Kick off 2019 with two solid weeks of comedy from January 10-27. Seeing renowned comics, incredible up-and-comers, and outside-the-box comedy hijinks at venues all over San Francisco is a guaranteed mood-lifter for the new year. Banish the winter doldrums and infuse your world with way more hilarity through the power of Sketchfest, a comedy festival that spans multiple theaters and event spaces, and includes hundreds of shows.
In 2001, Cole Stratton, David Owen, and Janet Varney were part of a local sketch comedy group called Totally False People. “There weren’t a lot of places in San Francisco to perform sketch comedy, and you couldn’t get a theater unless you rented it for at least a month,” says Cole. “So, the idea was to rent a theater for a month, call it a festival, get together with a couple other local groups, and see what happened.”
That was the very first Sketchfest, and it rapidly expanded into a comedy world favorite that’s kept growing with more venues, more performers, and more comedy styles.
The year 2019 marks the 18th annual Sketchfest, and there are so many exciting new shows and comedy adventures in store. We chatted with Cole to get his advice on can’t-miss shows, etiquette tips, and everything you need to know about Sketchfest this year.
4 facts to get in the Sketchfest spirit
Sketchfest is still a grassroots operation. “Sketchfest is still run by the three of us without any major corporate underwriting,” says Cole. “We’re stoked that Audible has been a sponsor for the last couple years, but it’s still very organic. People think that it’s a big machine and, really, it’s not. If you want to meet at the Sketchfest offices, you’ll have to swing by one of our apartments.”
It’s not just sketch. Sketch is in the title, but the festival offers a huge variety of comedy.
“There’s stand-up, improv, TV and film tributes, and music,” says Cole. “Basically, our only real rule is, is it funny and do we like it?”
There’s so much happening. “Whatever kind of comedy you like, there’s something for you,” says Cole. Unlike many festivals, Sketchfest does individual ticketing instead of day or multi-day passes. “All of our venues are fairly close to each other and everything is individually ticketed, so there is a way you could come up for a weekend if you’re not local and see a bunch of stuff.” Put together your own dream comedy itinerary and go have fun.
Check out the next big thing. There are lots (and lots and lots) of seriously big names at Sketchfest this year, but don’t forget to add the next big stars to your comedy agenda. “Check out the new up-and-comers,” says Cole. “You’ll see a ton of emerging acts at some of the smaller venues, and you’ll see newer comics and sketch groups from throughout the country.”
How to be the best Sketchfest attendee
We know you would never heckle. Right? Right. But maybe you’re accidentally at a stand-up show with a confused potential heckler? Here’s the deal. “Sometimes, people think that it’s a dialogue and they really talk back to the comics a lot,” says Cole. “And sometimes, the comic asks questions and wants to engage the audience, but a lot of the time, it’s not a two-way street. Just come and laugh and have a good time, but you don’t have to talk to the comics onstage.”
Got the mic at a Q&A? Be succinct. “Remember, questions start with ‘you’ and not ‘I,’” says Cole. Make sure you’re really asking a question, not just telling a lengthy story. “Come up with something concise, know what you’re going to ask, and ask it.”
Want to approach your favorite comic? Here’s how. A lot of the time, you might see comedians on the street or lingering after the show. Is it appropriate to approach them?
“If they’re out in front of the venue or in the lobby or something, it’s fair game,” says Cole. “Most of our performers are super generous and love to say hi to people and sign their program or pause for a photo. There’s nothing wrong with approaching people, as long as you’re nice and polite. People who aren’t into that, we usually whisk in and out so you don’t have the chance to try to approach them.”
Sneak peek: acts to catch at Sketchfest 2019
“We have a record amount of shows this year, around 270, so there’s a lot going on,” says Cole. “I feel like a needle in a haystack of needles, and all the needles are gold. The lineup is super diverse and there’s amazing stuff from all sorts of people.”
Not sure where to start? Kick off your Sketchfest lineup with Cole’s top three insider recommendations.
Sketchfest at SF Speakeasy: “This year, we’re doing six shows at Speakeasy, which is this interactive theater space that’s like a 1920s speakeasy,” says Cole. “We created six different interactive comedy experiences with different headliners.” Michael Ian Black, Janeane Garofalo, and David Cross are just a few of the big names appearing at these shows.
But beyond the headliners, each performance includes performers and surprises scattered throughout the venue. “There’s a room with a two-way mirror where we’ll have some comics doing some stuff where they can’t hear if anyone likes their jokes,” says Cole. “There’s Jokeoke, which is kind of like karaoke but with comedy routines, and comedians will have office hours where you can go in and chat with them. You never know what’s going to happen.”
SF Sketchfest Tribute: Carol Burnett, in conversation with Wendie Malick: “Obviously, Carol Burnett is the biggest deal for us because she’s an icon,” says Cole. Get to know this legend as she sits down with the incredible Wendie Malick for a conversation at the Castro Theatre. “That’s the one everyone should go to,” says Cole. In fact, it’s the only performance on Monday, specifically so Sketchfest creators and performers all have the chance to attend.
Shit Arcade: “Shit Arcade is hosted by this comedian Mike Drucker from New York, who gets the worst video games out there, like Bible Adventures and Shaq-Fu,” says Cole. “He and other comics play them live onstage on a monitor and comment on them, and it’s really funny.” The lineup this year includes Paul Scheer, Kat Radley, and Lisa Curry.
Inspired to snag tickets to some Sketchfest shows? There are so many incredible comics and performers to see in 2019. Check out a few of the shows popping up this January.