This year SF Sketchfest turns 13, and now that it’s in its teen years it’s more awesome than ever. From Jan. 23 to Feb. 9, San Francisco will turn into the epicenter of the comedy world with over 200 shows that include anniversary movie screenings with cast reunions (Napoleon Dynamite and Revenge of the Nerds, for example) to tributes to icons such as Alan Arkin, to good ol’ fashioned improv like UCB ASSSSCAT, to the recent addition of a salute to the late, great HBO series Bored to Death. All this is thanks to founders David Owen (festival producer extraordinaire), Cole Stratton (co-host of the top-rated podcast Pop My Culture) and Janet Varney (host of the J.V. Club podcast and of Burning Love fame).
The three brilliant minds met at San Francisco State University, where they shared a love of comedy and decided to do something about it. So they created a festival. Fast forward 13 years and the Sketchfest has grown into a platform for comedians in all stages of their career and from all over the country to do what they do best: make people laugh their ass off. We had the chance to chat with the comedy trifecta about this year’s festival, its humble beginnings and their favorite memories throughout the 13 years.
Paste: Let’s start at the beginning. How did SF Sketchfest start?
Cole Stratton: The whole thing started because we were in a sketch group together in college called Totally False People. There wasn’t really theaters or sketch, per se. You couldn’t really do sketch like a stand-up. Theaters you had to rent for like a month, you couldn’t just do like a one-off show. So we basically rented a Shelton Theater in Union Square for a month. We banded together with five other local groups and I had like two groups co-headlining and we just called it a festival. It just kind of blew up from there.
We realized this was a thing and our second year we moved to bigger theaters like The Eureka that we still use today. They opened it up to submissions for other groups that wanted to come and do shows and we managed to get Fred Willard and the Upright Citizens Brigade to come and do shows. Then this kind of every year just grew a little bit and it’s all very surreal to us at this point. I had no idea, we had no plans for it to be a big thing. I don’t even think we were thinking about a second year when we did it. We were just doing it and then it went well and then we decided to do it again. That’s when we started to think maybe we could invite more people and maybe someday we’ll get some of our comedy heroes to come. It just took off from there.
Paste: Who were some of your comedy heroes?
Janet Varney: Well we’ve been so lucky to have some many of them at the festival. I mean I think honestly if you look at the last 13 years of our festival your answer as to who our comedy heroes are is right there in our program. I’m so incredibly fortunate to be able to say that. Anyone from Alan Arkin this year to Conan O’Brien from years ago to Gene Wilder to Mr. Show, Kids in the Hall, James L. Brooks and Danny DeVito. It turns out that we did a decent enough job of taking good care of them and giving them an opportunity to enjoy the wonderful San Francisco audiences, that there is a little bit of a ripple effect where you have a couple of great well-regarded people come and have a good experience. Your chances of being able to secure more people off of that reputation alone kind of increases exponentially. We have so much to thank the people that took a chance on us at the beginning for making it possible for us to bring in all of our other heroes.
Paste: Why do you think San Francisco is a good place for the festival or comedy for that matter?
David Owen: There’s an atmosphere that is created in San Francisco Sketchfest shows where the performers feel a little more relaxed. They feel like they are in good hands with the audience here and it’s sort of a mutual feeling between the audience and the performer. They feel like they can experiment. They can try something and they’re not going to get judged. I think that the audience in San Francisco is super smart and they are all forgiving. They are willing to kind of go with a lot of different types of material and experimental forms of comedy. If a joke falls flat, it’s not a big deal.
Stratton: I think they are fair and attentive to important things. If you are up there and you are not doing great, they are not just going to reward you by going nuts. At the same time, if you are doing well they’re really going to respond. You could definitely get in some places where an audience will just start talking to each other and not paying attention or whatever. I feel like the audience (in San Francisco) really wants to be there, really appreciates the comedy and are there to engage with the performers.
Paste: There seemed to be a lot of films in this year’s lineup. Was it a coincidence that many of theses cult comedy films had anniversaries this year?
Owen: There definitely were a lot of anniversaries happening this year and we invited several films. I think maybe this year more performers were available this year than previous years. I’ve seen with the last three to four years, we’ve really started to expand this film program and bring a lot of our favorite films from when we grew up. We are always just trying to get as many as we can for the Castro Theater. It’s such a great place to bring these kinds of film.
Paste: Where do you think comedy is now compared to when you started this festival 13 years ago?
Varney: I think we all are going to say the exact same thing. For us, the real growth of YouTube and stuff has been just amazing to see the way we accept applications for the festival. Thank god for the Internet because it used to be that we would just get a million cassette tapes and DVDs of performances for people who are submitting. It was more challenging to get more information on up and coming groups and young fresh faces from all over the United States. It’s really inspiring to see that there are so many ways to get your stuff seen and to make and produce comedy whether you’re 15 years old or 70 years old. Short form comedy and sketch I think has become more widely accepted and understood. I know this sounds crazy, but when we first started, a lot of people didn’t really understand what sketch comedy was and I just don’t think that’s true anymore. There are just too many ways to get to know short form, sketch, scripted and improvised comedy. We used to have to explain to people like, “Well you know it’s like Saturday Night Live is right?”
Paste: The programming is insane every year, you just have so many good things to watch. How do you plan this? How soon do you start planning for the next year?
Owen: There’s always like a running list of people and shows that we want to get and sometimes it takes us five to six years to get somebody. We’ve been asking Alan Arkin for several years, it just happened too work out this time with his schedule. We finish the festival and we take a little break and we regroup and we go back to our list.
Paste: What are you guys most excited about this year?
Varney: Bored to Death is very exciting and it’s sort of fresh on all our minds. It’s a really great example of things that I am personally nerdy about from a lot of different times in my life. Ted Danson—I don’t know who in America doesn’t know him. We all grew up watching Cheers and he’s just proven to be such an astonishingly talented actor, above and beyond. His turn on Damages as a villain completely blew my mind. I think he’s so amazing. He really represents my childhood in an “Oh god, I love this person. I look up to him and I think he’s so talented and funny” way. Then you have Jason Schwartzman—I was so in love with Rushmore when it came out. That’s like a good (part) of me in my 20s where I loved Wes Anderson and Jason Schwartzman. Then Zack Galifianakis is a friend of the festival and someone that we met when we first performed as Totally False People. We watched his career rise and he’s always come back to Sketchfest. It just makes us feel fantastic and we respect him so much. Then Jonathan Ames is such an amazing writer and I loved his point of view and kind of where he found his notoriety. I think he’s just so specific and charming. I’m so excited that he’s coming. In a way it’s just cross section of what is important to me about comedy all coming together in one show.
Owen: One of mine is Alan Arkin. He’s one of my comic heroes forever. I mean a great actor but also just a great comedy icon. My favorite comic actors are Gene Wilder and Alan Arkin. We had Gene a few years ago and to get Alan this year is great. If Peter Sellers can come back to life he can come to Sketchfest next year.
Stratton: For me, there’s definitely a bunch of stuff I’m excited about. I’m pretty stoked that we managed to get almost all of the original nerds from Revenge of The Nerds.
Paste: Yeah, that’s pretty awesome.
Stratton: I mean it’s pretty much everybody but Anthony Edwards and it’s pretty fantastic. The fact that Chris Hardwick, king of the moderators, is moderating it, it’s going to be a pretty fantastic reunion screening.
Paste: It’s been 13 years what are some of your favorite moments that stand out to you?
Varney: I know so many good ones.
Owen: We did this event where we had the cast of Wet Hot American Summer do a live staged reading like a radio play. When they first walked out on stage, the audience went nuts. That was pretty exciting moment. It was such a huge event put together and it just came together in a couple of months. We put the idea out there to David Wain and Michael Showalter and they basically asked the cast, “You want to do this?” and pretty much everyone that was available said “I’m in! I want to do this!” Then to watch it happen kind of gave me chills. It was so funny and a cool exciting thing to do that you have ever seen anywhere before or since.
Stratton: I think it was Showalter backstage who said something like that if a bomb went off, comedy would be screwed because of the sheer volume of amazing comedians that were in that room. It was pretty tremendous.
Varney: I know I brought up Danny DeVito before and I’m just thinking of the show where we paid tribute to James L. Brooks and Danny DeVito moderated it. It’s just one of those moments. Sometimes when we’re in the spell of the festival, things that would be crazy to our 14-year-old self would feel so normal. That was one of them. We have these amazing performers who come in and immediately treat us like friends and family. Danny DeVito was just so incredibly warm and within five minutes of arriving at the theater and meeting the staff, he was hanging out on the couch with his feet up chatting with a couple of festival assistants. We were just there munching on chips and rapping with Danny DeVito. He made it seem like it was the most normal thing in the world and so we all felt like it was. After the fact we were like, “Wait are we best friends with Danny DeVito? What just happened?”
Stratton: For me it’s like the little things that like remind me of this is what we do and one was like years ago, like maybe the third or fourth year of the festival. The first time we did Paul F. Thompkins Show at the Eureka Theater. Colin Hay from Men at Work was the musical guest. I’m a big fan of his. I was driving him back to his hotel to pick up something that he forgot and I asked him what he was planning to play that night and he said he wasn’t sure yet and I was like, “Can you play ‘Overkill’?” because that’s my favorite song. He was like, “Yeah, alright I’ll play ‘Overkill’.” Then I’m just standing at the back of the theater and he plays two songs, one of which is “Overkill” and I was like, “I’m responsible for part of his set list.” Little things like that. It’s so cool that he’s just playing the song that I asked him to play. I don’t know, it’s just really weird!
Varney: We’re still nerds! When Ben Gibbard from Death Cab For Cutie came to play a couple of years ago, I was the producer that was in charge of getting him settled. I was doing some work up in the green room and he was the only other person in there. He started to warm up and sing “Such Great Heights” on his own acoustically and then he literally stops and turns to me and he was like, “I’m sorry is this bothering you?” I was like, “Opposite! Opposite! I’m getting a private concert!”
For more information and tickets to the shows visit SFSketchfest.com.