It seems like only yesterday that SF Sketchfest was a wee babe of a comedy festival. When David Owen, Cole Stratton and Janet Varney launched the festival in January 2002, it was just a loose showcase for six Bay Area sketch comedy groups. But it grew quickly, attracting national acts such as Upright Citizens Brigade and Fred Willard in its second year and growing exponentially ever since. Now that the festival's entering its terrible teens, the Sketchfest has become a star-studded 18-day extravaganza featuring the likes of Kids in the Hall's Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald, Tenacious D's Jack Black and Kyle Gass, Key & Peele, Laraine Newman and Maya Rudolph of Saturday Night Live, the casts of Napoleon Dynamite and Futurama, Doctor Who's Karen Gillen, Adam Savage of Mythbusters, Joel Hodgson of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Stella, Andy Richter, Mike White, Rashida Jones, Florence Henderson, Laura Dern, Alison Brie, Chris Elliott, Gilbert Gottfried, Rob Corddry, Alan Arkin, Megan Mullally, Bobcat Goldthwait, Julie Brown, and many, many, many, many more.
For two and a half weeks it's a full-scale comedy invasion of San Francisco, with more than 200 shows in more than 20 venues around the city. There are sketch comedy and improv events, live podcasts, standup comedy nights, onstage interviews with comedy greats, movie tributes, comic versions of radio serials, comedians' music projects and musicians' comedy projects, and there are still plenty of smaller and local acts packed alongside the big names.
What's more, many of these stars have been coming back to the festival for years.
This will be the third consecutive Sketchfest for Phil LaMarr, late of Mad TV and Futurama. "I got involved through knowing Janet," he recalls. "She and I worked together years ago. Initially it was just 'friends are doing something fun; let's go check it out.' But once I got there I was amazed at the breadth of it and the stature of people they've got showing up. Also the fact that it's the three of them -- at least initially it was the three of them, now it's a much bigger thing -- running a two-week festival in San Francisco. It's not like it's a little podunk town outside of Chico or something, where nobody's doing anything for two weeks anyway. The fact that they're able to get all these venues coordinated and get so many great people up there... I came just for the friendship and stayed because I was so impressed."
This year LaMarr's coming up for the first weekend of the fest, taking part in a "Farewell, Futurama!" event at Marines' Memorial Theatre on Saturday, January 25, with other members of the cartoon's voice cast, then that night he's performing at Brava Theater as part of The Black Version, in which a troupe of African-American comedians improvise "the black version" of a classic movie suggested by the audience. "One of my favorites was when we did Silence of the Lambs, which was called Why You Eatin' People?" LaMarr says. The next day he'll be a guest on Talkin' Toons with Rob Paulsen, a show about voice acting at Eureka Theatre.
This is Michael Showalter's seventh Sketchfest. The creator/star of The State, Wet Hot American Summer and The Baxter has only missed a couple of years since his first time at the festival in 2006. His frequent comedy partner Michael Ian Black has been an equally prolific presence, not always in the same year. They're all over the festival this year, performing their late-night infomercial parody You're Whole (say it out loud) at Brava on Friday the 31st. Later that night they're playing at Marines with their comedy group Stella. The afternoon of Saturday, February 1, the two Michaels are doing a live version of their podcast Topics at Brava, in which they simply discuss various weighty philosophical topics. That evening they're at Marines in Wainy Days Live, their Stella partner David Wain's web series about trying to meet women in New York City (guest-starring Rashida Jones of Parks and Recreation), and later that night they're facing off with Will and Grace's Megan Mullally and others in Uptown Showdown at Marines, in which two teams of comedians formally debate whether breakfast is better than dinner.
"They always cross-pollinate a lot," Showalter says. "So you go out there and maybe you'll do one or two things that are specifically your own thing, but then they'll have you be a guest on someone else's show or do a panel or participate in a different format. So they keep you really busy while you're out there, but it's a lot of fun."
It's also the seventh go-round for Saturday Night Live veteran Rachel Dratch, who's kept coming back since 2006. In years past she's performed as part of Upright Citizens Brigade's ASSSSCAT improv show and in Celebrity Autobiography, where comedians perform priceless verbatim excerpts from inane Hollywood tell-all books. "And I get tapped into a bunch of different groups," Dratch says. "There's this thing Janet has organized -- I think this is my third or fourth year doing this Theme Park Improv thing, which is kind of funny because it's a bunch of people who barely knew each other. It's the same people every year, but we only improvise once a year. That's always a fun little discovery as well."
This year Dratch is doing all three of those shows on the last weekend of the festival: Theme Park Improv at Brava on Friday, February 7; two shows of Celebrity Autobiography at Marines on Saturday, February 8 (in a cast also including Fred Willard, Florence Henderson and Laraine Newman); and ASSSSCAT at Marines later that night. But she's also performing on the 7th in Gravid Water at the Eureka. "It's based on this old improv game where they take a play and pair actors and improvisers," Dratch explains. "So the actors know half the dialogue of the play, they've memorized it, and then the improvisers just make up the other half of the dialogue." She'll also be a guest on The K Ohle Podcast with Kurt Braunohler at Punch Line that Saturday afternoon. So all told, she's doing shows at 8 and 10:15pm on Friday and 1, 4, 7, and 10pm on Saturday.
That doesn't exactly leave much time for checking out other shows, Dratch says. "Usually I just go for two nights or something, and I immediately feel like 'Oh! This looks really cool!' but it's at the same time as my show," she says. "I don't think I've ever got to check out anything else, because I'm just doing stuff the whole time. But it is kind of fun who you bump into at the parties and stuff -- like, 'Oh, I know you!' or you meet someone who you worshipped from afar. It's just all manner of people you've worked with or people you admire, so it's kind of fun to just sit there and gawk."
If you've ever looked at the Sketchfest schedule and marveled at the array of talent the festival manages to bring in from all corners of the comedy ecosystem, well, so do the comedians themselves. "I love San Francisco, and it's just kind of amazing the level of talent they bring there, and I also think it's really cool that it goes on for weeks," Dratch attests. "Back in my day, the Aspen Comedy Festival was the big thing that everybody wanted to go to, and I guess that was a little bit more for getting discovered than this one is, but this has sort of replaced that in terms of the big names and the variety of things you can see there."
Showalter agrees. "For the comedians, I think it's their favorite festival, just because it feels very authentic and very much about the love of comedy and the whole community of it," he says. "And I think people really like the fact that, at this point anyway, it doesn't feel overly corporate or like it's a kind of industry showcase. It really feels much more folksy than that. And it's an incredible cross-section of what's going on."
SF Sketchfest runs January 23 through February 9, 2014 at various venues in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit sfsketchfest.com.