Bringing the funny

  • by Sari Staver
  • Friday January 11, 2019
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Varla Jean Merman and Peaches Christ star in "The Whining," part of SF Sketchfest. Photo: Courtesy SF Sketchfest
Varla Jean Merman and Peaches Christ star in "The Whining," part of SF Sketchfest. Photo: Courtesy SF Sketchfest

SF Sketchfest, the nationally recognized comedy festival born and bred in San Francisco, brings more than 200 shows and 700 performers to stages around town for 18 days beginning Jan. 10. The festival features sketch, improv, stand up, alternative comedy, music, films, live podcasts, storytelling, panels, and workshops.

As in previous years, many shows include LGBT performers, including headliners Peaches Christ, Neil Patrick Harris, and Margaret Cho, as well as notable talents Cameron Esposito, Rhea Butcher, Kevin Allison, Martin Ranch, Guy Branum, Gabe Liedman, Joel Kim Booster, Matteo Lane, Scott Thompson, and Solomon Georgio.

Launched in 2002 by three San Francisco State students who wanted to showcase the talents of local sketch-comedy groups, the event took place at one venue, Shelton Theatre in Union Square. Since then, the event has grown to over 200 shows in more than a dozen venues across the city.

"From nationally prominent stars to local favorites and up-and-coming groups from around the world, Sketchfest has something for everyone," said co-producer Janet Varney. "I know that might sound kind of cheesy, but if you take the time to look through the program, I bet you'll probably find someone you've enjoyed from afar and would love to see in a more intimate stage performance."

In a telephone interview with the B.A.R., Varney talked about what makes SF Sketchfest a local treasure. Nineteen years ago, when she was an undergraduate student at SF State, while the city had a "rich comedy history," there were very few places to perform, Varney said. She and her two co-founders, also students at the time, contacted five other groups doing sketch comedy to see if they'd be open to doing a festival together.

"There was a wonderful vibe, and we were very lucky to get a lot of press coverage" that helped to fill the seats. At the cabaret night, where everyone performed, the audience was exposed to groups they night not have otherwise seen. The camaraderie and support that developed at the festival have been a part of Sketchfest through the years, Varney said. Performers are anxious to come to San Francisco, "where we are known for having s smart, sophisticated audience," and also know they'll have the opportunity to meet and socialize with other performers at parties held each weekend of the festival.

Varney said the festival is a "summer camp for comedians," a phrase coined by Fred Armisen. "People hang out together backstage and have a chance to spend quality time with friends and colleagues," she said. "People tell us that's the best part of coming, in addition to performing, of course."

The festival is "pretty much of a break-even" operation, she said. "I'm happy to say we never had a year" when they thought they might run into financial difficulties. "None of us began this with any sort of business training or financial acumen," she said. "We learned on our feet, and I'm thrilled and honored to say we've been successful and hope to keep" producing the festival long into the future.

Here are some capsule summaries of performances, in order of performance date, Varney thought might be of particular interest to B.A.R. readers:

There will be a tribute to trailblazing modern comedy icon and former Bay Area resident Margaret Cho, with an onstage conversation and audience Q&A, moderated by Ben Fong-Torres. (1/10)

"The Next Wave of Stand-Up Comedy Stars" includes a performance by Matteo Lane, a New York-based comedian who is in the new Comedy Central series "The Comedy Jam," and recently performed on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert." Lane is also performing on Jan. 12 in "Streisand at the Bon Soir," a recreation of an early Streisand recording. (1/11)

LA standup comic Cameron Esposito is among the guests in an hour-long conversation, "Queery," exploring individual stories of identity, personality, and the shifting cultural matrix around gender, sexuality, and civil rights. In addition to her work as a nationally touring headliner, Cameron has appeared on NBC, CBS, and Comedy Central. (1/12)

LA stand-up comic Rhea Butcher. Photo: Courtesy SF Sketchfest  

"Queer and Now" from Martini Ranch features Austin's only all-LGBT-identifying comedy troupe. Their sketches range from emotionally gut-wrenching to explosively absurd, whether addressing the difficulty of coming out to an aging Catholic abuelita, or the conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Jon Benet Ramsey. (1/12-13)

SF Sketchfest will "roast" Peaches Christ at an all-star show at the Castro Theatre as San Francisco's favorite drag queen turns 45 years old. Confirmed roasters include Clea DuVall, Heklina, Heather Matarazzo, Jinkx Monsoon, Cassandra Peterson (aka Elvira, Mistress of the Dark), Sister Roma, Mink Stole, Roast Mistress Coco Peru, and special surprise guests. (1/13)

"Greetings from Queer Mountain," the queen mother of queer storytelling series, features a diverse collection of work from LGBT performers across the country. (1/13)

LA stand-up comic Rhea Butcher brings her blue-collar brand of cool to the stage. Butcher has appeared on HBO's "2 Dope Queens," "The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail," "@Midnight" and "Conan." (1/17)

Peaches Christ and Varla Jean Merman star in "The Whining," a story of what happens when two well-known queens spend a winter in the snowy, abandoned, summer resort locale of Provincetown. (1/22-23)

"The Gale" is an entirely improvised comedy show that premiered on the world-famous Groundlings stage in 2015, and has been selling out monthly performances ever since. (1/26-27)

SF Sketchfest presents a tribute to Neil Patrick Harris for his "extraordinary, versatile, multi-award-winning career" in TV, film, and stage. (1/27)

Full schedule: