An Iconic Comedy Festival Adapts to the New Normal

By: David Sharma


Since the start of the pandemic, many comedians, comedy clubs, and festivals have had to shut down. Comedy has always been there during challenging times, but 

SketchFest has been a San Francisco tradition since 2002. Though it started out local, it has garnered national recognition and draws many comedians and comedy-lovers in. Unlike most ideas of comedy, not only is this an outlet to express stand-up comedy, but also improvisation and other theatrical numbers that incorporate different aspects of comedy. 

The success of SketchFest is all due to the three founders:  Janette Varney, David Owen, and Cole Stratton. Cole Stratton is the co-host of the very popular comedy podcast, “Pop My Culture”, and has appeared on several television shows. Janet Varney is an Emmy-nominated actress who has starred in many comedy specials. David Owen has produced many festivals and is great at creating a fantastic setlist. 

All three founders have roots that connect closely to San Francisco. They began their careers at San Francisco State University, working together in a comedy group. They discovered that not only did they have a knack for performing stand-up, but also an appreciation for watching and showcasing other talent as well. SF Sketchfest was born out of an idea to showcase Bay Area Comedy talent. In 2002, the SketchFest showcased six Bay Area comedy groups: The Fresh Robots, Kasper Hauser, The Meehan Brothers, Please Leave the Bronx, Totally False People and White Noise Theater. The first performance was at the Shelton Theater in San Francisco, CA.

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SF Sketchfest started in 2002 at The Shelton theater, with only 80 seats. The first festival was such a success that by 2003 they had to move into a few larger venues, such as the Brava Theater, to accommodate the growing crowd. Only after a couple years, SketchFest would be showcased at several venues in the San Francisco Bay Area – drawing in acts and admirers from all over. As SketchFest Grew, so did the lineup and kinds of comedy being showcased. Though the festival started as a way to showcase many stand-up acts, it quickly became an outlet for improvisational theater and many other branches of humor. Sketch comedy, film and television reunions and tribute acts, and physical comedy performers all were a part of the festival. 

In 2011, SketchFest celebrated their 10th anniversary. Utilizing nearly a dozen venues in the Bay Area, it was filled with several acts which embodied the thrill and excitement of SketchFest. With an Airplane! tribute act, several famous stand-up comedians, the original cast of SNL, with Neil Patrick Harris, and the 10th Anniversary show was a true testament to how important and larger-than-life this event has become. Unfortunately with the pandemic still growing, a new festival has been postponed. “The safety of our artists, staff and audiences is our No. 1 priority,” writes Stratton, Owen, and Varney in a joint statement. The 20th anniversary of the festival has been postponed until Jan 20th – Feb 5, 2023. Tickets are now available and the added wait will likely add to the excitement.

One comedian who was expected to return to the now-postponed Sketchfest is Annette Mullaney. Mullaney, who is also a former student at City College of San Francisco, got into comedy reluctantly. “A friend who was pursuing comedy in LA and encouraged me to do it and I was like nah”. With enough encouragement, and as a New Years Resolution, Mullaney finally caved into the idea of trying out comedy. She attended an open mic and, as she described it, “ate shit”. Never a quitter, Mullaney described her reason for continuing stand-up even after a rocky start; “I should be able to do it okay at least once”. Mullaney had performed at Sketcheft in 2019 and described the experience as being “sick”. “Sold out shows, audiences are hyped, you get to meet a lot of cool people. People are coming into town to see and be in the show. I was bummed that the shows got canceled… It’s cool to see performers from sketchfest go on to do bigger things: on television, different shows.” During the pandemic, Mullaney opted for zoom shows, along with outdoor showcases. “Stand-up is interactive. On zoom, you ask a question and everyone is silent!” The comedy scene in SF, according to Mullaney, is terrific: you don’t have to pay to perform, buy a drink to get in, and often are able to find an open mic to attend. Sketchfest has been a foundation for the comedy scene in SF, and many of the comedians you’ll find performing in the “bar on a Tuesday night” are also the ones that will soon be on the lineup at Sketchfest. 

For twenty years SF Sketchfest has not only stood the test of time, but also grown and flourished into something which people from all over the world come to see. It not only showcases well-known comedians, but gives a space for up and coming talent as well. Even through a pandemic, Sketchfest has remained and is currently preparing for a 20th anniversary. The greatest comedians know how to think on their feet. From hecklers and now to COVID, the show will continue to go on.

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