Laughter Through the Pain: Your SF Sketchfest Guide

Jeff Goldblum, Dave Foley, and others return for the festival's 16th run.

(Illustration by Dylan Goldberger)

If laughter is the best medicine, many San Franciscans may need some whip-its and 500 cc of fentanyl after a record downer of a year.

Every January since 2002, San Francisco’s Sketchfest has risen to the challenge, offering a beacon of mirth in the post-holiday fog of winter. Started by co-founders Janet Varney, Cole Stratton, and David Owen, the festival has welcomed comedians and talents from film, television, improv, sketch, stand-up, and more for an event that now spans three weeks and occurs in a multitude of venues across the city.

This year, the skills of the performers on the lineup will be tested like never before.

Coming on the heels of myriad celebrity deaths and an onslaught of disheartening political developments — the ambulatory cream cheese sculpture masquerading as a world leader gets inaugurated smack dab in the middle of the run —the audiences at Sketchfest will be in dire need of a reason to giggle.

The role of comedy in the age of Trump is complicated. Speaking to a variety of comics scheduled to appear at Sketchfest this month, their expectations and plans for how comedy will shape the months and years to come varies as wildly as the shows they will participate in over the coming weeks.

Some have faith that comedy will be sharper than ever and act as a tool of empowerment. Others fear the repercussions of numbing our fears with humor. Comedy Bang Bang host Scott Aukerman once quoted the late comic Harris Wittels as saying, ” ‘I just think motherfuckers wanna laugh,’ ” and in a time when little else makes sense, that seems like a fair assessment of what comedy can offer.

There are no easy answers, but plenty of thoughtful ones and — luckily for all of us — more than a few laughs.

Rhea Butcher Tries to Cope

Comedian Rhea Butcher didn’t even have to wait for the final states to turn red before she got a first-hand experience of what it felt like to look for laughs in an acutely unfunny moment.

Along with her wife, fellow comic Cameron Esposito, Butcher is one of the creators, writers, and stars of Take My Wife, a new series on NBC’s streaming service Seeso that follows a fictitious version of the couple through their daily lives. Even before Take My Wife’s release in August, Butcher and Esposito already had a history of sharing the stage, as co-hosts of the Put Your Hands Together podcast, taped weekly at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles.

Perhaps envisioning a celebratory evening, the two decided to schedule a show for the evening of the election, Nov. 8, 2016.

“That was a wild experience,” Butcher says. “I don’t even have words for it, really. We had no jokes. … I just started crying backstage. It was so shocking and difficult, but at the same time, I’m glad I was doing something I love. It helped me to be able to share that moment with other human beings who definitely chose to be at our show.”

She says the experience reminded her of a Le Tigre/Gossip concert she went to the night after George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004. She recalls both bands being dressed in black, and Gossip lead singer Beth Ditto passing around a hat to collect donations for a gallbladder surgery she needed.

“That’s what 2004 was like,” she adds.

Butcher agrees that 2016 has been both one of her best and worst years. In addition to the release of Take My Wife‘s first season, she put out her debut comedy album, Butcher, on the Kill Rock Stars label, and on Dec. 12, celebrated the first anniversary of her marriage to Esposito. Take My Wife has also been renewed for a second season.

On the other hand, there is the election, and the rampant misogyny, bigotry, and hate that it has brought to the foreground.

Butcher says she’s still processing how to turn her feelings into laughs. She’ll share the results when she appears as part of the SF Sketchfest Dozen, an annual showcase that celebrates 12 of stand-up’s most talented rising stars, at the Punch Line on Jan. 28.

“It’s a difficult thing, because so much of my comedy was really about being from Ohio,” she explains. “Ohio is a red state. It wasn’t red in 2008 or 2012, but it’s a red state, and there are a lot of great people there. In my comedy, I was trying to show that while I may not be the typical person you’d interact with at your office or job, we still have a lot of common interests. I thought if I could maybe change a couple of minds — it’s like once you crack the door open, you can get in further. But now I feel like the door is locked, bolted, and nailed shut. I just don’t know who it is I want to be talking to, and I’m still figuring that out.”

Rhea Butcher, with Josh Gondelman at the Punch Line. Saturday, Jan. 28, at 7 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. $22; sfsketchfest.com.

Raphael Bob-Waksberg Worries About Tree Houses

The search for an audience has always been a pivotal piece of the comedian’s trade.

In the case of Raphael Bob-Waksberg, it was his animated Netflix program BoJack Horseman that took a little while to find its viewership. While the series does feature an exceptionally funny roster that includes Will Arnett, Paul F. Tompkins, and Amy Sedaris, The New York Times‘ Stephen Rodrick accurately described its tone last year as “melan-comedy.”

The show has never been afraid to prioritize somber truths over easy laughs. It focuses on the titular BoJack, a horse and former sitcom star who now spends his days mired in depression and self-sabotage resulting from what he sees as a failed career.

Bob-Waksberg says BoJack Horseman is reflective of a larger trend in comedy: embracing the harsher aspects of real life over neatly packaged flights of fancy.

“Most people put the nexus of this map at Louie,” he says. “From there, there’s been this new idea of how TV can be made and the stories that can be told. You’re not always going to like the characters, and it’s not going to resolve the way you want it to or think it should. I think a lot of creative people in the industry have been emboldened by that.”

Certainly BoJack Horseman has made a name for itself among critics and viewers over its first three seasons. That’s mostly owing to its honest and, at times, heartbreaking, portrayal of characters that — while largely depicted as dogs, penguins, and other inhabitants of the animal kingdom — very accurately reflect the flawed core of human nature. Bob-Waksberg will put his own human nature on display when he is joined by lead designer and animator Lisa Hanawalt at Cobb’s Comedy Club on Jan. 28 for “Picture This,” a show in which animators from the series will draw stand-up comedians as they perform.

In past episodes, the show has brazenly taken on controversial elements of the real world. In Season 2’s “Hank After Dark,” hippopotamus newscaster Hank Hippopopalous finds himself embroiled in allegations of sexual assault. Mirroring the real-life scandal of Bill Cosby — but written prior to comedian Hannibal Buress’ viral rant that brought Cosby’s accusers into the national spotlight — the episode is both exceedingly dark and entirely enlightening.

“We’re really not trying to be super topical and timely with our comedy,” Bob-Waksberg explains. “The process takes awhile, so we’re looking at larger trends and what we want to say about society.”

In the wake of the election and its subsequent developments, Bob-Waksberg admits to feeling torn between believing in the power of his show and others to speak truth and call out injustice and dismissing their efforts as all for naught.

“I want to believe that as the wandering minstrels, we need to speak truth to power by portraying things as they truly are and as they should be, and by exaggerating things in comical and fanciful natures, we can thereby change hearts and minds.”

“Conversely, I think it’s hard to look at what’s happening in our country and not feel like, ‘What’s the point of anything?’ ” he adds. “It’s hopeless, it’s pointless, and we’re all just masturbating furiously in a tree house and calling it art. Are we just looking into our navels and out our assholes and telling ourselves that the work we do is important and making a difference, when in fact, clearly it is not? I don’t know. I honestly feel both things simultaneously.”

Picture This: BoJack Horseman Edition” with Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Lisa Hanawalt, Sasheer Zamata, and more at Cobb’s Comedy Club. Saturday, Jan. 28, 10:30 p.m. $25; sfsketchfest.com.

Dave Foley Finds TruthIn the Absurd

In contrast, Kids in the Hall alumnus Dave Foley has already made his mind up about what role we can ask comedy to play in the uncertain times ahead.

“I don’t think comedy is ever really important,” he says. Deadpanning, he adds, “I think if you take a look back through history, you’ll see how the comedians in theWeimar Republic were able to prevent the rise of Hitler.”

Far from Rhea Butcher’s more politically direct comedy or BoJack Horseman‘s social commentary, Foley’s sketch group Kids in the Hall delivered their messages through the prism of absurdism. A natural successor to the work of Monty Python, the quintet found their laughs through timeless concepts that often hinged on ridiculous characters — and lots of men in drag.

Foley credits Saturday Night Live creator (and Kids in the Hall producer) Lorne Michaels with affording the group the freedom to do as they pleased on their sketch show, which ran for five seasons on HBO, and later CBS. If Foley doesn’t believe the comedy they were doing was important per se, it was unquestionably groundbreaking.

No other show that aired from 1988 to 1994 featured such a wide array of gay characters and themes, and especially ones where the sexual orientation of the character was often neither their defining trait nor the larger point of the sketch.

“Since part of our group was gay, then that was just part of what we talked about and part of what we represented as the normal world we lived in,” Foley explains. “We weren’t going, ‘Get ready, America! Gay issues down your throat!’ We only knew how to write about ourselves, because we were narcissists.”

Foley returns to Sketchfest with fellow Kids in the Hall members Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson on Jan. 14 for a live stage reading of Brain Candy, the lone feature film the group released after the end of their television show. Foley says these events serve as a “family reunion” of sorts, a chance to catch up and make plans to see each other again.

The joy with which he describes getting back together with the gang, if only for a few days, speaks to what Foley views as the main service of comedy, especially in hard moments like what he calls “the bleak specter of the next four years.”

“I think comedy can make you feel less isolated. I know for me, as a child growing up, the largest thing that comedy did in my life was just to make me feel less alone, to have comedians expressing the same view points I had. I know that I feel much better going to bed at night after I’ve watched Stephen Colbert’s monologue, because I just feel less alone when I watch Colbert. I feel less isolated and lost in a world that’s gone mad.”

“Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy Live Staged Reading” with Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson at the Castro Theatre. Saturday, Jan. 14, 7 p.m. $45; sfsketchfest.com.

Wyatt Cenac Believes Not All News is Funny

As a former correspondent for The Daily Show, Wyatt Cenac knows all about the benefits and downsides of cutting the truth with humor to make it more palatable.

Cenac worked under Jon Stewart from 2008 to 2012, where he covered issues ranging from the shooting of Trayvon Martin to the outrage surrounding a mosque being built near New York City’s Ground Zero. Since then, he’s continued his career as the host of Night Train With Wyatt Cenac, a weekly stand-up showcase in Brooklyn that was recently turned into a series for Seeso. Cenac will host a special edition of Night Train at Sketchfest on Jan. 13 at Cobb’s, featuring guests like Bobcat Goldthwait, Claudia O’Doherty, and Steve Agee.

While he has no regrets about departing The Daily Show when he did, Cenac acknowledges that the world remains ripe with material.

“Since I left the show, there’s definitely been moments where things have happened and I’ve thought, ‘Oh, if I still worked at the show, this feels like something that would be interesting to talk about,’ ” he says.

Nowadays, there is undoubtedly an appetite for “funny” news: programs that not only report on world events but also offer humorously pointed critiques and ridicule. Several Daily Show alumni have gone on to host their own late-night series, including Samantha Bee (Full Frontal), John Oliver (Last Week Tonight), and of course, Stephen Colbert, who recently made the move from The Colbert Report to fill David Letterman’s seat at CBS.

Cenac fully appreciates what The Daily Show offered under Stewart and continues to offer with its successor, Trevor Noah. However, he does express concern for those who choose to ingest all their news through a humorous filter.

“At the end of the day, whether it’s a presidential election, a tragedy, someone being murdered, or just a rainy day, I think that comedy provides a relief of tension for people. The danger is when that relief makes them apathetic.”

He says this concern was something that persisted through his tenure on The Daily Show. He compares the effect of relying too heavily on satirical news programs as akin to putting salve on a wound but never treating the underlying injury — or worse, forgetting it’s even there.

“I was aware of this sense like, all right, we’re helping people digest information and we’re doing it in this comedic way, but are we also letting them off the hook from doing other stuff, from being active? If we go and we help to filter their outrage into a funny thing, at the end of the day, are we adding to the conversation or are we just placating and sedating an audience with humor? That’s a danger with stuff like this.”

Furthering his point, Cenac points to Fox News, one of The Daily Show‘s most frequent targets, as an example of how simply skewering a foe with witticisms and scrutiny is unlikely to topple it.

“For as long as we spent railing against Fox News, it’s not like Fox News ever said, ‘Yeah, you’re right, we’re shitheads. All right, we’re going to shut it down and we’re just going to show cat videos 24 hours a day.’ They still did exactly what they wanted to do.”

He believes the true value of The Daily Show and its brethren lies in being a conversation starter, a vehicle to engage ideologically opposed family members, friends, and colleagues in an effort to find common ground, and perhaps even change minds. Ultimately, however, Cenac is grateful for the time he spent in the writers’ room and on the scene as a member of the program.

“It was definitely an education,” he says, “both in using comedy to respond to things quickly and in learning to work in an environment that forces you to have to pay attention to things that are going on, whether it’s politically, socially, or globally.”

“Night Train With Wyatt Cenac,” featuring Steve Agee, Bobcat Goldthwait, Claudia O’Doherty, and more at Cobb’s Comedy Club. Friday, Jan. 13, 7:30 p.m. & 10:30 p.m. (lineups vary). $30; sfsketchfest.com.

Jeff Goldblum Relishes The Surprise

Jeff Goldblum may not be a comic by trade, but he’s earned an honorary degree in the art of being hilarious, with a filmography that stretches back 40 years.

From an auxiliary role in 1977’s Annie Hall to starring turns in seminal features like The Big Chill, Independence Day, and of course, Jurassic Park, Goldblum emanates a giddy eccentricity that bleeds into his characters. It might be why he’s found a career resurgence in the hands of auteurs like Wes Anderson, who cast Goldblum in his features The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and The Grand Budapest Hotel, and is now reuniting with him once more for his next project.

“I think it’s in the same ballpark as the stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox world,” Goldblum says of the as-yet-untitled film. “It takes inspiration from Japanese animation of some kind. It’s all about dogs, and I voice the part of a dog that is in a pack with, I believe, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Bryan Cranston, and Ed Norton. Wes is a genius, of course, and it’s just a thrill and a delight to be around and work with him. I’d be in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk waiting for the first performance.”

Goldblum is equally complimentary toward the various comedians and programs he’s worked on over the years, from a recurring role on IFC’s Portlandia to guest appearances on The Larry Sanders Show and Inside Amy Schumer. His knowledge of comedy borders on the encyclopedic, from his affinity for the surreal Adult Swim adventures of Tim and Eric to how much he loved the 2014 New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows.

It was that project’s co-director, Taika Waititi, who convinced him to board Marvel’s latest intergalactic blockbuster, Thor: Ragnarok. Goldblum says that nowadays, the choice of which roles to accept is a combination of his respect for the person behind the camera and the overall intent of the film.

“It’s not the only thing,” he says when asked whether a film’s message or impact weighs into his choice to join. “But yup, I’m interested in what we’re putting out, what impact it might have, what it’s trying to say, and what its themes might be.”

For a man whose acting credits run the gamut from grotesquely devolving into an insect in The Fly to owning an artisanal knot store in Portlandia, it comes as little surprise that his live performance at Sketchfest on Jan. 14 at the Swedish American Hall is a loosely formatted variety show. Presented weekly at the Rockwell in his native Los Angeles, the show features piano playing, audience interaction, movie trivia quizzes, and Goldblum going into each performance knowing next-to-nothing.

“I specifically tell my so-called directorJohn Mastro to clue me in to as little as possible,” he says, “so it’s all a surprise to me, as much as the audience, and hopefully a nice surprise. John usually does a little research and makes some special thematic through-line. He’ll surprise me with pieces of paper in between songs. I’ve never seen them before, and then I’ll cold-read them and am cold-guided by these little snippets. They’re usually things that I need to expand upon, free associate about, or quiz the audience with.”

What then would Goldblum’s free association be were Mastro to hand him a slip of paper that read “2016”?

“Well, it was a special year for me. I had my first child some 17 months ago now, named Charlie. Charlie Ocean, in fact. He could not have filled up this year with more adorableness, education, spectacle, nourishment, soul, enrichment, and entertainment. He’s something else. I have good associations with 2016. The weather may get bad, and bad things may happen, but how we choose to surf it is entirely in our power.”

Jeff Goldblum and the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra at Swedish American Hall. Saturday, Jan. 14, 7:30 p.m. & 10 p.m.; $50; sfsketchfest.com

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