In the know
What: 13th annual SF Sketchfest
When: Thursday, Jan. 23, through Sunday, Feb. 9
Where: Various locations throughout San Francisco
Albert Einstein didn’t finish high school.
Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.
Cole Stratton was not named class clown of Davis High.
Despite their early setbacks, all three men went on to be standouts in their respective fields.
Einstein took science to new heights, Jordan captured six NBA championships and Stratton helped co-found the SF Sketchfest. The comedy bonanza opens its 13th season Thursday, Jan. 23, at multiple San Francisco venues and runs through Sunday, Feb. 9.
“SF Sketchfest is all so surreal to us,” said Stratton, who founded it with David Owen and Janet Varney. “We started it as young college comedy nerds, and then it just kinda grew a bit each year.
“It’s all grassroots, and it’s still true to that model 13 years later,” the 1994 DHS graduate added. “I think we’ve managed to do well because we’re performers at heart but also all have a mind for business and being organized.”
Stratton honed his skills in Davis and Sacramento theater companies.
“I took my very first improv class when I was 12,” said Stratton, who started with Buck Busfield. “Dave Burmester ran an improv group at Davis High called Improv CORE that I was part of, so I was always doing it and dreaming of a life in comedy or theater or film. I also did a lot of theater at (Davis Musical Theatre Company).
“So honestly, what I am doing now feels like a natural extension of what I was doing in Davis growing up,” he added.
Busfield, the co-founder and producing artistic director of B Street Theatre in Sacramento, recalled working with Stratton when he was a teenager.
“He was a highly motivated and creative kid,” Busfield said. “I was most impressed with his highly vivid imagination. He made me laugh a lot.”
Busfield, who knows what it takes to build a successful theatrical business, was not surprised by the success Stratton has had on stage or with the launch of Sketchfest.
“Sketch actors have a unique skill set,” Busfield said. “Great legit actors often flounder at sketch and improv. Improv takes remarkable concentration and mental relaxation. Cole had that.”
Stratton keeps himself on the top of his game by working with various improv groups. Pretty, Pretty Pony was named of the 100 Best Things in Comedy We Were Witness To in 2013 by The Comedy Bureau. He works with several groups at the Westside Comedy Theater in Los Angeles, co-hosts the podcast Pop My Culture and works on various solo routines.
“I’m always trying to do something fun and different and interesting so it all stays fresh,” he said. “Sketchfest really intensifies in the fall, so it gets harder to balance everything while we are working hard to program it, but I’m managing to stay active.”
Stratton will bring one of his newest creations to the stage this year. In the Twitter age, he wrote a routine titled “140 Characters.” He will perform at 10:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 24, at The Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St. in San Francisco.
“I had the idea while on vacation in New York City,” said Stratton, who was enjoying The Big Apple with his wife, Jenny Brooks-Stratton. “It hit me — the Twitter ‘character’ limit is 140 — why not do a solo show where I do 140 different characters? Then the thought of learning/creating/performing 140 different personas made my head explode.
“So I crafted a show that is fully multi-media — each character is a tweet from their fictitious Twitter accounts, projected on a screen behind me while I read the tweet in the character’s voice,” he added. “It’s a mix of fake celebs, Twitter trends/archetypes and non sequiturs, as well as some of my own actual tweets mixed in.
“I’ve done it a few times to enthusiastic houses here in L.A., and I can’t wait to do it in front of a Sketchfest crowd!”
Sketchfest — like its founders — continues to get better and better each year. New venues and acts are added yearly, providing patrons with a smorgasbord of comedy. The Sketchfest spans 18 days, uses 22 venues and features a plethora of talent.
“We’ve always tried to do something different and interesting at the fest and stay true to ourselves,” Stratton said, “booking things that we are truly fans of, and not just things that we think would fill seats.”
Luckily for the founders and fans, their choices are top-tier.
This year’s lineup features comic legend Alan Arkin and the ever-popular Tenacious D with Jack Black and Kyle Gass.
“Alan Arkin is a true hero of ours,” said Stratton, noting that he and Owen would watch Arkin’s films together while working at an indie video store in college. “He’s just so good in everything he does and makes it look so effortless.
“He’s also got strong roots in comedy, having come from Second City,” Stratton added. “He’s equally adept at drama and comedy.”
Stratton, who was working with Totally False People at the 2004 U.S. Comedy Festival in Aspen, ran into Black at the same festival.
“The D are super-important to us — we used to love their short films on HBO, and we’d see them at the small clubs in S.F. before they became super-famous,” Stratton said. “We met Jack Black back in 2004. … He was super-nice, and who knew 10 years later he’d be performing at our festival!”
In addition to solo and duo acts, there are numerous theatrical ensemble acts. Celebrity Autobiography features various celebrities doing dramatic readings of other celebrities’ autobiographies with “hilarious results,” notes Stratton. This year’s is the “Music Edition.”
The Thrilling Adventure Hour has a major following throughout California and the known comedy universe.
“Thrilling is a hit every year,” Stratton said. “It’s a massively talented ensemble cast, and they always work with us to get great guest stars.
“It’s a format that hasn’t been done to death, and there’s something magical about doing it live in an intimate setting in front of microphones and a band.”
This year’s guest stars include Karen Gillan (“Dr. Who”), Jason Ritter (“Parenthood”), Keegan-Michael Key (“Key & Peele”), Melanie Lynsky (“Two and a Half Men”), John DiMaggio (“Futurama”), Kevin Murphy (“Mystery Science Theatre 3000″), Dave Foley (“The Kids in the Hall”), James Urbaniak (“The Venture Bros.”) and comedic musicians Paul and Storm.
Those who enjoy the ridiculousness of ’90s sitcoms and reality TV will enjoy Bayside Myself — highlighting Saved By The Bell — and The Realest Real Housewives. Both shows feature reading excerpts from actual shows. The troupe is randomly assigned characters, regardless of gender, given a script and fun ensues.
“The (Bayside Myself) was pitched to us by Coree Spencer, who is a former Bay Area comic. She hosts it,” Stratton said. “The idea struck us as a lot of fun, so we worked with her to put it together for the fest. Staged readings of stuff like this are always great.”
Comedy geeks and science nerds alike will enjoy Comedy Nightlife at the California Academy of Sciences from 6 to 10 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 30. This 21-and-over event features shows — podcasts to standup — a live DJ and drinks all mixed in with history exhibits.
“It’s super-casual,” Stratton said. “It’s a party in a museum! … It’s beyond cool to stage these events in front of natural history exhibits and such.”
Not a bad comedy spread for a kid who failed to win class clown.
— Reach Kim Orendor at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @KOrendor