It's all about bouncing back

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

American Comedy Festivals, Pt. 2

Comedy is art. To me, that's an unquestionable truth. But since the relocation and subsequent repackaging of HBO's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival last year, no one has launched (to my knowledge) a new annual event in the U.S. that celebrates the best of the art form -- showcasing a combination of this country's best stand up, sketch, improv and sitcom work. Why?

Yes, there are many fine smaller events which are continuing with varying degrees of success. You can find a fairly comprehensive list of stand up showcases, competitions and sketch festivals, for example, here. In fact, the list actually seems to be growing -- with new ones launching fairly regularly. And, if you are really craving something big, you can always grab your passport and skitter off to Montreal or Edinburgh -- but why should our best and brightest need to go abroad for wider recognition?

There's certainly an argument to be made that the internet provides such an effective and comprehensive showcase of current work that there isn't a need for performers to travel to tiny alpine ski villages to find representation or market themselves to the networks. Fair enough -- maybe this is more efficient -- but what about the fans? What about community? Isn't there a value in bringing everyone together once a year just to celebrate unique achievements and revel in work that we love and admire? The internet is no substitute for the thrill of sharing a live performance or the simple joy of meeting new companions who share your passion.

To support my position, I would point out that the opposite trend is taking hold in music. The music festival was all but gone in the 80s and only started to regain popularity slowly in the 90s with the rise of Lollapalooza and the scattered growth of radio-station-sponsored summer outdoor multi-band concerts. As this decade starts to sunset, though, huge multi-day camping outdoor music fests are thriving. (By the way, what a great time to be a teenager! Our sixteen year-old babysitter goes to Sasquatch every year with her friends. Three days of camping and partying music and art with no parents?! Are you kidding me?!?!? Oh, sweet Lord, to be young again . . .) Bonaroo sailed through its 7th year with a crowd of nearly 70,000; I believe the Coachella Music and Arts Festival topped 150,000. Of course, these events aren't as industry-centric and music will always draw a bigger crowd; but I still believe it is a small indication that there is clearly a need and desire to get out and commune with performers and fellow fans. There must be some effective way for the comedy community to tap into that desire.

One option is the apparent trend towards mixing comedy in with the big summer music and arts festivals. Bonaroo and Sasquatch both had comedy line-ups this year and those performances were apparently well attended. So that's encouraging and if the trend continues, I'll certainly be making the rounds of major festivals next year. (Which will be somewhat hilarious since I haven't been camping in over a decade . . . .) But I still contend that, if done correctly (in the right location, good mix of performers and fair price point) that a truly national comedy event and celebration could be joyful, worthwhile and fiscally successful.

Am I going to have to organize this myself? Do I have to do everything around here? *sigh*

BTW -- side note -- if you want to see a stunning example of how well this can work, check these really beautiful pictures that Louis CK took from backstage at Bonaroo. From his vantage point, we are looking out at a crowd of 65,000 fans screaming for Chris Rock, even though they are stuck in the rain. Awesome.


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