San Francisco Sketchfest (presented by Audible) is underway for its 18th event and the line up is tremendous. The long running fest is the most comprehensive of all the major festivals extensively covering every corner of comedy. Stand up is represented in full force, and there’s also brilliant sketch performers, some of the best panels and screenings in comedy film and television, there’s music, there are podcasts galore and plenty of interactive and social experiences. The curation is phenomenal- the lineup is loaded with a comedy candy store of legends, current stars and up and coming young talents. In anticipation of this year’s fest which is gears up today, we spoke with one of the festival’s curators and founders, Cole Stratton about what festival-goers can expect this year.
This year’s fest has over 700 performers playing 270 shows, and Cole says most of them will be pretty packed. “There’s really nothing like it with sold out shows going on at up to a dozen venues at any given time. Putting it all together is akin to assembling a giant jigsaw puzzle of all kinds of programming not only in terms of genres of comedy but also performers of all different backgrounds. “We just try to do the most inclusive, giant festival we can, to kind of get every kind of comedy taste represented,” he said, pointing out that the fest includes an amazing array of minority performers, in terms of race, sexual orientation, age and comedic style. “So it’s just a matter of just like finding pieces that fit together, and eventually it all clicks. But we never really know what it’s gonna be like when we go into it.”
The 17 day comedy party is full of the kind of legends that make you gasp, because Cole and the rest of the team work hard to bring together people who don’t necessarily make the rounds at all the festivals. There are some truly special experiences to be had this year, as always. For example, Carol Burnett. “Carol’s one that we had been working on for years,” Cole told me. “We’d asked her several times, she was always interested, but just never worked out timing wise. She’s always been on our bucket list of people that we would love to honor, and then this year happened to be the year where the stars aligned, and it happened.” Patience is part of the reason SFSF gets such crazy good lineups. Each year they put together a massive list (yes even bigger than the list you see on their final schedule), and hope that a handful will come through, and so far that’s worked out beautifully for them. It doesn’t hurt that they have a reputation for putting on a great festival. Friends of friends of friends who have done the festival and have had a great time put in a good word to other performers. Cole explained. “We get an idea, then we reach out to some key cogs. A lot of the time it’s people that we have a relationship with, for example, Christoper Guest is on the festival, I think four or five years in a row now. He came through initially, because we had others that were related to him, you know? We’ve had Michael Hitchcock and John Michael Higgins, and people like that in the past and stuff. Then he came and he had a great time, so, now it’s like we have an idea, we go to him and say, “Hey, we’d like to reunite the cast, what do you think?” If he’s on board, then it’s easier for us to start going through our personal connections, and as well as reps saying, “Hey, we’re thinking about doing this, so and so is interested.” Then they all kind of start to jump on board, and it gets a little easier than you would think. If people have had enthusiasm for the project and they all love each other, then they love to have an excuse to get together in San Francisco for a weekend and hang out.”
Last year Peter Riegert came to Sketchfest for an Animal House Tribute, and enjoyed the festival so much he agreed to come back this year for a tribute to Local Hero. “It’s been on lists in the past, it’s just such a wonderful, whimsical little movie and we love the The Castro, it’s one of our favorite places to do shows, and we just try to cram a bunch of stuff in per day there.”
The Tribute shows are a cornerstone of the fest, and honor legends in the business, iconic films, and casts of unforgettable shows. Cole explained they like to play with the formats for the tributes, sometimes doing fun pairings for interviews (like Carol Burnett who will be talking with Wendy Malick this year) or turning a roast format upside down to have a dais honor a guest with a celebration of their career. A few years ago for a Fred Willard tribute they invited friends like Rob Klein and Martin Mull to participate. “That’s also a fun way to get some of those people to this festival that you wouldn’t necessarily come otherwise. But when they find out that you’re paying tribute to one of their good friends and collaborators, they jump at the chance to come up.”
Beyond the obvious headlining events (Carol Burnett and Best in Show for example), Sketchfest has so many choices for fans looking to check out something new including some really creative offerings in non-traditional settings. “We’re always looking to experiment, and do things in places that you wouldn’t normally have comedy,” he said. Like Shit Arcade a New York Show run by Mike Drucker where Mike and the other comedians on the lineup play the worst video games ever on stage, and talk about them. “Like Bible Adventures, and things like that. It’s just completely ridiculous, and it’s always a kick, but I don’t think a lot of people know about it yet, so that’s one I would definitely point out.” Stratton also recommends checking out Brunches with Funches (and Emmy Blotnik and Hari Kondabolu), a weekend populated with a cross pollination of everything Paul F. Tompkins and John Hodgman and their circle of friends and like minded comedians, the return of Jimmy Pardo and Never Not Funny, and Night Life which features unique after hours shows throughout the California Academy of Sciences- a massive natural history museum at Golden Gate Park.
And no one should miss the six interactive immersive comedy nights at Speak Easy, which is new this year, in an interactive theater space. Cole described what to expect. “It’s like a 1930’s style themed speak easy place, there’s a couple of bars, there’s a main cabaret showroom, there’s a bunch of hidden rooms, a secret entrance, that kinda stuff too.Normally when you go and do shows there, there’s performers that roam around and interact with you, from the 1930’s and stuff, people get all dolled up and stuff, and it’s cool. We did a couple of after parties there last year, and everybody was like, “This place is amazing, we should do some shows here.” So we [inaudible] this year to do these kind of interactive shows, that’ll be kind of a combination of, you know, some traditional stand-up on the main cabaret stage, but also a bunch of roving experiences. Mike Ian Black’s gonna go and deal some cards in the casino, and things like that. If people wandering around into these little rooms they never know who they’re gonna find, while improvisors wandering around too and stuff. So it’s just kind of different interactive comedy thing, combining, you know, up and comers, along with some giant headliners each Friday and Saturday night. So that’s definitely a different thing that we’re trying out this year, that we’re pretty excited for.”
There are literally too many great shows and comedians and posts to list.
Regardless of what your comedy interests, San Francisco Sketchfest has something for everyone including great audiences. “We’ve been lucky in a sense that we get amazing performers every year, but also people come out. The audiences are great in San Francisco, they’re appreciative, and just ends up kind of being one big love fest between the performers and the audiences and stuff, which allows us to put this on year after year.”
San Francsico Sketchfest runs from January 10 through the 27th. Go to sfsketchfest.com for info and tickets.