Around 3 a.m. one day in 2006, comedian Greg Brown was on the return leg of a regular and grueling commute from Asheville to Charlotte, when he experienced an epiphany. “I was like, ‘Wow, why am I driving so far to a shittier city? I want to perform in Asheville without driving four-and-a-half hours to get 10 minutes of stage time.”
The first step was finding a venue. “I walked into the Diana Wortham Theatre and just thought, ‘Wow, this is a standup comedy mecca. This room feels good.”
The first Laugh Your Asheville Off Festival lasted two days in July 2006, and featured three shows starring mostly regional comics. There wasn’t a formal submissions process. “It was just me picking up the phone and talking to people,” says Brown.
Among those in attendance was Charlie Gerencer, a Los Angeles producer and one of the founding developers of the TV show Last Comic Standing.
“Five years ago, there was absolutely a void in Asheville when it comes to standup comedy,” Gerencer says. “Greg and I were both looking in different areas to figure out how standup could have a life [here]. We knew that, with such an artistic community, the talent was there. We just had to figure a way to draw it out.”
Brown remembers what Asheville used to be like. He used to go to the Dripolator at open mic poetry night to open with 10 minutes of jokes. Recently, he went to Athena’s downtown and asked to be put on the list to do some standup, but they already had 21 people signed up. All Ashevilleans. They’d try to squeeze him in.
Brown recalls that his goal was to put Asheville on the map as a destination for comedy. He may have succeeded.
Laugh Your Asheville Off is a different sort of comedy festival, organizers say. One thing that sets it apart? It’s not a contest. There’s no $5,000 prize awarded to a comedian judged superior to his or her peers. Gerencer believes this is one of the reasons the submissions to the festival double every year.
“Competitions flat-out suck,” says Kyle Kinane, who headlines the LYAO launch party (and who Variety magazine called one of the top performers to watch for in 2011). “I want to enjoy performing comedy with my friends; I don't want to ‘beat’ them at it. It's art. Winning over the most people in an audience doesn't make you a winner, it makes you the most accessible to that particular audience. I don't care if I'm not the most accessible performer all the time. I'd rather not be, actually.”
Other comics agree. “Oh, man,” says comedian Sam Morril of the noncompetitive formula, “so much less stress. I can just go in and have fun instead of feeling like I've entered a rap battle for Jews.” (Moril knows about competitions, having recently taken home the gold in Atlanta’s Laughing Skull Festival, with jokes like: “My girlfriend asked me what my fantasy is. I said, ‘Okay, I want you to dress like a nurse … Then I want you to tell me I have health insurance …’”)
There’s a feeling of camaraderie at LYAO, Brown says. “We probably have 20 comics that are coming to the festival who aren’t even in it — they just want to come here and hang out. It’s like a summer camp. It’s a very flattering thing.”
The main attraction this year will be Carl LaBove, who, along with his best friend, the late Sam Kinison, founded “The Outlaws of Comedy.” LaBove will do two one-hour segments on Saturday at Diana Wortham. “This festival will be a celebration of a lot of hard work and passion for the art of standup,” he said. “I'm a lucky soul and so are the other performers who’ll benefit from this phenomenal comedic extravaganza! Oh, and it’ll be my birthday that weekend, so hide your women!”
They’re gonna be in movies
This year’s LYAO will be the biggest in the festival’s history. Three of the festival’s five headlining comedians have recently appeared on Conan. Rory Scovel will be familiar to some as the pathological liar in a Land Rover commercial, who only feels safe enough to tell the truth to his lover when behind the wheel of the vehicle. Scovel’s Thursday performance will be taped for DVD, so come be part of the laugh track.
“These guys are all emerging stars,” says Gerencer. “They’re gonna be on TV, they’re gonna be in movies, they’re gonna have comedy specials.”
Former LYAO participants have gone on to star in Comedy Central showcases and have appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel Live. Talent scouts from New York and Los Angeles are expected to make the pilgrimage to Asheville to see what’s new and what’s coming.
“I get calls every year from top executives in New York and Hollywood who ask me who blew my mind,” Gerencer said. One of his recommendations was selected for “Last Comic Standing.”
And for the audience, the price is right, says Gerencer. “You’d be paying two to three hundred dollars to go to all of these shows in any other festival. You can go to every show we have for, like, $88. It’s ridiculous.”
Though planning for the event is a year-round affair, the hardest part for the producers is the end. “When people are holding their bellies and out of breath laughing, it sends chills down my spine,” said Gerencer. “We’re so depressed when it’s over.”
And they’re sober about the future.
“Growing is a very difficult thing,” Brown notes. “We’re about quality. We want to grow the talent level.”
“It’s been a very grassroots organic evolution,” Gerencer agrees, “and we want to keep that energy … It started as a passion project and has turned into a nationally recognized event. [But] we never want to sacrifice quality for quantity. We want to make Asheville a comedy destination every July. We want to be here for 20 years.”
— Devin Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
what: Laugh Your Asheville Off comedy festival
where: Diana Wortham Theatre and The Magnetic Field
when: Tuesday, July 12 to Saturday, July 16