Janet Varney has been a comedy professional for years. She acts and writes for projects as diverse as The Legend of Korra (as Korra), Stan Against Evil, Burning Love, Entourage, and Rifftrax, just to name a few. Janet also is a co-founder and co-producer of the yearly comedy nerd paradise, San Francisco Sketch Festival or SF Sketchfest. Every January, the event takes over clubs and theaters all around the Bay Area, hosting some of the funniest people in the world.
2017’s Sketchfest is about to start, with comedy icons like The Kids in the Hall, Aisha Tyler, Tim and Eric, Tig Notaro, Rachel Bloom, Mike Judge, and many, many more appearing. Check out the full schedule here. Janet Varney chatted with us about Sketchfest’s history, this year’s lineup, and also about her work with Stan Against Evil, Rifftrax, and her fan following as the beloved Korra.
Fandom: How did SF Sketchfest begin?
Janet Varney: It was started by two of my sketch mates and me, David Owen and Cole Stratton. We had been performing together for about a year, and it was really hard finding places where we could perform. There’s a rich comedy history in the San Francisco Bay Area, but at the time not really a lot of places for sketch. So we had this idea to create a little, local comedy festival with six other local sketch groups we reached out to. For whatever reason, even though we were just scrappy kids who didn’t know what they were doing, the groups said, “That sounds fun.”
What was the first big “get” for you guys?
JV: In year two we got Fred Willard, which is funny that it’s coming full circle and he’s returning this year. He had a sketch troop in Los Angeles, Fred Willard’s Hollywood Players. Somehow we got in touch with his through a friend of a friend, and he came up and performed. That year we also reached out to the three members of the Upright Citizens Brigade who were not on Saturday Night Live at the time, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser, and Ian Roberts. They were heroes of ours for starting their own theater and fostering young sketch comedians. We always say we don’t know — it’s such a wonderful ripple effect in the comedy business. If you have a couple of big, great names that others respect, and those great names say nice things about the festival, that opens up a lot of doors for other people. When we get a Conan O’Brien or a Gene Wilder who say “I had a great time at Sketchfest,” then we’re more likely to get other people to say, “Well, this festival can’t be too bad.”
Using 2010’s Viva Variety Reunion as an example, is it the performers like Thomas Lennon who come to you pitching shows like that, or do you and the Sketchfest team seek them out?
JV: It’s been a combination of both. Mostly we have asked people, but using your Thomas Lennon example, if he’s not doing Sundance or shooting, he will reach out to me and say, “Hey, I wanna do Sketchfest, what’ve you got?” It’s the same with David Wain and Michael Showalter. They’re very welcoming to the fest and love doing stuff they haven’t done before. Other’s are pie-in-the-sky reunion ideas where we find a way to get word to those people and see if we can’t put them together.
Thanks to Sketchfest’s location, do you think it brings together New York and LA comedy scenes?
JV: There are definitely shows where we can reunite people who are in different cities and love the idea of being in this third city that just happens to be the spectacularly beautiful setting of San Francisco. It’s a really joyful place to do comedy. We wouldn’t be able to do this festival without this city as the backdrop and without the lovely audiences that keep coming and buying tickets.
You’ve performed at SF Sketchfest, including with Rifftrax. Are there any others you’d like to perform with?
JV: I love Rifftrax and would love to do way, way more. It’s just a matter of being so jammed up with other projects. Cole and I have been working on riffing a movie for about a year. It’s just really hard to find time to sit down and write. We love the Rifftrax guys; they are some of the nicest and funniest in the business.
How do you think podcasts have impacted Sketchfest?
JV: They’ve definitely become a huge staple of the festival. When podcasting started to become more popular, we saw that people love the vibe of a podcast. They’re just as open to going to the live version as listening to it. It’s a very extemporaneous medium, and people like feeling like a fly on the wall for the experience.
What did you guys think of standup becoming part of Sketchfest?
JV: I can’t remember the year we started doing it, but it was pretty early on. We started to realize the opportunity. So many comedians have so much crossover that we didn’t need to limit ourselves on types of comedy. We have really good relationships with promoters who do comedy in the Bay Area that we partnered with them to do some really fun shows. The comedy clubs were interested in being part of the festival and we wanted to widen the range of what we were presenting.
Were there any performers or groups you recall working with early on and now seeing them become more famous?
JV: We definitely had Aziz Ansari at the Punchline very early on. Demetri Martin very early on. Zach Galifianakis was certainly very early on, and we saw him explode into the stratosphere. So many people who have come through SNL over the years. Kate McKinnon came many years ago as part of Logo’s Big Gay Sketch Show. It’s been great, and it helps us when we present up and coming sketch groups. People take us seriously, and industry people do come up and scout. It feels good to think we’re helping foster those talents.
Of all the icons and legends Sketchfest has hosted, were there any personal favorites?
JV: I loved having Garry Shandling, that was wonderful. The Conan O’Brien tribute was really fun. I’ll always remember it because he had to cancel, and we’d already had this tribute in place for months and months long before the crazy stuff happened [when Conan left The Tonight Show in 2010]. Sketchfest was right in the thick of it. Conan was still going to come, and my understanding was that he was essentially told by attorneys to keep a low profile, and he was crushed. Months and months later, he came, and Patton Oswalt moderated it, and Andy Richter was there too. It was so loose and fun and silly. It was very much in the spirit of Sketchfest — a lot of goodwill all around and a moment that couldn’t have existed otherwise.
Any upcoming Sketchfest shows you’re looking forward to?
JV: I’m really excited about the Brain Candy stage reading. Kids In The Hall were early supporters of Sketchfest. I think Bruce McCulloch was the first Kid to come to the festival, and I think he or Dave Foley fostered our relationship with the other members. Pretty much every year we’ve had some member or the entire group of Kids in the Hall. The film Brain Candy turned 20 in 2016, but we’re kind of piggybacking it onto the start of 2017. I think that’s going to be great.
So, you’re also on IFC’s Stan Against Evil show, which just got renewed for a second season. That’s exciting.
JV: I’m so, so happy that that happened. I love doing that show. I was just saying to that it’s such a funny industry where you want to be invited to something before you really thought about if you want to be a part of it. This goes for writers, directors, producers, actors, across the board. It’s more about wanting to be wanted. What is so amazing with the work I’ve been able to do like The Legend of Korra or You’re The Worst or Stan Against Evil or Burning Love or The JV Club, it’s so much more rewarding to do more of it because it’s something I want to do. It’s great, and I’m proud of it, and it’s something not everyone can say.
Stan Against Evil is a horror show, so it has got to be more physically demanding than other shows you’ve worked on, right?
JV: [Laughs] I’m going to go back and do hard work, for sure, but very, very worth it. We shot in the summer, so it was incredibly hot, definitely a lot of physical stuff, getting splattered with goo. At the same time, I think of the ice cold sets I’ve been on with a studio audience where I’m put into a pushup bra, miniskirt, and high heels. I would rather be running around the forest than do that.
They just announced a new Legend of Korra comic book. Would you be interested in coming back for more Korra if given the opportunity?
JV: Oh yeah, I told Mike and Bryan [Executive Producers Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino] I'd come back just to say one word. Or even do something totally different, I just love those guys. I think everything they do is kinda perfect.
Did Legend of Korra expose you to a different audience who hadn't seen your work before?
JV: I hope so. I can't say that with certainty, but I think there's some crossover. That's really exciting because I'm not really someone who just does one thing and there are some who have made a name for themselves being great at one genre or show or medium. I've never been able to do that because I just get too excited about wildly disparate things. 10-plus years in I'm grateful for the fact that I wouldn't change anything.