I tried to get into the back of the cab, but the driver wouldn’t have it. He wanted to talk, and said he felt weird driving me around Grand Rapids if I wasn’t right there next to him.
That’s the tone of this small Michigan city, and it carries over to its touchstone, 10-day comedy festival honoring Gilda Radner: You might be from out of town, but you’re in the passenger seat—an honored guest and a welcome addition to the Gilda’s LaughFest roster of impressive stand-up shows. This was only LaughFest’s third year, but they’re poised to become the best comedy festival for fans in the country. They’ve cracked the code: Book great comics and get out of their way.
But any good plan needs a hype man—confidence incarnate. And that’s Laughfest’s only deficit. The festival is untainted by industry schmoozery and built on producer kindness and genuine, heartfelt gratitude from local comics. As the Jews say (none were there—see note re: industry), dayenu. Yet the centerpiece of LaughFest, the reason I was flown out to begin with, was to judge comedy competitions. Yeah, like Last Comic Standing. The wider community has moved on from these shows, and despite LaughFest doing just about everything else right, nobody told them.
Whatever marketability a competitive aspect brought to the festival was unnecessary. The lineups were insane: Nerdist podcast recordings and Brian Regan shows were happening elsewhere—and the previous week, Joel McHale, Bill Burr and Garfunkel & Oates had swung by—but as a New York journalist and minor-league Just For Laughs producer, I helped judge the Best of the Midwest on Thursday, and the National Stand-Up Competition, held over Friday and Saturday nights.
There were real stakes, in that $2,500 went to Ryan Dalton on Thursday and a whopping $10,000—That’s what you win on Chopped, people!—to Mike E. Winfield Saturday. But winning the competition was half the battle. Thursday’s Midwest show was electric, with Dalton, Steve Gillespie, Emily Galati and others demonstrating that a coastal presence isn’t necessary for relatablility and consistency. Gillespie, in particular, amped up the oddness of his outlook and appearance (a Justin Bieber-AIDS patient smoothie), and walked offstage without even saying goodbye; no amount of money or lack of late-night TV credits would dull his blade.
Representing “the industry,” the majority of my time was spent with the 10 comics who made up the main competition. The rest of Hollywood stayed home, saving their airline miles for tacos at SXSW or the opportunity to gallivant the streets of Montreal, loonies and toonies jangling in their pockets. Thus Winfield, Jamie Lee, Julian McCullough, Brendon Walsh, James Adomian, Al Jackson, Beth Stelling, Cy Amundson, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Andrew Schulz showed up unescorted and ready to throw down for no reason other than to impress their peers.
Each a potential headliner, they all performed on the same bill—four times Friday, and the top remaining five repeating the process Saturday. That’s freakin’ comedy endurance, and to hear Walsh subtly tweak the timing of his debaucherous set, watch Adomian finesse transitions between his Sam Elliott and Jesse Ventura impressions, or revel in McCullough’s effortless crowd work became all the more impressive knowing they were being asked to dance multiple times a night, shuffled between rooms for audiences with a say in the judging process.
The people of Grand Rapids were kind as can be, but they knew exactly what they wanted and weren’t afraid to articulate it. When a joke sailed over their sensibilities—like Rajskub going off on bar skanks—they let the comics know, some more vocally than others. My co-judges included an assortment of radio personalities, one of whom took it upon himself to narrate, under his breath, whether he liked or disliked each of Lee’s jokes. A woman at the midnight unveiling of the $10k winner, during which the five non-advancing semifinalists performed, poured an entire drink down Amundson’s pants because his set made light of the competition.
Perhaps the tension got to them, too. The competition aspect of LaughFest took an intrinsic motivation—doing well on a lineup of excellent peers—and yanked it out-of-body. There was money at stake, a not-insignificant amount, and feelings, understandably, were hurt. I suppose by framing the show as a competition, the audience might feel even more invested in attending, and therefore more included in the fun. And it theoretically motivates the comics to bring their A-material. But these aren’t folks who have a habit of phoning it in; if you get them on the line, you get their best, always. Winfield delivered multiple killer sets and rocked the competition hard. But, unfortunately, it cost people like Lee and Walsh satisfaction, or Schulz and Stelling more stagetime.
Consider this LaughFest’s pep talk. This is an industry-less utopia of unbridled creativity. They’ve got me and the comics in the front seat of their cab, and it’s a great place to be. I see nothing but craft beer and low, low prices for miles. I just wanna go for a ride.