If you see Janet Varney dashing madly around San Francisco over the next three weeks, feel free to thank her. After all, it was Varney — in partnership with Cole Stratton and David Owen — who gave the city the gift of Sketchfest back in 2002. Since then, the programming has grown from sketch and stand-up to film and television tributes, live podcast tapings, experimental variety shows, and much more.
Now legally an adult, Sketchfest will celebrate its 18th birthday alongside comedy legends like Carol Burnett, Neil Patrick Harris, and the Kids in the Hall. For Varney, it’s the festival’s earliest years that linger in her memory. Those were the days when Sketchfest’s future was still very much in doubt.
Then came the booking that changed everything: Conan O’Brien.
“I had actually written him a letter,” Varney recalls, “and he called me to tell me he was in. It was such a surreal moment.”
This was in 2010. Shortly after O’Brien agreed to appear, the late-night host suddenly found he was the subject of headlines everywhere when NBC announced its indefensible decision to bring Jay Leno back to the network.
“All that bullshit happened with NBC and The Tonight Show,” Varney says, “and Conan had to pull out because his lawyers told him that he couldn’t do any public appearances.”
Ever the gentleman, O’Brien offered to reschedule his appearance for later in the year, resulting in a coup for Sketchfest when he ultimately appeared at the Herbst Theater that summer alongside his television sidekick Andy Richter and moderator Patton Oswalt. With fans and the press all rabid for details on O’Brien’s departure from The Tonight Show, the event was mobbed and proved to be a watershed moment for the festival.
It also meant Varney’s workload stood no chance of getting any lighter.
In addition to her work programming Sketchfest, Varney is a skilled improviser and actress. Her podcast, The JV Club, just passed 300 episodes. On Jan. 27, she’ll tape a live episode of the show — which features a special guest reliving their awkward teenage years — with musician Matt Nathanson at the Gateway Theatre. On screen, her acting work includes voicing the titular character on the animated program The Legend of Korra as well as the short-form digital series Fortune Rookie, which she created for IFC (and stars in).
During Sketchfest, Varney can sometimes be seen sharing the stage with old friends, be it a duet with musician Rhett Miller or as one of the cast members offering a live read of Ed Wood’s infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space.
“At first, I really limited what I did in terms of shows,” Varney explains, “and then there was a year where, for some reason, I just went hog wild. I found out quickly — and unexpectedly — that those were the only Zen moments I could have at the festival, because I really couldn’t be thinking about anything logistical. I feel so lucky to join some of these circles of people where I started as a fan. When someone like Paul F. Tompkins wants you to do a show, you’d be a fool not to say yes.”
While Varney remains immensely grateful for each of the opportunities she’s had over the course of her career, she confesses that it means something extra special when someone recognizes her from her involvement with Sketchfest.
“That didn’t always happen,” she says. “In those early days, no one knew there was a festival. You’d get into a taxi to go from one venue to another and the driver would go, ‘A comedy festival? That sounds good.’ Then somewhere along the line, it started to feel like people knew about it. It still means the world to David, Cole, and I today when somebody taps us on the shoulder and says, ‘Hey, I know you’re super busy, but I just wanted to say thanks for Sketchfest.’ We get choked-up. We’re like, ‘Thank you! You’re the reason we can do it at all!’ ”
“The JV Club” with Janet Varney and Matt Nathanson, Sunday, Jan. 27, 1 p.m., Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson St. $25; 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.
Protect Your Neck: Paul F. Tompkins and John Hodgman
Two comedians face their fears with an immersive comedy performance at The Speakeasy.