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SF Comedy Roaring Back to Life with Sketchfest in January

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By Sean M. Sanford

Do you hear that? The stereophonic uncrinkling of thousands of resting bitch faces? Or is that just my own? Either way, January must be near: The month of SF Sketchfest. A hallowed time when the saints of tickle-bone fare descend on our city and make it twinkle. This year though contains a hearty dimension of pre-meditated afterthoughts.

I mean, last year sucked.

Not only were we grasping at any rendition of good news as our government unraveled and we watched the daily death count like it was the Powerball numbers; our forests burned and our reservoirs cleared their throats uncomfortably. And, more importantly, we were robbed of SF Sketchfest in its classic demeanor. But this year, it’s coming back in all its glory, and I had a chance to talk to David Owen, one of the festival founders, about where the festival began, where it’s been traveling, and what gems it will unearth for us in January.

David Owen, Janet Varney, and Cole Stratton were three young students at SF State who had been co-mingling in each of their comedy cantata. “A friend of ours wanted to start a sketch comedy group and got a bunch of us together, maybe seven or eight people, and we’d meet once a week and everyone brought sketches. Gradually everyone fell off until there were four of us. That was Janet, Cole, me and a guy named Gabriel Diani. We named the group Totally False People…Our first shows were around 2000 and we did little shows around town and then we got the idea to do Sketchfest in 2001.”

SF Sketchfest hosts the “Best in Show” 20th Anniversary screening and reunion with a panel discussion featuring Karen Murphy, Christopher Guest, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Michael McKean, John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock, and Ed Begley, Jr. and moderated by Kevin Pollak at The Castro Theatre on Saturday January 19, 2019. The 18th annual SF Sketchfest, featuring over 1000 performers, is held in 18 venues in San Francisco from January 10 – 27, 2019. (© 2019 Photo by Jakub Mosur)

SF Sketchfest first began in 2002 as a local collection of comedians. “We met five other sketch groups in the local scene while we were performing and we used to perform at the Mock Café down at the Marsh Theater on Valencia street. There were five other acts, The Fresh Robots, Kasper Hauser, then we had The Meehan Brothers, White Noise Radio Theater and Please Leave the Bronx, and we said ‘Let’s band together and rent this theater downtown, the Shelton Theater, and let’s call it a festival.’ We couldn’t get it for just a weekend so we said, ‘Let’s just call it a festival.’

            “There was no master plan. It was just, ‘Let’s do this with our friends and see what happens.’” Thus birthed SF Sketchfest.

And it wasn’t long before said fest sprouted wings. “The second year was kind of the breakthrough cause we were able to get Fred Willard and the Upright Citizens Brigade. We didn’t know what we were doing and we sort of overreached and broke even. But we’ve been learning as we go over twenty years.” What a chuckle-ripe tutorial is has been. “By the third or fourth year we were able to add Dana Carvey and Bruce McCulloch and that lead to getting some of the Kids in the Hall, and then all of the Kids.”

Fred Willard with special guests Christopher Guest, Robert Klein, Laraine Newman and Kevin Pollak, 2020.

In the humor community, word spread fast. “…Dana Carvey had a good time and that lead to someone else hearing about it. Paul Reubens was there I think the third or fourth year. I guess by word of mouth and reputation, the people in the comedy community talking about it and having a good time and understanding that we were just three nerds who were into comedy, super independent, grass roots, and the people who are into comedy get that it’s like coming to summer camp.”

Wet Hot American Summer: The Live Radio Show — Wake Up and Meet the Campers. 2015

This summer camp has so much more planned this year than just saluting your shorts. “Some shows are things you’ll only see at Sketchfest. There’s a Viva Variety Tribute that they’re doing in character that’s only gonna happen once…There are shows that are one of a kind events. The Bruce Campbell roast for example. That was just a thing that we thought of and asked Bruce if he was game. A couple of years ago he was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready for that,’ then this year I reached out and I was like, ‘You know we’re going through this Pandemic and everything’s crazy. Do you think you’re ready to do the roast?’ He was like, ‘Let’s do it!’ We’re really excited about who we have, all these horror movie icons on stage with him. And he’s a good dude, very straightforward and easy to work with.”

Carol Burnett has a conversation Wendie Malick at the SF Sketchfest Tribute to Carol Burnett at The Castro Theatre on Monday January 14, 2019. The 18th annual SF Sketchfest, featuring over 1000 performers, is held in 18 venues in San Francisco from January 10 – 27, 2019. (© 2019 Photo by Jakub Mosur)

SF Sketchfest has brought some of comedy’s most exalted treasures, from Carol Burnett to Gene Wilder, from Mr. Show to Key & Peele. “The list goes on and on of people who we just pinch ourselves and go, ‘How the heck did we get these people to come to our little festival?’ And somehow we do. This year we got Cheech & Chong for the first time and so we’re just constantly feeling like we have a surreal life and we just don’t understand how it’s gotten to this point where people say yes to coming to this.”

From January 7-23 we can rest our laurels and surround ourselves with people whose one intention is to remember how to laugh. “Ha…Huh!” I mean, “Har Hoo.” Wait, I mean… See? January clearly can’t come fast enough for me.

And here’s a deal for a 12 Days of Sketchfest, where folks can get tickets to select shows for $12.

12 Days of Sketchfest:

12 Days of Sketchfest

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