It's kind of a coup to have SF Sketchfest in Oakland this year, and any local comedy fan will tell you why. The festival, which launched eleven years ago in a Sutter Street hole-in-the-wall called The Shelton Theater, has grown into an extravagant, three-week, multi-venue affair, with guests as varied as David Cross, Beth Lisick, Moshe Kasher, The Upright Citizens Brigade, and Michael Ian Black. It's also an event that many local comedians spend the whole year anticipating — not just because of the big acts who get flown in, but also because producers David Owen, Cole Stratton, and Janet Varney do an excellent job of highlighting their Bay Area peers in events like "Porchlight Storytelling" and "The SF Sketchfest Dozen." Their decision to expand to Oakland comes at a time when the city is just starting to establish itself as a comedy destination.
In a way, SF Sketchfest might help cement that. Owen said he wouldn't object at all: "I think there's a bunch of comedians who came out of there," he said during a recent phone interview. "Moshe Kasher, Brent Weinbach — you've got Dave Chappelle over there," he added, giving a nod to the secret shows that Chappelle performed at The New Parish. In Owen's estimation, Oakland has become "more of a hipster go-to place," if not a hub for comedy specifically. It was a happy accident that he wound up booking acts there this year — at the behest of Yoshi's booker David Lloyd, who has the luxury of coordinating with a sister venue in San Francisco. But if it's turned him and the other Sketchfest producers into de facto city boosters, then so be it.
And there's no denying that the shows they've planned for Oakland are notably cool. The first, slated for Yoshi's on Tuesday and Wednesday, January 24-25, stars actress and performance artist Ann Magnuson doing a contemporary version of "Victorian drawing-room entertainment," with Kristian Hoffman on grande pianoforte and Joseph Berardi on a whole battery of percussion instruments — some scavenged, others poached from around the world. Magnuson promises to perform several hits from her rock band Bongwater, along with tunes by The Rolling Stones, Kurt Vile, The Doors, Jacques Brel, and a poem by Percy Shelley, all of them tweaked, reinterpreted, and made topical. She promised to present The Doors number as a tribute to Occupy Oakland.
The following week, Oakland witnesses the extraordinarily talented Reggie Watts, who has managed to take all of his disparate interests to their logical conclusions: a variety show. Oh wait, just kidding — four variety shows. At this year's Sketchfest, Watts will be featured as a resident artist in what the producers have playfully dubbed a four-night "Reggidencey." It begins on January 31 at Yoshi's San Francisco with a night of strictly music; continues the following night at Mezzanine with a comedy show; graces Yoshi's Oakland on February 2, when Watts combines forces with keyboardist Robert Glasper for a jazz collaboration; and culminates on February 3 with an improvised score for a midnight movie at The Roxie. Owen can't disclose the title, but promises that it's "the last film you'd think he would choose."
It's fair to say that the Watts-Glasper collaboration might be the most daring thing to happen at this year's festival, and not just because it's happening at a jazz club in Oakland. When you think about it, it's a wonder these two artists didn't hook up a long time ago. They both have omnivorous tastes and an extremely liberal way of delineating between genres — which is to say they don't delineate. Plus, Watts said, Glasper is both a ham and a magnetic stage performer. "He's a really funny guy," the comedian said, recalling their first meeting a couple weeks ago in Brooklyn. "I got to see him perform with Bilal and Mos Def at the Highline Ballroom. Glasper got up and did some songs with them and just destroyed." Watts added that their night at Yoshi's might be completely freestyled, but he's not apprehensive about it.
Oakland fans have reason to share his excitement. The lion's share of credit for this year's expansion goes to Lloyd, who conceived the idea for Magnuson's performance at Yoshi's, then pitched it to Sketchfest. For his part, Owen engineered the Watts-Glasper duo, since he's a rabid fan of both artists. To them, it's an opportunity to co-present; to Oakland, it's a fortuitous billing, occasioned partly by Yoshi's' ability to book an artist on both sides of the bay, and partly by the East Bay's demonstrably large comedy fanbase, which might not have existed ten years ago. The same night that Reggie Watts hits Yoshi's in Jack London Square, two other comedy showcases will happen on adjacent streets — Comedy Off Broadway at Miss Pearl's and Sylvan Productions Comedy Night at Vitus. Now that's exciting.