John Hodgman may live in the same city as one of the most popular immersive experiences in the world, but he still has his reservations. The bestselling author and former Daily Show correspondent has heard plenty about Sleep No More — the Manhattan production wherein audience members don masks and explore a five-story building while the story of Macbeth unfolds around them — but he’s never been.
“I’m worried about somebody touching my neck,” he says. “That’s the thing that I think about.”
He’s not alone in fearing something weirdly intimate will happen in that context. Simply hearing the word “immersive” is enough to turn some people off.
“At first I thought I hated immersive theater,” Sketchfest co-founder Janet Varney admits. “When I’m not performing, I do not like being the person at a magic show where someone’s like, ‘Young lady, would you mind getting up?’ ”
However, for those willing to take the risk, the rewards of theater unbridled by the standard expectation of a stage surrounded by a seated audience are immense. Here in San Francisco, the Palace Theatre — which includes multiple bars, a cabaret, and a casino all hidden below a North Beach laundromat — welcomes patrons back to the days of Prohibition with its elaborate immersive production, The Speakeasy.
Launched in 2016, the show has enjoyed an open-ended run as audience members mingle with rum runners and dancing girls. Simply step inside the Palace Theatre and you’ll find yourself unmistakably whisked away to one especially eventful night in 1923. This month, the venue plays host to a very different set of guests as Sketchfest welcomes not one but six separate evenings of curated entertainment.
Headlined by comics like David Cross, Janeane Garofalo, and Michael Ian Black, these performances aren’t set in the past, but they promise many of the elements fans have come to love and expect from immersive theater.
“Our partnership with Sketchfest marks the first time stand-up comedy has been put into an immersive environment,” notes Nick A. Olivero, co-founder of The Speakeasy. “Instead of just watching comics on stage, we are applying techniques used in interactive shows to allow patrons to be more involved in the experience. With such an intimate setting, it will be surreal when some of the world’s top comics are up close and personal.”
For seasoned Sketchfest performer Paul F. Tompkins, who co-headlines a night at the Palace Theatre on Saturday, Jan. 19 with Hodgman, the opportunity to do something new proved irresistible — if also slightly intimidating.
“This is certainly new,” he says. “I’ve never been asked to do anything like this before, but I said yes right away, because John and I have been idly talking about doing a night together for years, and this has sort of forced us to do it.”
While Tompkins and Hodgman will mostly be relegated to the main stage of the venue’s cabaret space, other opportunities await those willing to explore a little. Immersive experiences thrive on mystery, so despite not having many concrete details to go on, you may encounter live music in unexpected places, intimate improv performances, and glimpses into what goes on “behind-the-scenes.”
Ever the pragmatist, Hodgman cautions against unrealistic expectations.
“We’re not going to make everyone wear Venetian sex masks,” he says. “No one will have to swear an oath of fealty to us or anything like that.”
Hodgman and Tompkins appear to be happy to leave their audience’s necks untouched. Instead, they’re focused on how best to translate their exceptional comedic chops to the foreign terrain that now awaits them. As Varney notes, the pair’s upcoming show — as well as the evenings anchored by Cross, Garafolo, Black, Dana Gould, and the Scott Adsit-led “Improv All-Stars” — have the chance to be something that is often attributed to comedy but rarely true: groundbreaking.
“I think the experience of seeing comedy is incredibly therapeutic and transformative,” she says, “especially when you add in an environment like The Speakeasy and everything around you is transformative and you’re in this alternate reality of sorts that’s been built for you. I think people are going to be talking about it for a long time after they go to those shows.”
“SF Sketchfest at The Speakeasy” with John Hodgman and Paul F. Tompkins, Saturday, Jan. 19, 7 p.m., The Palace Theatre, 644 Broadway. $125; sfsketchfest.com.
Read more from SF Weekly‘s Sketchfest 2019 issue:
The Spirits of Sketchfest: Your Festival Guide
Order a drink and learn all about the best shows the 2019 Sketchfest has to offer.
Schitt’s Creek: A Podunk Paradise
Daniel Levy and Catherine O’Hara say all are welcome in this most peculiar of small towns.
The Delightfully Difficult Julie Klausner
The creator and star of Difficult People says it was so arrogant to accept a tribute from Sketchfest that she had to do it.
Special Guest: Janet Varney
Co-founder Janet Varney shares the highs (and lows) of Sketchfest’s first 17 years.