SF Sketchfest: Alan Arkin, Maya Rudolph, Amy Schumer headed to San Francisco

Maya Rudolph, left, will perform her tongue-in-cheek Prince tribute act, Princess, at SF Sketchfest. At right is Gretchen Lieberum. (Paul A. Hebert, AP)

Whether they apply to some gangly kid with braces or the ever-expanding comedy summit that is SF Sketchfest, the teenage years are supposed to encompass that troubled time of defining oneself.

SF Sketchfest, which kicks off its 13th annual comedy gathering on Jan. 23 with a screening of Napoleon Dynamite at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, doesnt have to worry about any awkward phase.

The 18-day festival of all things comedic quickly emerged as something of a prodigy. Built on the passion of its three founders, it went from a weekend gathering celebrating six local comedy troupes into an 18-day marathon of nearly 600 performers, plunging into live shows, screenings, podcasts and acting workshops. This years Sketchfest boasts the likes of Laura Dern, Jack Black with Tenacious D and Maya Rudolphs Prince cover band Princess, along with a comedy geek hit list of highly regarded sketch, stand-up and improvisational artists.

We still feel like were coming of age, entering this new phase, but it still feels like were going through growing pains, says David Owen, one of the three performers who founded the festival in 2002.

We sort of feel like we should be more grown up by now, adds Janet Varney, who, with Cole Stratton, rounds out the founding trio.

Rather than some troubled teen, though, SF Sketchfest is more along the lines of a Bay Area startup that has already begun to make good on its early promise. While the early years schedules werent exactly festooned with household names, Varney, Stratton and Owen were driven by smart programming that played to their personal tastes. Landing Fred Willard (Best in Show) in the second year helped establish the festivals legitimacy. Before long, Sketchfest was bringing in A-list comedy performers and showcasing films that the founders had long admired and comedy fans embraced.

That tradition continues this year with a celebration of the work of Alan Arkin, the Oscar-winning actor (Little Miss Sunshine) who is the subject of a tribute tied to a 35th anniversary screening of his film The In-Laws. Actor, comedian and San Jose native Kevin Pollak, who has participated in numerous Sketchfest gatherings, will lead a conversation with Arkin following a screening of the movie at the Castro.

CLEVER BOOKING

The Arkin tribute is an example of the clever booking that has become synonymous with Sketchfest, which can be attributed to the organizers instincts as both comedy fans, students and performers. (Owen has since given up the stage, but Stratton and Varney are in this years Sketchfest lineup.) Many of those comedic predilections were forged in the days when Owen and Stratton worked together in a video store watching and rewatching such movies as The In-Laws, as well as other films getting some Sketchfest love via tributes this year: The Revenge of the Nerds, Cabin Boy and Top Secret.

The live performance of Shakes the Clown at Cobbs Comedy Club in San Francisco, which includes star Bobcat Goldthwait and original cast member and Brady Bunch mom Florence Henderson, is yet another example of the culty sort of comedy that has found a safe haven at Sketchfest.

POLLAK ON ARKIN

The presentation of such movies, cleverly packaged in ways that pay tribute and serve as performances unto themselves, makes these much more than simple screenings. Part of the secret is in finding the right moderators, such as having Pollak conduct the Arkin interview, as the two have something of a history.

Its horrifying, but Kevin, who is a friend of mine, does an impression of me, Arkin says. I was on The Larry King Show a long time ago, and one of the callers was Kevin, who started to speak to Larry as if he were me. Larry King spent the entire interview talking to Kevin as me on the phone, and Im sitting there like an idiot for a half an hour.

Connecting the thematic dots of comedy has become another trademark of the Sketchfest crew. This year, the spirit of radio resonates with a live performances of the NPR quiz show Ask Me Another and Wits, the John Moe-hosted public radio comedy show that will feature such Sketchfest perennials as Eugene Mirman and Paul F. Tompkins.

As Sketchfest has become a renowned showcase for comedy, the organizers have occasionally been asked if they would ever consider doing the festival in Los Angeles, which might provide easier access to industry-related acts. But the founders arent having it. Sketchfest, which still oozes that do-it-yourself ethic, even when its staff size balloons to about 40 at the time of the festival, is too culturally and spiritually connected to that Bay Area startup ethos, Varney says.

Owen says Sketchfest can identify with a Cadillac TV commercial that mentions how such innovators asAmazon.comand Hewlett-Packard got their start in a garage. In many ways, Sketchfest, even as it enters its teen years, hasnt lost sight of its beginnings.

But I look at that commercial, says Owen, And I say, They had a garage?

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