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Interview: The Minds Behind SF Sketchfest

By Sean Keane

David Owen, Cole Stratton and Janet Varney co-founded the San Francisco Sketchfest in back 2001. Since then, the festival has grown into one of the premier showcases of cutting edge comedy in the United States.

San Francisco based stand up comedian Sean Keane recently had the opportunity to ask SF Sketchfest creators some questions about the origins of the festival, their selection process, and if there are any plans to add Jay Leno to the bill this year.

The first SF Sketchfest began in 2001 at the Shelton Theatre. How long did it take to become the huge mega-event it is today?

Cole Stratton: By my questionable math, we’re on our ninth year now, so nine years. Though we took huge strides every year to make it happen–in year two, we moved from the 70 seat Shelton to the 200 seat Eureka Theater, opened the fest up to submissions from outside groups, and somehow convinced Fred Willard and the Upright Citizens Brigade to come and take a chance on a new festival. Every year, we added more headliners, more emerging groups, more venues, more shows, all the while doing it independent of major corporate funding. We branched out from just sketch to involve improv, stand-up, panels, tributes, music and alternative comedy. The headliners had a great time and told their friends, and we started to get a great reputation in the comedy community, and it all snowballed from there.”

Sketchfest seems to be producing an increasing number of shows outside of the actual festival. Are there plans to continue expanding the reach of Sketchfest past January and February?

David Owen: Our focus remains on the January festival, but other events do pop up from time to time during other months, such as the Icelandic Pumpkin Garlic Film, Dance and Electronic Music Octoberfest we plan to do in July.

There’s a lot of sketch acts and comedians from both New York and LA. Are you worried that an East Coast-West Coast feud might develop?

Janet Varney: Yes, we recognize that this is a very real threat. Comedians are a violent, courageous breed. But we’ve taken steps: this is the first year performers won’t be allowed to keep any props in their laps for the last hour of the flight- oh- I mean show, in order to prevent them from setting their underwear on fire. We also didn’t accept any groups this year with the words “Jets” or “Sharks” in their names.

What do you look for when choosing new Sketchfest standups? Does it simply come down to funniness, or is the focus more on alternative and character comedy?

Cole Stratton: Mostly we look for height–the taller the comedian, the better chance we have of booking them. Oh, and if they can comedically point out the differences of men and women, and say “Folks…” and “So what else is going on?” a lot. Actually, the main criteria is if it appeals to our comedic sensibilities–it’s never been about what will sell, but what we think is funny. We also love stand-ups that take chances and do things a little differently, like the Brent Weinbachs and Will Frankens of the world.

What’s your favorite local comedy venue?

David Owen: That’s like asking Sophie to choose which child will die. We like all the local comedy venues. Especially the ones that have SF Sketchfest shows in them.

Besides Iron Comic & The Business, what shows are you most excited to see this year?

Janet Varney: There’s a group from Pajama Rock, Michigan called Peanut Feet that only does sketches about woodworking. It’s exciting to feel like you have something to do with bringing the next big woodworking-based sketch group to the masses. Other than that, we’re just generally amazed at the caliber of talent coming to SF this year, from the new groups who are just getting started, to legends like Dick Cavett and everyone in between.

Have you considered getting a mascot for Sketchfest, like the Chronicle’s Little Man, or perhaps just Paul F. Tompkins?

Cole Strattion: Funny you should mention Tompkins–we have a festival poster that we have all of the performers sign as a keepsake, and last year, above the festival title, Paul signed it with an apostrophe, so it reads “Paul F. Tompkins’ 8th Annual SF Sketchfest.” We don’t really have a San Diego Chicken or anything, though it would be great anti-comedy to try to get Jimmy Pardo to wear a mascot suit for Sketchy, the SF Sketchfest Swashbuckling Sketch-e-teer or something. We sort of do have mascots in the three blue laughy guys that have been part of our logo and festival designs since year one (of the festival, not the Jack Black/Michael Cera movie).

Do you have a wish list for performers that have not yet done Sketchfest before?

David Owen: No, but we keep a list of people we wish would not do it. But like all wishes, if you say them out loud, they won’t come true.

One of the marquee events at this year’s Sketchfest is the conversation with Tribute Award winner Conan O’Brien, on January 17th at the Herbst Theater. How did you land Conan, and has Jay Leno tried to convince you to give him the Award instead?

Janet Varney: When we created the SF Sketchfest Tribute, Conan truly was one of the very first people we knew we wanted to present it to. We’ve been writing him letters nearly every year, but his schedule never permitted until this year. It also might have something to do with the fact that every day for the last 473 days, we’ve been sending him 8 dozen boxes of jordan almonds. He may not even like jordan almonds. It’s possible he agreed simply to get us to stop.

For more information, including festival line up and ticket sales, please visit www.sfsketchfest.com

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