A comedy festival is a lot like college for comics. You fill out a form, throw in your extracurricular activities (Twitter! Podcast! Webseries! [email protected]!), and try to make yourself sound as appealing as possible (a decent video). You then wait several agonizing weeks to see if you’ve made the cut. The festival itself is exactly like college. Like-minded people come together to share what they’ve learned, have a good time and probably get drunk. Hopefully you come out with some useful tools to carry you into your future in comedy. Or you are in a hideous emotional debt. Sadly, comedy doesn’t have any guidance counselors or parents. The best way to get there is to keep on trying, even in the face of failure. However, there are a few tricks of the comedy festival trade. If you’re like me, once a festival lineup has been released, you head to YouTube to watch videos of the comics they accepted. You say things like, “That person’s hilarious!” or maybe, “I feel like I’m just as if not maybe funnier than that person…why did they get in when I didn’t?” I spoke to a few festival producers/bookers to see what it is we might be doing wrong.
Andy Wood, Bridgetown Comedy Festival, May 8-11,Portland, OR
What is the decision-making process for Bridgetown?
There are 8 people who are watching videos. We built a whole software system thanks to Doug Dale this comic and programmer. He built this ridiculous system that handles all our volunteers and submissions. That thing is really cool. So your video goes to a central database and we can all watch it and comment on it like in a forum.
What exactly are you guys looking for? Any do’s and don’ts for videos? Are there any weird things that comics might not be aware of that they are doing?
We just want people to stand out from the hundreds of other submissions and make us laugh. We do try to keep the lineup diverse, but not in a tokenistic way, and not as a PR stunt — funny is always the top priority, and diversity of perspectives makes for a funnier and more interesting festival. Even in the “alt” world there are so many well-worn tropes, trends and cliches that people hang on to that we’re always excited when someone blazes a new trail with the direction their material and their delivery take.
Video-wise, in terms of production, is that important? People often use cell phones so…
Oh no, it’s important. There are people who are funny who send in such awful tapes…we can’t in good conscience let them in because we’re saying this is okay and it’s such a toss off thing you can’t even see or hear them.
Does a comics’ physical appearance make a difference at all? Like the difference between a hoodie and a buttoned down shirt or dress vs. pants. Do we have to brush our hair?
We don’t care about that shit. We try to be as neutral in everything as possible. It’s all about what gets the biggest laugh. There are tons of people who are famous and their managers are pushing them and we watch the tape and are like: This is awful. They don’t get any special treatment because their agents are pushing them. It’s totally open to anyone who makes us laugh and if you don’t you’re not gonna be there.
Do credits matter?
Obviously if you have a draw that’s a consideration but if you’re not a draw we just want you to be funny. If two people are equally as funny and one person has a bigger draw it makes more sense to go with them. I think a comedy festival is a place to focus on your talent. I get really excited to invite someone who is really funny but is not very well known.
Elyse Schuerman, Women in Comedy Festival, May 8-11,Boston, MA
What is the Women in Comedy Festival looking for?
We kind of have a couple different ways to participate. The biggest way is through the submission process. We come up with a pretty good system that works for us. We have a group of about 30 people that we’ve sorted of collected over the years: sketch comedians, instructors of comedy, basically anyone with a good background in comedy. They volunteer to watch about 20 or so submissions during the course of the submission process then they rate them. Every performer that submits has at least 3 judges take a look at their work and they rate them and they comment on them. Then from there we basically take the ones that were the most recommended then some that weren’t the judges’ first pick but who we think are interesting or are strong performers in an interesting way. We think having 3 or more opinions really gives them a fair shot at getting looked at. For example, if they’re more blue collar in their style a little more raunchy, one judge might be turned off by that but another one might see that it works for their set in a funny way. As long as it’s really good and funny and the video is in front of an audience it’s not just in a room somewhere, in a rehearsal space with like 3 people. We don’t care about the quality though it does help if it’s well-mic’d. It really runs all over the place. Our genres are stand up, improv, sketch and musical comedy and then we have storytelling in a stand up format. Not the stuff you’d hear on The Moth. And those are the categories we have this year. We also try to do niche showcases. Our festival is not run like a contest. We try to get our talent by Boston audience or by scouts. We try to bring at least 3 scouts from different places, try to get people work that’s our big thing. The festival is great. We celebrate all the great work that is out there we just get great women in front of audiences. We also try to get more women in the industry and men that are supportive of women in this industry.
How do you figure out what men are supportive of women in comedy?
If they’re submitting then they already are. Our festival really does flip the ratio on its head. Our experience as performers in festivals is it tends to be 20% women and the rest men and 20 is really very generous. We have no more than 20-25% men. We never really have to think about do we have too many men? It just ends up being that portion of the applicants are men. We feel that it’s important men are there otherwise it’s just sort of women doing comedy for women and more women and it opens that up. There are a lot of reasons to make sure we have men in the festival just like it’s important to have performers who are different sexualities, different races, orientation, etc…
Do you pay attention to credits? Is how much time they have under their belts factor into accepting them into the festival? Do the performers who are juggling 8 million comedic mediums get preference over those who are just doing stand up?
Really it’s just the quality of the applicant. We’ve turned down people who have agents and who have television credits. We’ve put people up who have been doing it for 2 years. The quality of the performance is what we watch. I know that’s different for everybody. We do have headliners. We do pay a handful of people who we really want to see perform live because we love them and they are kind of our anchors. They don’t submit because we’re paying for them to come out but from there anyone else that you see on the festival has had to submit. We make it as fair as possible. Everybody only gets one slot except for the headliners and some of the improv and sketch groups if they are really traveling from far. Stand ups only get one and we try to make it as fair as possible. There is something to be said about people who have TV credits and who have performed at multiple festivals, tend to be a bit better because they are more polished and comfortable on stage but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be better. Most people know if it’s funny or not.
I think a lot of comics don’t bother submitting. They get discouraged by the idea that they don’t have a hundred TV credits. It’s nice that there is a place that doesn’t care about that. I know you have a team of people looking at these videos but off the top of your head can you tell me one or two things you feel make a good video without making it sound like we’re coaching everybody?
I have no problems telling people how to get better at it. We want the best quality we can. We don’t want them to fail. We want everybody to be great when they submit and make our job hard. I think one big thing is make sure the sound quality is good. If the sound isn’t good it’s really hard to concentrate on listening to what you’re saying and giving it a fair shot if we’re really straining to hear. I think that’s the first and most important thing especially for stand up. I think as long as they submit their best set they have recorded…be as confident as they can be. Again we want to see how the audience is reacting but I think most of the judges and us involved we’re able to kind of weed through what the audience reaction is vs. the quality of the performance. If the audience isn’t quite picking up on things we can usually tell on our own. We don’t need the audience to dictate that. If there is some warmth from the audience it doesn’t hurt to have that. I think the stand ups should be as confident as they can be. The more practice they have the better they’ll be at it. Until you submit you don’t know. I think they should watch/listen to their own material to see what works and doesn’t work.
Do you pay attention to people who submit every year? Is it okay to keep submitting?
You have got to put yourself out there and this is the best way to start. We have one woman who applied one year, did not get in but applied for a scholarship. We started a scholarship fund where we give one of the classes away at the festival from a woman named Mary Scruggs who used to teach writing at Second City and she was really well loved and she passed away really young so we started this scholarship because there was a demand for it. This woman, Robbie Hoffman, applied the first year didn’t get in but got the scholarship for the class, she got in the next year and this year is one of the openers for Judy Gold who is one of our headliners. She is also doing it all the time. The more you do it the better you get at it. You can’t just do it every once in a while to get better at it. Everybody just has to keep doing it and doing it and doing it. The stand ups we know who have some of the biggest success are recording their sets every time, then watching it and submitting the best of what they are doing. I think every opportunity you’re on stage you should be recording what you’re doing…even if it’s having a friend hold your phone and recording you. Myq Kaplan is a good example of a hard-working comedian.
Megan Wills, Charm City Comedy Festival, May 8-11, Baltimore, MD
This is a brand new festival! Here’s what co-founder Megan Wills has to say about it.
We created this festival with the intention of furthering the mission Charm City Comedy Project has already begun implementing in Baltimore…to advance the art of comedy, especially improv, by increasing its visibility, and by fostering an inclusive environment. It’s been kind of a side effect of our signature style that this event became an all-around comedy festival. We’ve got a lot of improvisers in Baltimore who are also stand ups, and a lot of friends who are stand ups that love improv. And we’ve got some writers for good measure, which is where the sketch comes in. We’re creating a comedy festival, by comedy lovers, for comedy lovers.
We definitely look for high energy, and a unique voice from the first moment of the video. It’s important to grab the audience by their collars to make them sit up and pay attention. You should be confident and playful. Not giving a shit really helps. As far as what doesn’t work…if you remind me of anyone else, you’d better turn out to be better than they are. Otherwise you’re just going to pale in comparison. It’s the sad truth. And you’d better not be visibly drunk, sexist/racist, unintelligible, or overly crass. Those videos don’t get a second look.
Here’s a video of headliners Amie and Kristen Show:
Matt Bryne, The Comedy Exposition of 2014, July 11-13, Chicago, IL
Svetlana Legetic, Bentzen Ball, October 1-5, Washington DC
Some General Tips About Being Selected to Perform at Bentzen Ball Comedy Festival
(and also how to be selected to do anything in life really)
- Work hard. This seems pretty obvious but the only way you’re going to get that great clip is if you had a great performance and unless you’ve figured out something the rest of the (comedy) world hasn’t – those happen with practice.
- Be nice to people. Now, being my personal friend is not going to do anything for you in terms of getting into Bentzen Ball (being Tig’s might), but if you are a funny person that has introduced themselves at an event, kept us in the loop on things that you’re working on, and in general left an impression that you would not be a nightmare to be around – that may help. It is also totally ok to be a nightmare to be around but only if you have other goods to back that nightmarishness up. But think about this – Tig is a genius, a lot of people who performed at this festival are also geniuses – and yet they ALL get along and are capable of those few simple human skills mentioned above. Being nice is the easiest thing in the world. Everything else is extra effort. My Mother used to say that, and my Mother is always right. Also, pretty sure Kate Flannery subscribes to the same school of thought. And Kate Flannery is DEFINITELY always right.
- Follow submission rules. There is a form to fill out – fill it out. There is an email to which to send that youtube clip and/or list of credits to – send it to that email. You followed rules when you applied to college. You followed rules when you applied for your apartment. You followed rules when you got that credit card. It worked because when it comes to processing large volumes of things – you want the people reviewing them to focus on your work and not on how annoying your convoluted submission is. And trust me-they will think it is annoying, because quirky x1 is quirky, and quirky x857 is just frustrating (especially if there ARE submission rules). I know you want to stand out-but this will make you stand out the wrong way.
- Keep things in perspective. Did you get into every single college you applied to? Did every internet dating message you sent work out? Did every first (or 10th) date you went on work out? Did every group house you applied to live for accept you? Chances are, the answer is NO. This is not because you are not a smart, charming person worth loving and living with, it is because those schools/men/women/houses/etc were maybe not right for you. It is not personal. Trust us. Something just didn’t quite click this year.
- If you do get selected – be gracious and grateful and excited and work hard to do the best part of the festival you can be. If Nick Offerman can find it in himself to be this way, you can too.
- If you do not get selected – be gracious and grateful for consideration and stay in touch and see if there is some other way to maybe be involved with the festival and help and work hard to do this all over again next year. We will watch your new clips, we promise.
- Torture us on social media. I use the term torture because sending 12-25 tweets an hour about yourself to ANYONE is torture. It is, in fact, the internet version of Chinese water torture. It will not leave a fond memory of your name/tiny picture/handle in our minds. Also, Tig is not on twitter so you’re not even getting the most important decision person’s attention.
- Call/text/tweet at all your friends and ask them to torture us on social media too. That is like the internet version of Chinese water torture x however many friends you have. Also, Tig is not on twitter so you’re not even getting the most important decision person’s attention.
- Namedrop. Especially don’t namedrop me/someone else on the Bentzen Ball organizing committee to me/someone else on the Bentzen Ball organizing committee. If you really knew any of us, you’d feel no need to do this, and we’re onto you.
- Check in incessantly. There are deadlines, there are notes about WHEN people will be notified by, and trust us, people will be notified by then.
- Have a superiority complex. Great, you’ve done some shows. Great, people you know like you. Great, you finally have a clip you’re proud of. This doesn’t mean that you’ve earned anything more than a right for consideration. If you are reading this-it is probably still a relatively early point in this road for you, and you’re not God’s gift to this festival (no one is. Well, Reggie Watts was, but you know what I mean…) This sounds a little mean, but sit there and think about it and it will make sense. I promise.
- Think that you not getting in is a conspiracy. Trust me-this festival takes blood, sweat and tears to put together. Marc Maron’s shooting schedule just changed and we lost a headliner three days before announcing the show and we have 85 flights to book and 7 venues to walk through 12 times and 8,000 tickets to sell (on top of our day-to-day work lives) – we don’t have time to create a conspiracy theory to KEEP YOU OUT. You wish you were that important.
- Launch into some horrible negativity campaign AGAINST the festival if you are not selected. This just makes you seem like an easily bruisable, annoying, petty person. No one wants to hang out with those. And comedy festivals, more than any other festival, are about hanging out.
THINGS THAT DON’T MATTER
- If you are attractive/clean/stylish/homeless looking etc – if you are (legitimately, truly, unimpeachably) funny, no one will care if you wear the same sweatshirt 5 out of 7 days a week and didn’t get a haircut before that clip was taped.
- Your age/sex/gender/race/sexual orientation/socio-economic standing/whatever (as an excuse/reason for anything)-the fact that any of this is even discussed in 2014 or mentioned by anyone is offensive to me personally. All that matters is that you are funny/work hard/have hopefully some draw/and are not a (perceived) nightmare to be around. If we saw a coffee table that fit that description, we’d book it.
- The technical quality of your clip – we need to hear you clearly, and we need to be able to see you well enough, but this doesn’t need to be a super pro operation.
- Being friends OR enemies OR bad exes OR sorority sisters OR whatever with anyone. NOT ONE SINGLE PERSON ON THE BENTZEN BALL ORGANIZING COMMITTEE has the power to single handedly get you there (or keep you out of there) and no one is holding grudges. Unless you twitter tortured us and/or launched a horrible negativity campaign against the festival, in which case we ARE holding grudges.
TRUST ME ON ALL OF THESE.
Chris Trew, Hell Yes Fest, November 12-16 in New Orleans, LA, April in Austin, TX
Chris, you are in charge of the Hell Yes Fest in Austin and New Orleans. Let’s talk about it.
We are in our 4th Hell Yes Fest this year, in November (New Orleans).
Apart from the fact that you are a comic (improv, sketch, stand up, Air Sex, everything), why did you want to put on a comedy festival? It’s pretty fucking hard I think.
I love festivals and festival culture and so I really wanted to…I have a bad habit or maybe a good habit to try to do my own version of something that I love to do. After attending dozens and dozens of festivals whether it was a sketch festival, improv festival or stand up festival I learned a lot about what I thought was cool about them and what I thought wasn’t cool. I wanted to do a festival that was the best possible version of all those things.
To be honest I think that’s the best reason. There’s no fault in running a comedy festival when you’re not a comic but it certainly helps to be one and to understand the plight of the comic (we’re just doing God’s work).
One of the things that separates Hell Yes Fest from other festivals is people who performed there got paid and people didn’t pay anything to be a part of the fest cuz we don’t take submissions. If you were to ask me to write out a list of all the things I dislike about comedy festivals and inversely what I like about ours, probably number one on that list is we don’t take submissions and that is only because I don’t like the idea that the quality of our festival is dependent upon who chose to pay money to submit their tape. Now it makes sense that some festivals take submission fees. I’m not hatin’ on that because for some festivals that’s how they get paid. I worked for an improv festival a long time ago and part of their business plan was: oh, we have to get more submissions. They would write an improv theater asking them to tell all their groups to submit, knowing full well they aren’t taking most of those people but they needed that submission money. That just makes me feel weird. I’m not super into that. And so that was the first thing we did. We axed submission fees. There is no formal submission process. We invite who we like. I’m fine with people writing me about the festival. I like the idea of us having submissions because it keeps the focus of the festival on the quality, on the caliber of the people.
You have a lot of amazing comics at your festival but you also have comics that not everyone has heard of so it’s not as if it’s just super famous folks. It’s still up and coming comics. I think when people hear no submission they get this idea that it’s going to be a festival full of established comics which isn’t true.
Not at all. And that to me is part of the festival formula. You gotta have the people who you’re average person will recognize from television so it adds some legitimacy. I get it. For every one of those I want to have 4 to 5 people who are high quality that aren’t famous because that is why festivals exist in my opinion. They exist to give those people a possible jumping off point to give them some momentum or continue their momentum and another thing festivals have to have is you have to be in a place that will elevate your own scene. That is the most important thing. So when a festival doesn’t have a good size portion of it being locals I feel like you’re doing it wrong. You’re blocking your own scene from taking the next step. We will always be at least 25% local.
It’s also nice to give people a chance to perform with comics they normally might not get to perform with. When a comic is submitting a tape (I’m 34) to a festival what do you think makes for a good tape?
I think a more fun way to answer this is what not to do. I think it’s a mistake to try to show, try to tell how funny you are in your bios or in the production of your tape. I think you should let your performance do the talking. I can’t tell you how many goofball comics have done this: Ron Jordan grew up in Sacramento, got the heck out of town and rode his donkey all the way to Los Angeles but it wasn’t really a donkey it was a Subaru Outback but he called it a donkey because he’s a jack ass. Stuff like that is, what the fuck? You’re wasting everyone’s time with stuff like that. I would stay away from that. Just have quality, have a good sound quality. Be yourself and try your best to have a good reputation and keep working hard. That to me is all you need.
Since the Internet is such a blessing and a curse to comedy, does it matter if someone isn’t doing a million kinds of comedy?
I see what you’re saying but I don’t think it’s important. I think that anyone who is a quality performer is going to, they’re going to stand out. I think actually having a shitty podcast is bad. Having a podcast is good. Having a shitty podcast is bad. What if in your bio you are really hammering home that you have this podcast and the person doing submissions is feeling a little feisty or thorough and they go to your podcast and it’s really bad quality and you’re kind of a bad host. Then it’s like, whoops, you got busted. You were bragging about the things you do and you got bit in the butt. I wouldn’t be surprised if stuff like that happens. I do want to say one more thing. This is a thing that I wish would happen more often and we’re going to attempt it this year at Hell Yes Fest. I wish that comics would just attend festivals more often even if they didn’t get in. Now I know it would be a bummer if someone really wants to be in Hell Yes Fest for example, and they didn’t get invited…can we get comics to start coming to festivals even if they’re not performing because guess what’s gonna happen next year? They’ll probably be invited or they will learn a lot or who knows they may get to go up if they’re there.
Abbey Londer, Riot LA, January, Los Angeles, CA
How are you Abbey? What are you doing now?
I work at KCRW. I’m an events producer there. There are about 6 of us there who do all the events for KCRW. I’ve been there since January of 2013. I get away for 2-3 months for Riot then I come back.
I guess things at KCRW must seem pretty simple compared to planning an entire comedy festival.
Well things at KCRW are very old school public radio meaning they have a document for everything. I had one year of Riot under my belt then I went to work for them. I definitely pulled in a lot of skills from each job.
I remember hearing about the Kickstarter for the festival, and I wasn’t living in LA anymore but I was like: Yes! There should be a comedy festival in Los Angeles. What made you want to start a comedy festival?
I’m originally from the suburbs of Detroit and I moved to Chicago in 2004 and I lived there for 5 years and I did Second City and Improv Olympics. I did nothing but improv and sketch for 4 or 5 years. I went to school there and got a degree in theater. I was super super immersed in the comedy scene in Chicago. When I moved out to LA in 2009 I wanted to do something different and I had never tried stand up so I started performing stand up. Shortly after I started stand up I started producing my own show that was bi-weekly that ran for about a year and I just really really loved producing. I love working with comics. I love bringing people together to watch comedy and laugh at comedy so I started doing bigger, weirder shows at loading docks and industrial buildings downtown and vintage clothing warehouses and just really weird places where I would basically erect not just the stand up show but I would have an art exhibition or a ping pong table or an open bar or a homemade photobooth. Basically I came up with the idea for Riot and I presented it to one of my friends and he was like: I don’t know if that’s gonna work LA is basically like a festival every day here. And I was like yeah so I let it sleep for about 8 months and then I was like: Yeah I think I’m going to do this anyway and I’ll do the Kickstarter and we’ll see if people are into the idea. We ended up raising like 10 grand in 10 days and totally meeting our goal of $20,000.
Since you’ve done it twice now I’m assuming it’s coming back forever?
Well, nothing is forever. I did not honestly know if I was gonna bring it back a 3rd year. It’s really difficult to produce something like this in Los Angeles because my friend was right, there is a ton of exposure here already. It’s basically a labor of love. I don’t have a full-time job for just no reason. I don’t make any money on it. It is very financially difficult so I was not sure if I was gonna do it again. I basically, we had interest…basically a friend came along and said: I want you to do this again. So I said, okay! I’m doing it again. I’m a little bit of a crazy person because I produce it all myself. It’s just me. There is no one else, from the ground to the ceiling is me. And that’s a lot. I would love for Riot to keep going on. I’m working on creating the brand expansion so we can move it into other cities and other places and take it around the country. I have started…I’m now working at other comedy festivals around the country which is really fun and awesome. That’s definitely something I would love to continue to do.
Riot doesn’t take submissions but since you’ve been around comedy for so long, as well as producing shows, I’m wondering what everyone is looking for when they choose comics. If you are a comic submitting to a festival, what are people looking for? What do you look for?
My festival is very small scale compared to Bridgetown or Moontower. They have upwards to 12-14 venues and can afford to bring on a ton of comics. I can’t so my process is more selective because of that, which isn’t to say that won’t open up eventually but for right now we don’t take submissions, however, I work very closely with Charlene Conley from Bridgetown. I know simple things like, have a good video. Have a decent, quality video and make sure that it’s lit well, that you can see your face, that there isn’t hair in front of your face. It’s very simple stuff that people tend to overlook very easily. Now if you’ve gotten past that point, I know this isn’t very descriptive and I’ll be more descriptive later but bottom line: Funny is funny. I also know that what I personally think is funny is different than what a lot of people think is funny. I pride myself on putting in people I know are funny. It doesn’t matter if they’re not my personal taste. I can watch somebody and know: This person definitely has an audience. This person definitely has a voice. This person definitely is funny. You don’t have to appeal to me so to speak. As far as me personally I have a soft spot in my heart for honesty. I have a soft spot in my heart for people that I think are weird, like Josh Fadem. I love Josh Fadem because he’s so different, quirky and smart. And Kate Berlant.
Yes! I love Kate Berlant. I’m a little obsessed, not creepily but it could get there.
I’m also a huge softie for storytelling, anybody that can tell a story well. When I choose people for Riot I do put a lot of, you know I stack my lineup well. I have a lot of heavy-hitters. I also play to people that aren’t well known. They might be well-known to you and I because we’re in the comedy community but I’m talking about people that…Riot is marketed towards people who might not be able to go out and watch comedy every single week. It’s marketed to people who are fans of comedy. Now they can come down, park their car for one weekend, and see what is happening in comedy. I look for people that I think are treasures and do have a little bit of heat under them and do deserve to be showcased more.
It seems like nowadays unless you have 400 things going on like a podcast or a webseries or a sketch show…what if you just like stand up. Do you have to be some kind of crazy triple threat?
No, of course not. I think if you wanna do stand up and that’s your thing then just do that. Look at the Sheng Wang. I love Sheng Wang. I think he’s super brilliant and I think he’s worked hard at stand up and I think his stand up is very polished and I think he does well. Look at Nate Bargatze. These are people who just do stand up. They don’t do these other things. It does not hurt to do these other things. All that is is you’re wearing a toolbelt and the more tools you have in your belt the faster you can build something. Also stay true to yourself, if that’s not your jam then don’t worry about it. Just keep doing what you’re doing.
It is my sincere hope that this was in any way helpful. Let’s recap: Be funny when it counts, don’t waste it where you don’t need it. Make sure the video quality is good. Can they hear you, see you, do you exist? Gain the respect of your peers but mostly from yourself. And of course: Don’t give up.