Funny Business

Janet Varney, Cole Stratton and David Owen

Janet Varney, Cole Stratton and David Owen deserve a high-five for organizing SF Sketchfest, declared a review from The Onion that described the trio's annual event as "comedic victory."
Photo courtesy of SF Sketchfest

SF Sketchfest bills itself as "the San Francisco comedy festival," but that's too modest. Really, it's The San Francisco comedy festival: the one that began in 2002 as a way for David Owen (B.A., '99), Cole Stratton (B.A., '00) and Janet Varney (B.A., '97) to join their own sketch collective, Totally False People, with five others from the Bay Area for a month's worth of laughter. More than seven years later, interest in the festival has only grown, thanks to an annual lineup of luminaries, among them, Bob Odenkirk, Gene Wilder, the Kids in the Hall and Dana Carvey (B.A., '79).

Each January SF Sketchfest hosts standup comics and sketch performers for about 10,000 fans in nearly a dozen venues across the city, from The Purple Onion to the Castro Theatre. "It's a bit surreal for us to see where the festival is at now," Stratton says. "As comedy nerds, we've been able to bring in a lot of our heroes and up and coming performers we greatly admire."

The trio doesn't perform together much any more; Stratton and Varney now live and work as actors in Los Angeles (among other things, Stratton was a lead in the indie comedy "Callback" opposite Kevin Farley; Varney co-hosts TBS's "Dinner and a Movie"). Owen, still a local, has managerial roles with the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Mill Valley Film Festival and Stanford Jazz Festival. But convening yearly to stir up their own expanding extravaganza and coordinate its unruly logistics -- screening audition videos from prospective participants, gathering sponsorships, booking venues, coordinating schedules, having a blast -- isn't something any of them imagine giving up any time soon.

Owen, who hopes SF Sketchfest will one day "take over the whole city" much like the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, says his time in SF State's Brown Bag Theater Co. helped encourage his creative dreams. "There's a faculty adviser, but they stay out of the way," he says. You're kind of thrown into this thing with a group of like minds and forced to learn on the job how to produce a season of shows." The community aspect of the Theatre Arts Department and the contacts he made at SF State were equally valuable, he adds.

Varney agrees. "I don't know if I would have done any comedy at all if not for SF State," she says. "It was really through friends like Dave and Cole that I got talked into performing. I was embarrassed and sort of nervous but they said, 'What are you talking about? You're a total goof. Come on.'"

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