Cole Stratton: The Man Who Never Said No.


coleCole Stratton is the co-founder of the SFSketchfest along with Bay Area actor/comedians David Owen and Janet Varney. Stratton also has an extremely popular podcast called Pop my Culture, an all-star travelling  group called The Theme Park Improv Show and has killed it narrating scathing commentaries on run by MST 3000’s Michael J. Nelson.  While SUSC has mostly followed the inspiration behind comics being comics, this interview takes us behind the scenes of SF Sketchfest, with the man behind the curtain talking about what it takes to put on such a massive event.

 SUSC: SF Sketchfest seems mindboggling to organize. Do you start putting it together the day after one festival ends?

Stratton: In some ways. It gets really intense at the end of summer, that’s when it becomes more real. We always plant seeds with people, but nobody really knows their schedule until the fall. There are some shows that we have worked on for years, people that we wanted to attend but it never really worked out. Other things come together all of a sudden. But we are always working on it just a little bit. We try to take a month or two off once we wrap festival to recharge.

Who this year was somebody that you really wanted to get, that finally came through?

There’s a few of them, for sure. The Spinal Tap guys. We had Michael McKean a few years ago and he did Celebrity Autobiographies. We’ve been in touch about doing this and it finally came to fruition.

How about the Tribute to Weird Al?

We had once before four or five years ago. He came and did a matinee conversation with Chris Harwick at Cobb. Al is really experiencing a career renaissance, his new album, Mandatory Fun, debuted at #1 on Billboard Top 200 album chart. It’s the first time a comedy album debuted at #1 on the chart in history, and that’s amazing. So we thought this would be the year to do it proper and do a full-on tribute and get some of his friends involved like Chris Hardwick, and people that have been inspired by him like Garfunkel and Oates.

Did you have music in the first year or two?

It came later. I want to say it was our third year that was a special music/comedy night. Fred Armison hosted it and then it was Girls Guitar Club and The Naked Trucker. Back then we were such small fries we did that show at the Eureka which sits 200 and I don’t think we sold out. This whole thing has been a journey from what we did year one, which was five local sketch groups in a small theatre. Year two we brought Fred Willard in and started opening it up to groups around the country. Now we do 200+ shows at 20+ venues over 18 days, so its ballooned into something amazing.

It seems like no matter what your taste is in comedy, there is something for everyone at Sketchfest whether its film or music or sketch or stand-up. Whats the future look like?

Every year we are looking for new elements to keep it fresh, we don’t want to repeat ourselves. Some shows do return and its part of our tradition. At the end of the day, it’s still just the three of us independently producing the event. The remaining staff doesn’t come on board until festival time. So it’s a matter of what can the three of us do and come up with, but still in a grassroots kind of way, we don’t have any major corporate underwriters. We rely heavily on ticket sales. Luckily people come and support us and allow us to do this. Performers are also very generous with coming to perform just for fun. Fred Armisen said, “Its like summer camp for comedians.” We get people who know and respect each other but don’t normally hang out. Especially on the weekends where there are so many performers in town, comics end up having a blast.

How do you spend your time during those two weeks? Do you get to perform?

Janet and I still perform a lot, so we do a handful of shows throughout the festival. Theme Park Improv and RiffTrax Night and a couple of other ones here and there. We started as performers and I haven’t really lost sight of that, at the same time its more about running around and putting out fires. I need to make sure everything is going to plan. It’s so big we stand around in one place for 45 minutes and then run off to another. It’s not often that I get to sit down and watch shows.

What would be an example of a SNAFU that would need your immediate attention?

Sometimes it’s just little things like somebodies tickets are not there for them. Or somebodies driver hasn’t show up, or they’re lost. We try to make sure we have great people in charge of the venues. I think it was last year one of the venues was flooding. It had been raining and there was a pipe break and water was everywhere. You know, little things like that. You can’t plan for it, you cannot anticipate it, so you let people know there might be a puddle onstage.

Does your phone ring constantly during the festival?

It blows up with texts more than it actually rings. Thank god we live a world where we can communicate through email on tiny mini computers that fit in our pockets. The three of us are constantly on the go and its good to be able to stay in touch. Some would argue it’s the worst thing that ever happened, but very handy for me. Tech questions or issues hopefully get channeled to tech directors. Ticket issues hopefully go through our Box Office manager. Sometimes stuff like that comes to us and we are happy to help people get in the right direction. Its very whirlwind and you need to be able to handle problems and questions as they come in. It’s a lot of work, but at the end of the night we go to parties and unwind and then reboot and start over the next day.

Have you had to say no to big corporate sponsors because you didn’t want to sell out?

It used to be that corporations were just happy to get naming rights like, The Toyota Comedy Festival, but no one is really interested in that anymore. Now people want material generated, like a sponsor will say can we get so-and-so to do a web video for our product. Our reply is 1. We have a comedy festival to run. 2. We’re not in video production and 3. We’re not comfortable asking so-and-so to do that for something they are not going to get paid for. Companies want ads that will pop up on their mobile app, staring that celebrity . . . that’s where its gets tricky. We are uncomfortable asking the talent to do things that we could be uncomfortable being asked to do. If it makes sense, and it’s a product that rings true for us and the artist and it doesn’t feel too bad. We’ve explored things in the past, but seldom do they come to fruition.

Do you ever get 3am lightning strikes of inspiration that inspire the next festival?

We definitely do. This year we are doing our 30th anniversary of “Better Off Dead” with a live reading of the original shooting script, which differs a lot from the filmed movie, and we got a lot of original cast members to do it. And that idea came out of looking at what films are celebrating anniversaries this year. We had done a screening if it several years ago with Steve Holland and Diane Franklin, but we don’t like to repeat ourselves. So we thought what could we do around the film, besides showing the film. So we got cast and celebrity understudies together for something new, rather than rehashing what we did last time.

What system do you use to organize your thoughts for the festival?

We use Google Docs with tons and tons of programming ideas on there. Then we talk through them to see whats worth pursuing vs what we think is a total long shot, but its gotten to the point where after 14 years we have had a lot of luminaries in Sketchfest. And they are all connected somehow to people we want, so it makes it feel more real then earlier on. Now we’re like, “Let’s email Weird Al”, “OK. He’s in!” Now when we think of comedy legends and stars we think it might be easier to get them because they know people that have been in or at Sketchfest.

Do you ever get starstruck with anyone?

A Little bit. Not as much as I used to. We were all comedy nerds that went to SF State together. We named our improv group, Totally False People, because in Mark McKinney’s bio in the Kids in the Hall Tour program it said something like, “Rumors that Mark is gay (totally false, people) led to. . . .” and that’s how we got our name. So for us to get Kids in the Hall together for a reunion at  Sketchfest was amazing and they still come back periodically. That is always surreal. Year two, I was the one who picked up Fred Willard from the airport and drove him around. We did everything ourselves. In the early days it was very hard.  You wanted the artists to feel comfortable and not nerd out on them. Now we deal with so many people and comics that I don’t have time to get starstruck. Sometimes at the parties we look around and are amazed at whose there. I do have some comedy heroes on my list that I know I’ll have trouble remaining composed around.

What’s your process for selecting new locals for the festival? When some people get in, and some don’t, and you’re the person choosing, it must be a difficult task.

We get hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of submissions. We really take the time to consider everyone. We watch all of the submissions and comment on them. I cannot say all three of us watch every tape, but at least two of us do, then we discuss them. We try to give as many new people a shot as we can. We started out as young comics in the Bay Area and know how hard it is to get stage time. We hope at this point, getting into the festival is a good credit for people and will help them get into other festivals. Other people are just not ready. You can see that they have a unique angle and voice but are unable to do more than 4 minutes of raw material. We take a high number of comics and sketch groups, then there are people that fall in the middle ground as long as we can until we know all the slots are gone. I personally email every person whether they get in or not. I feel like I would want that if I was applying instead of some mass “sorry” email. I will take the time to write to people if they didn’t get in, that they have something good and they need to work on certain things. People who do not get in, sometimes get in 2, 3 years later. So work on your craft and keep doing it. I’ll see sour grape Facebook postings and tweet from people that didn’t get in. It’s an unfortunate thing, but we don’t have 500 slots, so we hope people will keep applying.

You can only do what you do. The fact that you have a personal interest even in those that didn’t get in, is nuts. You can only do so much, Cole.

I know. I get emails back and most of them are pretty kind, but sometimes people want really specific reasons why they didn’t get in and get demanding on my time. I really want to write to them and let them know. . .

But in no dimension in any universe is that your responsibility. You’re a better man then I.

Comedians are more fragile than normal people. It’s hard to put yourself out there, which is what comedy really is, and then to be told you’re not good enough, that hurts. It’s not that we don’t think some comics are not good, we just think other comics are slightly more ready for filling the slots that we have. I hold on to some comics and fight really hard for them to get in, but sometimes they don’t find out until the last minute that they didn’t make it. That’s tough, but I keep them on the table as long as I can in the hopes it will work out. We let people know if they got in over a month long process and some people find out pretty quickly because we have to do it in waves. We never know how much space we have until we start plugging everything in. Half my emails are people saying, “We haven’t heard anything yet, what’s up?” What comics have to know is we’re trying our best to look out for everyone.









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