From SF Station
Spinning Platters Interview: Janet Varney, Cole Stratton, and David Owen, Organizers Of SF Sketchfest
By Dakin Hardwick
Friday, December 13, 2013
This is the 13th year of the SF Sketchfest, and it seems to be getting bigger every year. The event’s founders, David Owen, Janet Varney, and Cole Stratton tooks a few minutes out of their day, busily putting together another epic line up, in order to chat with me. Tickets for all dates go on sale on December 15th, and you can find a full line up of festivities here:
How do you book this event? Do you solicit performers? Do they ask you to perform? How do you connect dates, performers, and venues?
COLE: It’s like putting together a massive jigsaw puzzle, only we don’t have a box. But, yeah, it’s definitely a combination of agents and managers pitching us performers, as well as folks that like to come back year after year. Then we brainstorm a massive list of things that we’d like to go after, and we either use our personal connections or we cold call managers, then we see what sticks. It’s a lot of throwing stuff at a wall.
I see that you have a lot of Americana music booked, with acts like Nellie McKay, The Watkins Family Hour, and Rhett Miller. Was there a conscious decision to bring this type of music to the festival?
DAVID: It wasn’t intentional. We like that sort of stuff, and we found that there was a lot of crossover between comedy and a certain type of music. Especially all of those acts that you mentioned, they perform regularly at Largo, a venue in LA that has a reputation for mixing comedy and rootsy music. Plus, someone like Nellie McKay brings a lot of humor to her music, so for us, it fits out brand and what we are passionate about. It also helps us diversify what our festival is about. It helps us bring in things that are either related to humor, or simply cool things to do. So, even if it’s not straight up comedy; if it’s unique and likable, and it makes for a fun night out, we will try it.
The thing on the bill that excited me the most was seeing The Watkins Family Hour. It’s never worked out for me to see it in LA, so I’m happy to finally get to see it up here.
JANET: I’m so excited! I love that show so much… Sarah Watkins has done my podcast, and every time I see her, I nerd out on how great they are. This year it just happened to work out and their schedule allowed them a visit to SF.
There’s no chance at a secret Nickel Creek reunion, is there?
JANET: I Wish! Last time I did their show in LA there was.
How do you book such an elaborate festival with two of you living in LA and one of you living up here in San Francisco?
JANET: We spend a lot of time on the phone…
DAVID: And we send thousands upon thousands of emails. It’s a very special long distance relationship where we are able utilize modern technology such as databases, emails, phone calls. We also all pretty much on the same page with what we want to do, so we don’t need to spend hours in the same room talking about what we want to do as a festival.
COLE: When we all lived in San Francisco, we used to literally sit in a big room with a bunch of post it notes and a calendar. And now we all look at a google doc together.
Who do you like in your respective current cities that people don’t know about up here?
DAVID: Well, there’s nobody funny in Los Angeles (giggles). There’s starting to be a resurgence of sketch comedy in San Francisco. It was really strong when we started, and it seems to be going strong again. I think this year we have some groups that are pretty strong, exciting, and new. The improv scene is starting to pick up again, too. It all comes in waves. Some of them end up disbanding or moving to LA or New York. We try to catch them before they leave. There are some really strong stand ups here. Jesse Elias is a favorite of mine and you’ll be seeing him a lot at the festival. Killing My Lobster is still going strong, and there’s a lot of great local showcases. There’s a group called The Business with Caitlin Gill, Nato Green, Sean Keane, and Bucky Sinister that’s really doing strong stand up right now and we excited to be showcasing them.
COLE: It’s hard in LA, because everyone seems to be a transplant.
JANET: I was thinking about that in LA, that a lot of people seem to split their time.
COLE: Like, I’m a big fan of Ron Funches and Ian Karmel who are both Portland comics that come to LA, who I love a lot. Cameron Esposito of blowing up right now. She’s really great. She does a show called “Put Your Hands Together” down in LA that’s coming up for the festival.
Has anyone every presented an idea to the group that was rejected?
JANET: We have them, but they aren’t like “How stupid is this idea?”, it’s more like “Is this a good idea? Does this make sense for us?” Those are the things that we strike down. Although we do have some different sensibilities, we all have an idea as to what would be good for the festival, what audiences will respond to, and it’s not necessarily crazy to terrible, it just doesn’t make sense for what we are trying to do. That’s the only time that happens. It’s not like somebody says “I LIKE BLAH BLAH BLAH” and we are like, “THAT”S THE WORST IDEA IN THE WORLD!”
COLE: We have some ideas that are like- “That’s weird. I don’t know if that will work.” And then it comes together and we are like “Wow, that’s cool!”
If you could only go to one thing this year, what would that one thing be?
JANET: That would be so sad if we could only do one show!
DAVID: This is like a Sophie’s Choice thing for me. If I had to pick one, it would be the Slipnutz Variety Show. Jon Glaser & Andy Blitz doing the characters they did on Conan. I’m pretty excited about.
COLE: The one thing I’m most excited about is something we’ve been working on for years. It’s a tribute to Alan Arkin. David and I worked together at a video store for years and we would watch a lot of his movies, including The In Laws, which we will be screening and he will be doing a conversation with Kevin Pollack. He’s also doing an improv workshop that I wish I could go to if I wasn’t doing 100 other things, because taking a class with Arkin would be ridiculous. So I would see that.
JANET: I gotta say, because we already gave some love to Watkins Family Hour, that our other tribute is the one. Of course, I’m talking about Key & Peele. I think those guys are doing some of the smartest sketch comedy on television, period. It’s so consistently strong! I feel like I laugh hard at every sketch in every episode, and it’s really exciting for us to have those guys up and give them the acknowledgement that they so deserve.