The Charleston Comedy Festival
Now in its sixth year, the Charleston Comedy Festival has grown from a one-night, all-local showcase into an extended smattering of the nation's best, most cutting-edge stand-ups, sketch acts, and improv groups.
Produced by Theatre 99 and City Paper, this year's lineup makes the question ever more difficult: How much awesome can you stuff in a four-day sandwich? And is there anything these lunatics won't say and do?
Take New York-based FUCT. Members are known for Taser-ing each other on stage. One sketch features a nun breaking rulers over her students' heads when they get questions wrong about the Bible.
In the past, co-founders Brandy Sullivan and Greg Tavares (both members of The Have Nots!) had to seek out acts. But now they handle a mountain of inquiries and applications from wannabe-performers.
"We had tons of submissions this year, a bazillion stand-ups, and sketch and improv groups," Sullivan says. "It's the beauty of the internet. They used to have to send videotapes. Now you just click on a link and see a show."
Sullivan's excited about the return of God's Pottery. That duo made a blasphemous splash in 2007 with its faux-evangelical Christian music act, which included songs like, "When the Ring Goes On, the Pants Come Off." The pair has since become finalists on the television show Last Comic Standing. They still utilize their funniest songs and bits, but they've updated the act with new material. Improv, says Sullivan, is "a renewable resource."
New acts to the festival include the Cook County Social Club, the Buffoons, and stand-ups Jon Steinberg, Rory Scovel, and J. Reid.
Cook County may whack the funny bone of Charleston audiences particularly hard. One sketch includes an overall-clad cousin visiting Chicago from South Carolina. He's forced to drink pitchers of beer before the city boys have fun shooting an apple off his noggin with a handgun.
Among the stand-ups, Toronto's Steinberg is more of a low-key act, telling his occasionally twisted jokes in a deep, monotone voice. In one, he muses on how killing two dogs at an animal shelter is humane, but staging a dog fight in which only one dies?
Well, that's just not right.
New York's Scovel has his own dog joke, acting out the ridiculous scenario in which a lonely man pretends his pet has written him a birthday card.
Vegas-based Reid earns his yuks as well — it's hard not to laugh at his portrayal of John McCain's "fucked up POW arms."
Expanding the lineup even further is the addition of Peter Gross, a comedian, magician, and certified hypnotist (yes, really certified). Unlike most festival events, his magic and hypnotism shows are certifiably family-friendly.
"This is the first time for kid's shows," Sullivan says. "We're testing the waters. The nighttime shows are definitely for adults."
That's when comics let loose. Tavares has many memories of entertainers getting sloshed at the Mellow Mushroom or wherever the after-party may be, then carrying on to a house party until the wee hours.
"With improvisers, when you get a couple of drinks in them, they start doing some drunk-prov," Tavares says. "And drunk-prov ain't pretty, baby."
Tavares says a lot of the repeat interest in performing in Charleston could be due to the party scene.
"Charleston is just an amazing collection of beautiful young people, women in particular," he says. "A lot of these comedians, who in their hometown the cute girl at the bar doesn't talk to them, here there are just too many cute girls for one of them not to be talking to you.
"In Charleston, nerds can rank."
Both Tavares' and Sullivan's favorite event is the Improv Finale.
"The finale is a mindfuck," Tavares says. "It's almost impossible to think about in terms of stage management. We literally try to get every funniest thing on stage. God's Pottery might do a song, then five minutes of stand-up. It's like throwing together a variety show on the fly."
In past years, Tavares and Sullivan have gathered on Saturday evening, hours before the event, to figure out the finale line-up. Many past performers have finished their gigs then high-tailed it across town to Theatre 99 to jump on stage, right into an improvised scene. It's ridiculous, Tavares says, and it's just one more reason the performers want to return to Charleston.
"Our submissions and quality are growing each year, and every year we end up having a wider net and a little more credibility," Tavares says. "These guys are coming from all over the country to this town where they're never going to get famous. I'm always heart-warmed by their desire to come."