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Funny ha-ha: Davisite hits it big with SF Sketchfest

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From page A1 | January 15, 2012 |

Davis High grad and former Enterprise clerk Cole Stratton is directing the 11th annual SF Sketchfest later this month. Courtesy photo

Check it out

What: 11th annual San Francisco Sketchfest, co-directed by Cole Stratton, David Owen and Janet Varney

When: Jan. 19-Feb. 4

Where: Various venues in San Francisco and Oakland

Tickets and information: www.sfsketchfest.com

The talent credits for the 2012 San Francisco Sketchfest read like a who’s who of modern comedy. Eddie Izzard, Drew Carey, Amy Poehler — the list of performers for the 17-day comedy festival (Jan. 19-Feb. 4) seems endless.

“We’ve over-programmed this thing like crazy. There’s so much going on at once,” Sketchfest co-founder Cole Stratton says with a pleased laugh when reached by telephone.

Stratton, a 1994 graduate of Davis High School who lives in the Los Angeles area, co-founded SF Sketchfest in 2001 with three college friends — Janet Varney, Dave Owen and Gabriel Diani. As students at San Francisco State University, the quartet formed the sketch comedy group Totally False People.

However, Stratton says, “There aren’t a lot of venues for sketch comedy. It doesn’t work in comedy clubs; you have to rent a theater. We rented a theater in Union Square with five other groups. The (San Francisco) Chronicle Datebook (section) wrote a story early on, and we sold out. The next year, we managed to get Fred Willard and The Upright Citizens Brigade — that legitimized us.”

How did a former Davis Enterprise newsroom clerk build a career in comedy that encompasses not only the wildly successful SF Sketchfest but also “Pop My Culture,” the podcast named No. 2 in Rolling Stone’s “The 10 Best Podcasts of the Moment” in April 2011, and RiffTrax Presents, downloadable, comedic movie commentary from the minds behind “Mystery Science Theater 3000″?

In Stratton’s case, the answer seems to combine work and play.

When asked about any of his projects, he most frequently uses the adjective “fun.” Most student comedy groups start as “fun,” providing an outlet for some laughs and a reason to have some beers. And most dissolve after graduation.

But Stratton and SF Sketchfest co-founders Owen and Varney managed to build their fun into a major festival that has attracted comedic luminaries such as Conan O’Brien and Monty Python’s Terry Jones. Stratton attributes the success and longevity of Sketchfest to something beyond the group’s creative talents.

“We’re performers, but we’re also pretty savvy business people, well-organized,” he explains. “We make sure that (Sketchfest) is well-run, well-organized, and that the talent is happy.

“It helps that San Francisco audiences are awesome. It’s turned into a goofy summer-camp thing for the performers.”

Stratton describes the event as “intimate, low-key fun.”

Even when discussing the craft of his work, Stratton manages to incorporate the fun. While comedy may seem effortless to the audience, each style requires a different approach and different work.

“Every kind of comedy is very different,” Stratton says. He describes sketch comedy as “character-driven, premise-based. It takes a lot of rewriting.”

For stand-up comedy, on the other hand, there is only one way to tell if a bit works.

“You have to get in front of an audience to workshop it,” Stratton explains. He depicts improv as “a lot more about being in the moment and listening. You support the people on stage and hopefully they support you. It’s fun — that spark of creativity in the moment.”

For Stratton, improv represents a “fun sense of community. All doing it together — us and the audience; you just show up and do it.” In order to form an effective improv group, Stratton says the members need to “play with the group as much as possible, to get a feel for how the others work.”

Work appears important to Stratton, who doesn’t seem to be one to coast. Though Rolling Stone called “Pop My Culture” “a series of loose, conversational interviews with a unique array of funny people,” and attributed the podcast’s “carefully curated selection of guests” to “Stratton’s experience organizing the San Francisco Sketchfest,” Stratton himself appears to view the mega-publicity of a favorable Rolling Stone review as a jumping-off point rather than a destination.

Of “Pop My Culture,” Stratton says, “Well, it’s still a pretty young podcast. We’ve had a lot of my heroes, but it still skews toward character actors. If Albert Brooks wanted to come on, I’d lose it. Or Steve Martin …”

He does acknowledge that, following the Rolling Stone article, “Asking isn’t as hard. It kind of legitimized us.”

If Brooks and Martin seem like pie-in-the-sky dreams for a podcast host, well, that’s just the kind of guy Cole Stratton is. But, there is one critical difference between Stratton and other dreamers. He gets the job done.

When asked if a magic genie could grant him any name to grace the already dazzling marquee of SF Sketchfest headliners, Stratton pauses to contemplate his choice.

“One day it would be neat to reunite Monty Python. I don’t know if that’s even possible. A few years ago, we had Terry Jones, though, so we’ve had one Python.”

Reunite Monty Python — impossible? Improbable, maybe, but Stratton and his colleagues appear to excel at improbable.

“We were able to reunite The State, and that was 11 people,” Stratton says. “It took a bunch of years to get Conan O’Brien, but we had him a couple of years ago.”

Monty Python may still be missing from the credits, but the list of performers for the 2012 Sketchfest is nothing to sneeze at. When asked what festival acts he is most excited about, Stratton had trouble choosing.

“We’re doing a thing that’s ridiculously cool — ‘Wet Hot American Summer: The Live Radio Play.’ (Many of) the actors (Michael Ian Black, Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino, Christopher Meloni, Marguerite Moreau, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Molly Shannon, Michael Showalter and David Wain) are reprising their movie roles; with some special celebrity understudy guests … and Eddie Izzard — we’ve been trying to get him for years.”

Stratton also mentions a RiffTrax performance “on opening night by the folks from ‘MST3K’ … riffing old educational shorts from the ’50s and ’60s” and some of his own work, including an improv performance called “Theme Park” with Simon Helberg from TV’s “Big Bang Theory.”

While dogged persistence — with a touch of audacity (who sends Conan O’Brien not one, but multiple, letters asking for an appearance?) — has certainly been key to the success of Stratton and his partners, talent and luck appear to have played roles as well.

While Stratton saw himself as the class clown at Davis High — “I don’t think my jokes were always understood” — he seems to have found a niche for his brand of humor in the modern world.

And though the yearbook granted the title of class clown to another student, Stratton’s comedic career was born in Davis. He credits encouragement from retired Davis High School teacher Dave Burmester and studying with Buck Busfield at the Sacramento Area Regional Theatre Alliance for shaping his improv chops.

Stratton’s luck with mentors held through his early adulthood. One of the acts at this year’s SF Sketchfest that particularly pleases Stratton is a tribute to The Upright Citizens Brigade. Stratton credits the group’s involvement with the early Sketchfest for the festival’s ability to attract some of the big names in comedy today.

Speaking of big names, Stratton mentions being excited about the live “Pop My Culture” performance he will be doing at the festival, but says he can’t name the guest, who at the time of the interview was unconfirmed.

A check of the “Pop My Culture” website a few days later reveals the following Tweet: “Excited to announce that the guest for our live @pmcpodcast at @sfsketchfest is DREW CAREY! (@drewfromtv).”

Not bad for a kid who once spent hours on downtown Davis street corners trying to get passers-by to stop and respond to The Davis Enterprise’s question of the week.

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Christy Corp-Minamiji

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