For Local Comics, SF Sketchfest Is More a Vision Board Than a Jackpot

Kate Willett, host of the weekly Mission Position comedy show in SF. (Anja Ulfedt)

Kate Willett pauses our interview about the value of SF Sketchfest to local comedians like her.

One of Willett’s 23 roommates has interrupted to ask why the dining room door was closed. Beside him a short-legged resident dog whimpers the same question.

“Oh, that’s okay, let it in,” Willett says good-naturedly from a settee inside this old San Francisco nunnery, remade into an artist co-op.

Willett refers to this bohemian living situation in her comic material. When she’s doing stand-up on the road -- she’s a regular opener for Margaret Cho nationwide -- Willett might start with: “I’m from San Francisco. I live in a hippie commune, you know, essential oils, vision boards.” (A vision board being something like a pictorial wish list for what you want from the universe.) Willett’s punchline is about how all she would have on her vision board are penis pictures and a Comedy Central logo.

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About those cable network ambitions: Willett won’t be the only rising Bay Area comic at Sketchfest, happening in SF clubs and theaters Jan. 7 - 24, with dreams of crushing it as a writer or performer on TV. Would killing at Sketchfest help?

Consistent with recent years, of the 500 or so comedians featured at Sketchfest 2016, the majority come from the comedy nexus of the universe, Los Angeles. Many Sketchfest acts have San Francisco in their DNA, but left for greater glory in L.A. (The long list includes Moshe Kasher and festival co-founder/SFSU alum Janet Varney.) Another Sketchfest co-founder, David Owen, bristles when I shared the nickname one comedian applied to this SF event: “L.A. Comedy Festival North.”

"That’s a bit lazy," Owen says. "A lot (of comics) are from New York, from L.A., because there just happen to be more comedians there." Sketchfest’s lineup always includes talent from the Bay Area. This year Portland, Chicago, even Austin are represented, Owen added, but could offer no data on the overall breakdown. "We don’t have a spreadsheet about where everyone is from."

Festival organizers say among the 50,000 attendees you’ll find Hollywood agents and talent scouts. Former local (now Los Angeles-based) David Gborie confirms he was scouted at the 2012 Sketchfest.

David Gborie
David Gborie

"I was approached by a manager and went to L.A. for a meeting, but didn't end up signing," he says. (Gborie is returning for another Sketchfest appearance, and still uses the Bay Area "hella" in jokes, as in, "It’s hella irritating that you don’t all have the same views as me.”)

This will be the fourth Sketchfest appearance for Willett, the SF comic in a hippie commune. Willett and I worked on an indie web project, so she’s comfortable exploding my misconceptions about professional comedy. She laughs off the idea that Sketchfest, possibly the largest comedy fest in America in calendar length, lineup and programming size, could thrust an emerging performer into stardom. Willett calls that notion "totally pretend."

“Sometimes people who aren’t comedians think there’s this moment where you have a great set, and someone from the entertainment industry is going to see you, and then they’re going to put you on TV," she says.  "And after that you will be famous. Almost nothing about that is true.”

Breaks come when A-listers get to know you over time, become stage allies, then offer you work, she says. “The way that you get your first really big opportunities as a stand-up is through other comedians.”

Margaret Cho -- who was just a local San Francisco comedian before she broke through.
Margaret Cho -- who was, of course, just a local San Francisco comedian before she broke through.

After crossing paths at SF gigs, Bay Area native Cho tapped Willett for touring. They appeared together last year at that grand dame of comedy fests, Montreal’s venerable Just For Laughs. A Comedy Central producer in attendance later booked Willett on a show called “This Is Not Happening.” Still, Willett is not a celebrity. She does not have an agent.

Andy Wood, director of the popular and small-ish Bridgetown Comedy Festival in Portland, agreed that no festival appearance could make a career. "There’s no one thing that launches people overnight," says Wood, who is appearing at Sketchfest’s Probably Science show. Maybe in the ‘90s at the Montreal fest you could get seen, then get a development deal and your own sitcom on the spot, he said. Not anymore.

"No one goes, ‘Hey kid, you’re going straight to the top!’" he says. "The biggest benefit (to comedy festivals) is making connections with other performers. It’s a great -- and I hate this word -- networking opportunity. Like summer camp for comedians."

If the real value to under-the-radar talent is meeting successful performers, then Sketchfest certainly sets up a good situation for professional hookups. There are private parties for performers only -- taking selfies with Billy Crystal, Maya Rudolph, Janeane Garofalo or Jon Hamm could be possible this year.

Mike Spiegelman
Mike Spiegelman

For an anecdote about unexpected magic between locals and out-of-towners at Sketchfest, consider Mike Spiegelman. He talked with me as he readied to take a worn wooden stage for his Tuesday showcase at Oakland’s Layover. In the rear of this narrow bar, a cluster of comics were sharing gossip on pillow-strewn banquettes. (Spiegelman would later introduce them as: “Probably the finest comedians who could make it on time.”)

I ask for his biggest Sketchfest memory.

No, not the time he was in the newspaper as part of the inaugural Sketchfest in 2002, back when when it was exclusively Bay Area entertainers. "I (was) in the paper...but I had no money. I really couldn’t pay rent," he says.

The highlight was the time Sketchfest co-founder Cole Stratton needed a last-minute stand-in for a live reading of “Shakes the Clown,” so Spiegelman joined a famous ensemble with Bobcat Goldthwait, Kevin Pollack, Julie Brown, and others for a rendition of the 1992 cult movie.

“I got to perform for so many Shakes fans.”

Spiegelman's now entering his eighth Sketchfest of the 15 there have been, this time with a sketch group called the Great Difficulties. Making new comedy connections for work opportunities is great, he notes. But Spiegelman concentrates his praise on organizers for their dedication to making comics' experiences special over all.

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“You get to meet your comedy heroes.”