For Bay Area comics, SF Sketchfest an oasis in a changing city, comedy world

Annette Mullaney will never forget her first time “killing it” doing standup comedy in front of a crowd in 2016.

“I felt I was both in the moment, and also my brain was thinking ahead,” the San Francisco comic recalls, “and it was the greatest high of my life. I’ve been chasing it ever since.”

That rush from making an audience laugh, forging a connection with a room full of strangers, is a constant craving for nearly all stand-up performers — and for the last two decades, SF Sketchfest has been around to help sate that appetite.

The comedy festival has evolved from a handful of sketch groups on one stage to a dizzying lineup of hundreds of troupes, stand-up comedians, podcasters and other stage shows performing at more than a dozen venues across the city. All the while, San Francisco has evolved as well, with a constantly rising cost of living squeezing performers both new and experienced. But as SF Sketchfest kicks off in-person celebrations on Friday, Jan. 20 for its 20th (belated) anniversary after the COVID-19 pandemic postponed live programming, it’s still that performance high that keeps festival performers like Mullaney, “Cheaper Than Therapy” producer and comic Jalisa Robinson, and even veteran comedian Paco Romane moving forward.

The history of stand-up comedy in San Francisco is long and decorated. This is the city that launched the careers of Robin Williams, Margaret Cho, Ali Wong and Will DurstDave Chappelle and Patton Oswalt spent influential time here early in their careers, too; in his book “Silver Screen Fiend,” Oswalt recalls tearing up his joke book at Taiwan Restaurant after bombing at the influential Holy City Zoo.

Many of those stars, of course, came of age in a very different San Francisco, one where it might have been possible to survive working a part-time day job, jumping from open mike to open mike in the evenings, and spending the rest of the time writing and honing their craft. But with the median two-bedroom apartment rent jumping 70% (after adjustment for inflation) since 1992, a steady paying job — even when splitting with roommates — is vital.

“There are still comedians that live together, but all of them have day jobs,” said Romane, who’s been part of the local scene long enough to witness the city’s transformation, starting his stand-up career in 2006 (and living most of that time in his rent-controlled apartment in the Upper Haight). “(That) ‘we’re just professional comedians and that’s all we do’ thing is gone.”

That’s one reason why any given comedy lineup in San Francisco seems to have at least one moonlighting tech worker getting stage time. Mullaney herself is a software engineer (in fact, her best-paying gigs, she’s said, have been hosting events for tech companies), while Jalisa Robinson is another stand-up with an IT background, a vocation she’s looking to return to part-time in between performing sets and helping to produce “Cheaper Than Therapy,” the weekly show at the Shelton Theater in Union Square. Robinson even moved from San Francisco to Oakland during the pandemic in part to save money on rent.

“I was working in tech, I saved up a bunch of money, I’ve lived off of that and then I’ll just have to re-up,” Robinson said, explaining that she goes from part-time job to part-time job to support her comedy career.

More demanding day jobs, though, aren’t the only competition for a comic’s writing or stage time. Today, with YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and other online platforms, there are more outlets than ever where comics can have their work seen. While those venues may seem less prestigious to those who came up dying to get a career-making five-minute set on “The Tonight Show,” the reach of an online hit can easily outpace any traction a short segment on the show may get.

Robinson has a small advantage on the video/streaming stage; she went to school for film before moving to San Francisco. “It’s kind of crazy,” she said of comics becoming video editors by necessity, “because that’s a job, it’s an entire career. I have a couple friends that have upwards of 50,000 or 100,000 followers and, if you’re doing it right, that’s also a part-time job.”

Of course, the current crop of stand-up comics isn’t unique in needing to pursue comedy-adjacent work.

Romane was acting and doing sketch comedy well before getting behind a microphone at a comedy club, and has since found work as a voice-over artist. (He is one of the voices of Pandora’s streaming service, reading ads and other copy.) His career has straddled the pre- and post-social media age, and while he understands virality on the internet can be a boost in name recognition, he ultimately doesn’t see the hustle being worth the reward.

“I’ve noticed people getting 200,000 followers, a million views on their videos, and I’ve asked them, ‘How does this equate to asses in seats?’ And it doesn’t,” he says. “They’re getting views and they’re getting some followers, but none of those things equate to money.”

Videos of “crowd work” — spur-of-the-moment interactions with an audience — have become the manna of social media, and there are plenty of chances to get in front of a crowd in San Francisco, even as it becomes more costly for bars and performance spaces to operate. As more people try their hand at stand-up, the scene seems to grow to accommodate them. While that has reduced the central importance of any one venue, Romane sees it as a net positive.

“Even though the culture is splintered and it’s more high school-like now – What group are you in? And who are your BFFs? – I do believe people are a lot more welcoming,” he says.

That welcoming community is one of the hallmarks of SF Sketchfest, which gives hundreds of performers — local and otherwise — the two things any stand-up comedian really needs to keep going: A microphone and stage time.

“I get to be on stage all the time telling jokes to people,” Mullaney says. “It’s easy to forget that you’re already living a dream and that you get to perform live all the time and connect with people.”

Annette Mullaney: Locals Only! 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26. $22. PianoFight Main Stage, 144 Taylor St., S.F.; Cosplay Comedy Saturday. 9:30 p.m. Jan. 28. $22. Brava Theater Center, 2781 24th St., S.F.; Would You Rather with Andre and Maggie. 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4. $25. PianoFight Main Stage, 144 Taylor St., S.F.

Jalisa Robinson: Sh— Arcade. 10 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20. $25. PianoFight Main Stage, 144 Taylor St., S.F.; Studio Sets. 9:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 27. $22. Brava Theater Center, 2781 24th St., S.F.; Jordan, Jesse, Go! 8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5. $28-$35. The Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson St., S.F.

Paco Romane: Hosts Toddy Berry’s “2023 Stadium Tour.” 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22. $30-$40. Cobb’s Comedy Club, 915 Columbus Ave., S.F.; Hosts SF Sketchfest Threesome. 8 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 2. $24-$34. Punch Line, 444 Battery St., S.F.

Sketchfest 2023: Jan. 20-Feb. 5. Various venues in San Franc

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