Gordon Gano from Violent Femmes. From what I understand Gordon Gano played “Blister in the Sun” on violin and it was amazing. Everybody was freaking out. There are things like that where we’re having to make Sophie’s Choice, so to speak.
Laughspin: Can you name your Top 5 Favorite Sketchfest Moments?
CS: Ew, god. That’s tough. So many things have happened. When we had Fred Willard our second year I went and picked him up from the airport in my Dodge Neon. I was this little comedy nerd in college. Just the fact I was driving Fred Willard around was amazing.
Once we had the Paul F. Tompkins and the musical guest was Colin Hay from Men at Work. I was driving him to pick something up. I asked him if he knew what he was going to play. I asked if he would think about playing “Overkill” and he said yes, he would. He only played two songs. I remember sitting at the back of the tiny 200-seat Eureka listening to him play the song I had requested. I was responsible for 50% of his setlist.
Finally getting all the Kids in the Hall was a big thing. They were a huge influence on all of us. Our sketch group, Totally False People, was named after something we found in the 2000 Kids in the Hall Tour Program. In Mark McKinney’s bio it said “…rumors that he is gay — totally false, people.” We were huge fans of the Kids. We got Bruce (McCulloch) to come first. Dave Foley came the next year. Scott Thompson popped in. We were collecting them one by one. Finally we got them all to come do a sketch show and a tribute. They really motivated us to do the festival in a lot of ways. The fact they came and we can count them as friends now is amazing.
Laughspin: There must have been some sort of epiphany that formed at one moment when the three of you came together and knew each other. What possessed you to create this monster?
JV: It was born out of necessity, to begin with. I wish there was a moment where we looked at each other and said this is the way. This is what we must do. Our path is laid clear- like we were some sort of sketch superheroes.
But it really was born of necessity. At the time, Cole, Dave, and I were in a sketch group called Totally False People. We were having a hard time finding places to perform that were good for sketch and understood sketch. We were doing sketches as part of a line up of stand-ups at Punchline or Rooster T. Feathers in San Jose. They didn’t know what to do with these scrappy kids in their Twenties doing scenes in weird wigs and costumes. Everyone knows Saturday Night Live. It seems it should be intuitive. People didn’t know what we were doing.
We realized if we created a festival environment we might get local press interested. The press was interested in what this group of whippersnappers was up to and gave us an astonishing amount of coverage for our first event. We sold out pretty much every show for the run. It was a slow growing beast from there.
The next year we took more chances and invited people in from out of town and went after a couple headliners. There is a ripple effect when you get a few respected guests and they have a good time. They were open and willing to tell their show business friends they had a good time. I think by virtue of them having a good time and us being so eager to please. We were young upstarts. It was the reputation of others more trusted than us saying pay attention to these guys, they do a good job. That helped us continue to book more and more higher profile guests and still focus on spotlighting up-and-coming talent as well. There was no magic moment. It was a slow start. We learned everything on our feet. It’s not like any of us has a degree in Business.
Laughspin: It was more organic than a magic moment. This community needed to be together.
JV: Also the wonderful San Francisco audiences. We have a great city standing behind us. When we invite somebody to perform, we are also inviting them to enjoy how glorious San Francisco is in all its ways.
Laughspin: Sketchfest crowds are a cheerful mob.
JV: I’ve worked on a lot of sets where you see the vibe is set from whoever is on the ground in charge of stuff. We have done this for so long without bosses, corporate underwriting, or stockholders telling us what to do. We don’t like telling people what to do, either. We tried to cultivate more of a team feeling and a family feeling with our staff and performers. We are not an industry-focused festival. It’s about the audiences. It’s about crowds and performers having a good time. I think the performers appreciate our approach in celebrating them and celebrating comedy. It’s not about so-and-so from William Morris being there.
Laughspin: Can you name your Top Three Sketchfest moments?
JV: Anytime I’ve been on stage with Dave Goelz, who does the voice of Gonzo, anytime we’ve had him to the festival. I’m a huge nerd for the Henson company. It’s a big reason I co-created Neil’s Puppet Dreams with Neil Patrick Harris. We’ve done screenings and Dave Goelz lives in the Bay Area. Last Christmas we did a Fraggle Rock event. Dave sat down and talked about it. He talked about the music done by Paul Williams. He talked about how one of the songs is what the Henson family – crew and everybody- sings whenever anyone from that world passes away. For him to tell that story to me was one of those seminal moments. Not only would my Ten-Year-Old Self be completely blown away that I am onstage with Gonzo — the fact I had a hand in that information being passed along to this crowd of people at The Castro Theater feels really good. To know I am lucky enough to have a life in which I have these experiences and create these experiences for other people. All my top moments are basically that feeling.
The Fernwood Tonight reunion with Fred Willard and Martin Mull. They are two big comedy heroes for us. Martin Mull doesn’t do events all the time. He is an extremely successful fine artist. His artwork, if you ever get a chance to see it, is quite remarkable. The fact he agreed to do the festival and then had incredibly complimentary things to say about the show afterwards meant the world to me. Anytime anyone says anything nice.
Conan. That was a big one. It was before his (Legally Prohibited from TV) Tour. It was so classy of him. It was hard when the cancellation happened, but he promised he would make it up to us. We were unsure at the time — not because Conan isn’t honorable, but because his life got complicated real quick. We wanted to let it go but also felt like since he had volunteered (to reschedule), we would follow up. Eventually I talked to him again and he said he meant it, let’s do this. We picked a day. Patton (Oswalt) moderated. Andy (Richter) was there. The audience was privy to them being a “little bit” tipsy. It was really funny. It was a really special way to feel respected by someone we respect so much. Moments like that bolster your confidence and you say you know what, I am doing something good. I am doing something that I am really proud of. It pays off in terms of how other people see it as well. That was a lovely reminder why we keep doing this. Sometimes we feel we are completely out of our heads to be doing it.
That was a very male-centric series of memories for me. I’m disappointed I didn’t pick more girls.
LaughSpin: Your podcast, The JV Club, exclusively features girls. I think you can keep your Girl Card. Speaking of, how have you seen podcasts change the world?
JV: Changing the world seems like a big statement.
LaughSpin: Fair enough. How have podcasts changed your world?
JV: Oh yeah, they totally changed my world. It took some courage (or stupidity, I’m not sure which) to push me forward to doing it. When I started there was already a proliferation of podcasts. It was cool to feel like there was still an opportunity. There are so many people in my life that are so talented and I look up to and respect so much. This is not a complaint: frequently my life feels like ‘What a great idea, Someone Else. You’re awesome.”
I’m sure there are people that think my podcast is garbage, but I think it is a great idea. I feel like I am able to say this because I don’t remember the process of figuring out what I should do for a podcast. It came up for me very easily. I don’t want to be the credit-the-Universe person, because that can really wear on people’s nerves. Maybe that’s just what happens when you allow something to happen organically. You don’t feel like it was work to come up with. You feel like it was a gift from somewhere.
I felt so grateful I had taken this step. I think it has united a group of folks into a community that’s silly and funny, but also empathetic. There’s not much of that. I mean, there’s Oprah. But she’s not particularly funny. You don’t go to Oprah for comedy. Marc Maron is a genius. Jimmy (Pardo) is a genius, Chris (Hardwick) is a genius. I don’t mean to not name my podcast sisters. It is a primarily male world, like comedy. It feels good to have picked something that has its own place. It fleshed out the joy I have about being a performer and making stuff. It opened up for me and spills over into everything.
When you have something you are passionate about and feel it yields emotional enrichment in your life. It brings a different texture to your life. I got very lucky with that and the cartoon voice that I do both happening at the same time. It made my career – with all due respect to everything I’ve done leading up to this, Sketchfest included. Now I have three meaningful things in my career. They all play off each other and hopefully benefit from each other because I love them all so much.
Laughspin: How did Sketchfest go from one theater to the monster it is today?
DO: It was gradual. We used to only want one show going at a time; partially for selfish reasons because we didn’t want to miss anything. The first couple of years there were no competing shows. We were able to see the entire festival from start to finish and not miss a second. That was important to us at first. Then we realized that was not a formula for growth.
We started gradually adding more shows – shows that would happen at the same time and a different venue. That worked fine. Part of having a festival is choosing what you want to see. You can’t see everything. Now that we have so many shows, we have to pick and choose the ones we need to be at. We try not to counter-program so people won’t be too conflicted between shows. We try to provide enough variety so people have choices.
Laughspin: What lessons have you learned about the curation process?
DO: Our number one rule is program what we like. We do not try to cater to whatever is most popular. When we stray too far from our own personal taste. We learned a lot of lessons about how to run a business. When we started (SFSF), we didn’t know anything about running events or promoting things. We started this as performers. We learned a little bit in college about how to put on a show, run a theater, run tech, and market a show. Each year we’ve learned a little bit more on how to do it better and how to bring the right people in to help us do it. We’re still learning. We’re completely self-taught. The festival was our school.
Laughspin: Is there a show you kick yourself for missing?
DO: There have been a couple I couldn’t believe I had to miss. We had been working on Chris Elliot for several years and he finally came for an Eagleheart panel. I was unable to see the event – I didn’t even get to see him the entire time he was in town. After having worked years to make it happen. It was a little bit of a bummer. But you get over it fast because there is so much fun to be had. I get to see all my comedic heroes. You’re just not going to be able to see it all.
It’s getting to the point where we’re all running around seeing 15 minutes of one show, going across town to a different venue for 15 minutes of another show. We also have responsibilities during the festival: managing the staff, introducing shows, producing the festival. It’s not just fun and games for us. We rarely get to sit down and watch an entire show. We’re just running around producing the entire time.
Laughspin: Can you name your Top 5 favorite SFSF moments?
DO: I can spitball a few that come to mind. The Wet Hot American Summer radio play. Just the fact that all the ducks lined up for that to happen. That was one where I actually sat and watched the entire show. It was such a great combination of people all on stage at the same time.
Getting to meet Gene Wilder and watch Young Frankenstein with him. Our second year, Upright Citizens Brigade was there. I remember how excited I was to have them on stage at the Eureka and getting to meet them. That lead to them coming back.
Getting to meet Terry Jones from Monty Python and talk about Python and his influences — he had never heard of Kids in the Hall.
Laughspin: It’s a great melting pot of comedy history and also a barometer of where comedy is going. How do you see SFSF different from other festivals?
DO: Like you said, we look back, but we also look forward. We are celebrating the things that make us laugh now, but also what made us laugh as kids. In some cases, what made our parents laugh that they passed down with love to us. We are interested in presenting the history of comedy and paying tribute. We are also always looking forward at what is the next big thing? What is the next Monty Python or Kids in the Hall?
I think the big difference between us and other festivals is that we don’t just book whoever is on tour. We don’t go out looking for what’s “hot” at that particular moment or what is going to sell the most tickets. We try to create a completely unique experience that you can’t find anywhere else — for the performers and the audience.
Laughspin: You feature lots of live podcasts during festival. How have you seen podcasting evolve over the years?
DO: Even before podcasts were a thing, we were doing these conversations, panels, and tribute events. Somebody talking about their career and their life, taking questions from the audience. A podcast is a continuation of that, made available so others can listen in. We like listening to them. We like presenting them. The audience really likes podcasts. They keep coming back for more, so we added more podcasts. People really seem to enjoy them. I think performers who come to the festival enjoy doing different things during the festival — one night they’re doing stand-up, the next night they’re doing improv, then they’re doing a podcast. They get to work all those different muscles and participate in various ways. I think it’s good for marketing. It gets people out there and provides more awareness of the festival and the performers.
Laughspin: We find ourselves once more in the glory days of radio. Podcasts at Sketchfest are tantamount to running around 1945 San Francisco seeing Burns & Allen at the Herbst and Jack Benny at the Eureka. This is comedy history, today.
DO: Comedians can be so funny off-the-cuff. If you’ve ever hung around comedians (which I know you have, because you are a comedian), you know what it’s like shooting the shit and how funny comedians really are. With podcasts — live and online — people can be a fly on the wall.
Laughspin: We have a much more intimate look at who our comedians are today. We know their voices. I wish Bill Hicks had a podcast.
DO: Can you imagine? Or Lenny Bruce. Richard Pryor. Can you imagine how awesome?
Laughspin: Hundreds of years of George Carlin.
DO: Groucho Marx would have a really good podcast.
Laughspin: The freedom.
DO: Podcasts are permanent and prevalent. There is much to choose from.
Laughspin: If you could moderate a panel of experts (dead or alive), whom would you pick and what are you discussing?
DO: I’d go retro. Much as I love current, living people, I am going to go all dead. I’d get the Marx Brothers, Peter Sellers, Buster Keaton, and Walter Matthau — and Lucille Ball. I don’t know that they’d all mix together. They probably wouldn’t get along.
Conan photo by Jakub Mosur