December 2018 Issue

Carol Burnett, Jinkx Monsoon, and Margaret Cho among headline acts during Sketchfest 2019.




The upcoming SF Sketchfest lineup may well be the most impressive in the festival’s history, 18 years and counting as of January. Among Sketchfest’s many tributes in 2019, will be a tribute to the one and only Carol Burnett, who will appear in conversation on January 14th at our very own Castro Theatre.


SF Sketchfest runs from January 10th through the 27th, and happens at some of our city’s most loved venues, like Palace of Fine Arts, Cafe Du Nord, California Academy of Sciences, Marines Memorial Theatre, and The Chapel.


Wendy Oakes spoke with Sketchfest producers David Owen, Cole Stratton, and Janet Varney, who began the festival in 2002.


Wendy: You have Carol Burnett coming to the Castro Theatre as part of this year’s SF Sketchfest. How exciting!


Janet: She’s been someone that we’ve dreamed of having at the festival, since we began the festival, so we’re kind of still pinching ourselves.


Wendy: She’s one of so many great tributes at SF Sketchfest, including Margaret Cho, who used to appear at The Castro’s Josie’s Juice Joint closer to the beginning of her career, and W. Kamau Bell, who’s also from the Bay. Another name we all know well in this city is Peaches Christ, whom you’ll be hosting a roast for.


David: We’ve had a collaboration going with Peaches for the last several years, where every year we’d co-produce a big event at the Castro Theatre. Over the years we’ve brought up people like Cloris Leachman and Barry Bostwick, and celebrated songs like “Teen Witch.” This year is Peaches’ 45th birthday and also is the 20th anniversary of Midnight Mass, the cult series that Peaches started at the Bridge Theatre, so rather than doing a tribute to someone else, we decided to honor Peaches. We’re bringing in a bunch of her collaborators, and people that she’d played tribute to over the years are now returning the favor. Heather Matarazzo’s coming back, and Mink Stole, Clea DuVall, Jinkx Monsoon, Coco Peru, Heklina, and there’ll be some special surprise guests roasting Peaches as well.


Wendy: Peaches will be doing some theater for Sketchfest as well, with Varla Jean Merman. They’ll be presenting The Whining, so they’ll get a parody in too.


David: Exactly. That’s a show that Peaches and Varla did in Provincetown over the last couple of summers, and it was a huge hit there. They wanted to do the San Francisco debut and thought that Sketchfest would be the right fit for it. They describe it as a sketch comedy/parody of the Stephen King classic. That’ll be at the Gateway Theatre for a couple of nights.



The Roast of Peaches Christ happens Sunday, January 13 at Castro Theatre. Photos Courtesy: Sketchfest


Wendy: You’ve got so much great theater lined up. Tell me about another highlight.


Cole: There’s a show that played Edinburgh [Fringe] and a couple of other places, called Tilda Swinton Answers An Ad On Craigslist. It stars Tom Lenk, who’s got a very famous Instagram account now, but is [also] an actor in things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a one hour piece about Tilda Swinton, who finds a guy on Craigslist to be roommates, and studies him for her next role. It’s completely ridiculous and great. We did one show and it sold out immediately; we added a second show and it sold out immediately, and we’ll soon be adding a third show.


Wendy: Aside from comedy in its familiar forms, you’ll be presenting comedy as it intersects with music, so you have some great artists on the schedule, including The Milk Carton Kids. They’re hilarious between songs anyway, even when not part of a comedy festival, but this time they’ll have even more of a comedy focus.


David: I’m a huge Milk Carton Kids fan and go to all their shows when they come to the Bay Area. I’ve been asking them for years to come to the festival, ‘cause they just felt like such a perfect fit. I’m not the first person to describe them this way, but they’re kind of The Everly Brothers meet The Smothers Brothers. They’re amazing musicians and singers, but they’re hilariously funny, just as funny as many of the comedians that we have, in their banter in between songs. They got it immediately and liked the idea of performing with comedians, and have been doing similar shows in Los Angeles. They’re gonna do a show on our closing night at Marines Memorial Theatre, with comedians like Aparna Nancherla and Andy Kindler, and we’ll be announcing some other guests on that soon. I [also] want to mention the two shows we’re doing at The Chapel with The Red Room Orchestra.


Wendy: Doing the music from Twin Peaks and The Big Lebowski.


David: Exactly. About a year and a half ago, this all-star orchestra convened to do the music of Twin Peaks at The Chapel. Last year we revived that and they did the music from Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and The Royal Tannenbaums, and they were all really great shows.This year we’re bringing the Twin Peaks show back again; it’s become a favorite at The Chapel, which turns into the Twin Peaks roadhouse, and they do all of the great music from it. Then they’re gonna tackle the soundtrack from The Big Lebowski. This is a group of musicians that includes people from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, and Cake, and Cibo Matto, and it’s led by a wonderful local musician named Marc Capelle, who has been on the scene for years. Margaret Cho is gonna actually sit in on both of those shows; she’s gonna perform on the Twin Peaks and The Big Lebowski shows. That’ll be really exciting; she totally was into the idea of this group, and she loves to sing.


Wendy: You’ll also be hosting a new, interactive experience at The Speakeasy, where the audience gets involved in the show.


Cole: Speakeasy’s this really amazing, immersive thing in San Francisco. We had the pleasure last year of using it as an after-party place. Pretty much all the talent that came through were remarking on how amazing it was and how much they would love to do shows there. It’s a cool space, looks like a 1920s speakeasy, you have a couple bars, a cabaret stage, a couple little rooms you can explore, and secret entrances. It set the idea in our heads, them and us, to collaborate and do some immersive comedy experiences in there. Every Friday and Saturday night of the festival we have headlining comics, or comedian pairs, or improv night, [which] will be anchoring the show on the main cabaret stage, but [there will also be] other performers wandering around and interacting with people in funny ways to get them involved. We’re also doing a thing called Jokaoke, kind of like karaoke, but for standup.


Wendy: You’d mentioned improv, and you have a wealth of that as well, coming from performers out of Upright Citizens Brigade and The Black Version.


Janet: We were really lucky to get the Upright Citizens Brigade. [They] were a group that took a chance on Cole, David, and I when we were starting the festival. In our second year, when we had just rented the Gateway Theatre, which was the Eureka Theatre, we reached out to the three guys from the original [crew]: Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, and Ian Roberts, and asked them if they would come out and headline at the fledgling festival we were returning to for a second year, and they came out. Some iteration has been part of the festival every year ever since. They have guest improvisors that join them, and we have special guest monologist Bobcat Goldthwaite. We’re so excited when it works out every year, because we can’t imagine the festival without that show.


You mentioned The Black Version; they are a festival favorite. We try to have them every year. They are so fast, so funny; they have improvised music in their show, songs throughout the show, that are as good as anything that’s been written and rehearsed. We’re doing a special show with them this year on a separate night, that is brought to us by Audible, who are coming back as our presenting sponsor this year. They have a show on Audible that is called The Hills of Baldwin. It’s an entirely improvised show; they’re creating this fictitious world set in Baldwin Hills, in Los Angeles. They’re gonna be doing improv in that fictitious world that they’ve created. Wayne Brady is joining them for that show, so that’s gonna be fantastic.


Wendy: Of course, there will be great standup at Sketchfest, including standup by performers from Asian AF, as well as some of the best comedians from Edinburgh Festival Fringe; artists from around the world hope to appear there.


David: One of my favorite pet projects is bringing in comedians from around the world; this is something we’ve done for a few years. This year we have it in a few different locations, and these are comedians from everywhere, from Ireland, to England, to France, to Canada, to Australia, and it’s people who have made a mark and gotten great reviews at the festival. We’ve found that there’s an audience here for international comedy. Each year we try and build more and more of those shows. I think this is the most we’ve had, this year, of international shows. We’re pretty excited about that.


Wendy: Along with international comedians, you bring in so many emerging comedians via your emerging artist showcases.


Cole: That’s something that we really take pride in programming a lot of. We started the festival as performers; we were all in a sketch group together called Totally False People. We always came at it from that perspective, so as the festival has grown, we always looked at it as a place to nurture new talent in all areas: standup, improv, sketch, solo shows, music stuff, anything. Every year we get tons of submissions from people; we do a lot of scouting too, so there are hundreds and hundreds of performers that you may not have heard of now, but will end up blowing up. Phoebe Robinson comes to mind; she was an emerging artist who played at the festival and got huge. Every year we program a ton of stuff, and we never get away from it because we remember how important it was for us to go and play, and it’s important for them.


Wendy: You’re partnered with 826 Valencia. They also do great work in helping out emerging artists, with school programs, and they’ve put up a new storefront in the Tenderloin. It’s a fitting partnership. What brought you together?


David: We’re big admirers of what they built in the city and around the country, and it all started here. Early in the festival [826 Valencia Co-founder] Dave Eggers moderated some events for us, so when the time came a couple of years ago, we were working on a benefit show, we thought that they would be the perfect partner to work with. We really feel passionate about reading and kids, and writing and kids, and learning, so we started doing an annual benefit show, and the proceeds go to them. This year we’re doing a show called Worst First Chapter.


Janet: That’s a show that was originated by Paul Sabourin and Storm DiCostanzo, otherwise known as Paul and Storm. Along with Jonathan Coulton, they came up in the very beginnings of YouTube, when things were really going viral. They were self-producing their own comedy albums and they now hold an enormous cruise, called the JoCo Cruise that happens every spring. They created Worst First Chapter originally for the JoCo Cruise, and we were so excited to bring it to SF Sketchfest. We did it last year as well, and it was a big hit.


Wendy: Some of the shows at SF Sketchfest will be recorded for Audible, for those who want to listen again, or are at another show that night, or can’t make the festival because they don’t live in the Bay Area.


David: The Audible shows are recorded for release on the Audible channel, so anybody who is an Audible member will be able to access those programs. This year we have five shows with Audible. We also have a whole series of podcasts that are recorded and released, once they’re edited and prepared for release, throughout the year. In some cases they’re free; in some cases they’re paid, but there is a lot of opportunity for people who aren’t in the Bay Area, or just couldn’t make the show, to listen to them after the fact.


Wendy: The three of you were in Totally False People, as you had said. How did the three of you come together and get to know one another, and what prompted you to start the festival?


David: Cole and I met in 1994 as college freshmen, so we’re coming up on 25 years of being friends and knowing each other. We met at the dorms at SF State, and then we were roommates for years. We both worked at a video store in Parkmerced, and were writing sketches while we were checking videos out to people. We met Janet about five years later at the Castro Theatre, at a screening. [The three of us] and another friend started a sketch comedy group. It was Janet, Cole, and I, and a guy named Gabriel Diani, a great actor, director, and writer. The four of us became a troupe and started performing, and the festival was born out of that. We’re excited to put this festival out there once again. It’s surreal to us that we’re going into our 18th year, but we’re still doing it!


For a full schedule, tickets, and more information, please visit




Exhibit honors resilience of survivors aging after epidemic



Days after the community united for World AIDS Day by using chalk to inscribe names of lives lost during the epidemic, Bodyscapes Healing Art Workshops hosted a moving exhibition on the third floor of Strut (470 Castro St) packing in over 80 attendees for an evening of warm food and artistic expression.


Celebrating Resilience, the December 5th Bodyscapes event, featured poetry and art created by members of San Francisco AIDS Foundation Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network. The artwork focuses on specific motifs of the illness itself and the resilience required of aging.


“This is a form of healing,” said Bodyscapes founder Diane Sciarretta, who began working with the 50-Plus Network in October. “We have to hold our communities strong in these times, especially with so many big issues in our world. Working with this group of long-term survivors who have overcome so much adversity, I fully see the power and brilliance of resilience.”


For Celebrating Resilience, the new 50-Plus Bodyscapes artists created powerful poems of deep, rich narratives, going into the many levels of what it is like to be older and gay, seeking to assign meaning to living and aging after the San Francisco AIDS epidemic, said Sciarretta.


Founded in 1982, the 50-Plus Network serves gay, bi, and trans men, 50 years and older, HIV+ and HIV-, who have disproportionate rates of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and isolation. Many have experienced the stigmatization of being LGBTQ, and are still traumatized by their own illness and the loss of friends and lovers.


“The artist felt so deeply seen and heard and accepted by the audience,” Sciarretta added. “I am always touched to fully comprehend -- it does not matter how long one has been HIV positive -- there can still be shame and stigma and apprehension about talking so publicly about one’s relationship to the virus. I am humbled they go on this journey of art-making with me.”


Vince Crisostomo, 50-Plus Network Program Manager, has been dedicated to this organization since 2014.


“Part of celebrating resilience is looking at the community and how far they’ve come,” said Crisostomo during the event. “The passion that [Diane] brings to the workshops, I’m hoping that spills over into the group. If you can figure out what makes your heart beat, then youre aging gracefully.


“This is the generation that survived the AIDS epidemic, so there’s a lot of trauma on trauma,” Crisostomo added. “It was amazing when I watched the workshop and you saw the light bulbs go on. It was wonderful. Some that thought they could never do something like this. It’s been incredible.”


76-year-old Marty Carls, who has lived in the Bay Area for 46 years, prefers to think of his resilience as more than being a survivor.


“My perspective is that I’m a long term flourisher. Not a long term struggler, not a long term survivor,” said Carls who read a poem during the event. “I’ve been flurosing for a long time. When I contracted the virus about 42 years ago, I realized that I wanted to be around to be with my granddaughter -- who wasn’t born yet. I started taking so much more care of myself at that point. Now, if I said long term survivor, I’d be downsizing myself.


“I look better because I take better care of myself; HIV has been a catalyst for just that,” Carls continued. “Even though there are many long-term flurishors, the funding is essential. It’s a scary thing still.”


According to the United Nations, 36.9 million people were living with HIV around the world in 2017. Of those, 35.1 million were adults and 1.8 million were children. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 1.1 million people in the United States were living with HIV by the end of 2015. Fifteen percent didn’t know they were infected.


USA Today reported that in the United States, 15,807 people with an HIV diagnosis died in 2016. The CDC says those deaths could be from any cause.


“These men are something of a miracle— I have such awe and respect for them surviving those horrific days when AIDS was not just a disease, it was a condemnation,” Sciarretta added. “But now, in addition to everything else they have been through, they face aging, with its own complications heightened by the virus and a weakened immune system.”


She continues, “That is why some of the drawings focus on parts of an artist’s body afflicted by this illness—for example, the heart, liver, and lungs. And we are emphasizing resilience, which is the theme of the 50-Plus Network this year. Resilience is to keep going in the face of adversity, to bounce back.”


For more information on Bodyscapes Healing Art Workshops, visit



Art museums, boozy Bike Rides & Hamilton, The Emergence Of OKC



As a 13-year San Franciscan who travels regularly, life in this world-class city already feels like a vacation. But despite the international vibes of our beloved city by the Bay, as I think about my future and where I want to eventually settle down, living costs of San Francisco become increasingly more ridiculous.


When I first received the invitation to attend an LGBTQ media trip in Oklahoma City, I wondered what a town in the Great Plains wanted with a group of gay reporters. Ever curious, within a few weeks I was hopping a 6am flight to the red soil of OKC.


My travels to other big cities sometimes start feeling like Everytown, USA with their long cues for brunch and dimly-lit craft cocktail bars with exaggerated prices. Upon landing in the calm, quaint, un-bustling OKC airport and taking seemingly-abandoned back roads into downtown, I was immediately fascinated with discovering the city’s culture. Where the hell is everybody? And what do they do for fun?


It felt nearly apocalyptic at 4 p.m. when there wasn’t a hint of traffic or delays during what would be commute hours elsewhere. Then, just past the Taco Bell and gas station, appeared the modern brick facade of 21c Museum Hotel, and inside was a contemporary world of imagination.


A kaleidoscope illustration of smiling Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey was nearby a life-size sculpture of Confessions on a Dance Floor Madonna. Behind the registration area, an unfamiliar yet intriguing art piece -- fashionable khaki trench coat and jeweled necklace -- was displayed near a recognizable work by portraitist Kehinde Wiley.


“Welcome home,” I thought to myself. Art museums are a must for me when traveling and 21c seamlessly combined pop art with plush accommodations.


During the opening reception of our media trip, held at sunset on the hotel rooftop, we were welcomed by Mayor David Holt, the 39-year-old Republican who took office in April.


“I think, candidly, many would be surprised by the look and feel of Oklahoma City,” Mayor Holt told me.


To get an idea of OKC’s social scene I asked him to detail his ideal date night, which he did without hesitation. The Jones Assembly, a spacious indoor-outdoor venue of upscale American fare, was at the top his list. “Our food culture is something we pride ourselves on,” he added.


“If you’re into sports, there’s no better fan experience than the Thunder [basketball team], great fans, great atmosphere. Hollywood would be Hollywood without the Lakers, but most other cities need that pro-sports team to have the blue ribbon that’s bestowed on other American cities.”


If the ample sites of construction are any indication, OKC is quickly earning their blue ribbon.


Already going up is a new contemporary art museum, an American Indian Cultural Center that Mayor Holt says will “rival the one on the National Mall in Washington,” a 605-room Omni hotel, and a new convention center.


In July 2019, the Broadway knockout musical Hamilton will stop in OKC’s Civic Center Music Hall for a three-week run. It became nearly impossible to get Hamilton tickets in San Francisco without paying an arm and a leg; I predict similar success for Oklahomans.


An unexpectedly satisfying activity was our afternoon of boozy bike riding lead by Ryan Fogle, founder of Ride OKC, a guided cycling tour of downtown. Fogle’s experience as an architect offered information about some of the city’s most noteworthy structures, including the 52-story Devon Tower which punctuates the city skyline and the allegedly haunted Skirvin Hotel, first opened in 1911.


Something like Ride OKC works well on uncrowded roads. I couldn’t imagine pit-stopping for a pint of lager at multiple breweries then navigating busy metropolitan streets full of buses, cars, and pedestrians in a small gang of cyclists.


Pedaling through the Historic District, feeling cool breezes and seeing gorgeous trees of Autumnal oranges, yellows, and reds was one of my favorite activities all week.


Soberingly somber was my visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. Similar to how the AIDS epidemic obliterated and united San Francisco, Oklahoma City became stronger together after the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995.


The deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history has left a hollowed spirit in the city. The museum, opened in 2000, attempts to fill the void by honoring the 168 people who died, first responders, and the countless survivors who were injured or effected.


Museum Collections Manager Helen Stiefmiller, who handles the personal items that belonged to those who perished, survived, and rescued, said it’s an honor to do her job.


“We have walking, breathing constituents and they give us their stories,” Stiefmiller said during a private tour of the museum archives. “I get to meet all the people who survived this and lived through this. It’s an honor to work with them and know that I’m preserving their loved ones memories and their experiences.”


Stiefmiller said, “The community came together [after the destruction] and said, ‘No way, you can’t divide us.’ I think that’s one of the most powerful parts of this story.”


“[Similar to] the aftermath of the AIDS crisis when people made the quilt, we have people who make things, but here we have a permanent place [to preserve them],” she added.


As I did final edits to this article, chalk-written names covered the Castro Street sidewalks. World AIDS Day is a reminder of San Francisco’s own hollow hole left in a community after deadly disaster; each name an echo of the past.


Surely the invitation to visit Oklahoma City was intended to show a progressive, inclusive, welcoming town that’s emerging into a hub of culture and tourism; which it did. It also provided an opportunity to experience a different type of city life.


And though I haven’t completely thrown in the towel on my San Francisco digs, OKC opened my eyes to the possibility of living in a city without pretense.


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