The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, ongoing war and perhaps even more disturbingly, a national media frenzy over the untimely death of Michael Jackson — it's enough to bring anyone down. However, if laughter truly is the best medicine, Asheville is a good place to be these days. The town might not yet be known as "Comedy City USA" (all it takes is winning an online poll to claim the title!), but there's certainly a growing number of upcoming opportunities to catch a funny performance.
This weekend, the Laugh Your Asheville Off Comedy Festival offers 50 of the country's best up-and-coming standup comics over the course of three days. Homegrown sketch-comedy troupe the Feral Chihuahuas are in the midst of a summer-long stand. Asheville Community Theatre hosts its annual Late Night Comedy series at 35below through August, featuring local comedic duo Scottch Tomedy. Local improvers the OxyMorons continue their seven-year run of weekly performances, and there's a popular new standup open-mike start-up called Tomato Tuesdays. And let's not forget the all-female sketch group LYLAS, whose members say they're hard at work writing material for an upcoming fall show after winning several awards for their work at the recent 48 Hour Film Project.
Laugh Your Asheville Off co-producers Greg Brown and Charlie Gerencer see a connection between the hard socioeconomic times and the recent upswing in Asheville's comedic offerings.
"I wasn't doing comedy in the '80s, but that was the last, the biggest boom. Comedy seems to succeed in recessions. That was the last big pop for comedy, kind of when it blew up, because everybody wants to go out and laugh and drink beers. It's kind of an escapism to do it," says Brown, a best-selling cookbook author who, in addition to organizing the festival, makes his living doing standup. "It's nice to go to a show and forget about things because you're laughing for two hours. It's liberating to do that." Gerencer, an Emmy-winning former producer of NBC's Last Comic Standing, adds that he thinks the increase in local comedy options is just the start of what Asheville could offer in the future. "There's no doubt in my mind that in the next five years this is going to be a comedy destination," he says.
Gerencer's been doing all he can to make that prediction a reality since moving here from Los Angeles. In just three years, he and Brown have helped grow Laugh Your Asheville Off into the largest standup comedy festival in the Southeast and a successful year-long series at the Diana Wortham Theatre. For now, they're bringing most of the comics in from out of town, but a long-term goal is to foster local talent and industry. This year's festival features a workshop by national comedian Johnny Millwater that's geared for locals who might be interested in learning the foundations of standup. "It's a really awesome two-hour class on the how-tos of standup comedy, from when you step on stage, to your writing structure and how you shape it. It's a really good shakedown," Brown says.
They're also organizing a weekly open mic at the New French Bar with the hope of drawing out and cultivating local comics. The format involves giving anyone who signs up a few minutes of free time before a light goes on, clearing the way for audience members to stop the performance by throwing foam tomatoes at a gong. "It's kind of like boot camp. It preps you for a bigger room or a real comedy club to be like, 'I'm ready, I've had tomatoes thrown at me before, and this is going to work out,'" Brown says. "If you give people the opportunity to perform comedy in kind of a fun environment, it's going to happen, and then it'll snowball."
Gerencer says they're open to booking talent discovered at the open mic, and the word already seems to be spreading. On a recent Tuesday, aspiring comics drove all the way from Greenville and Charlotte for the chance to have 10 minutes of performance time. Joining them on the mic were Brown and professional comics Joe Zimmerman and Melanie Maloy, both of whom, inspired by experiences at past Laugh Your Asheville Off events, recently moved to Asheville.
"I came here for the festival and thought Asheville was so amazing and so cool, and I thought, 'Oh my god, there's so much more creativity going on here than anywhere I've traveled to, I need to live here,'" says Maloy, who's been touring the country making her living as professional comic for seven years.
Zimmerman, a former Charlotte resident who earned Creative Loafing's "Charlotte's Comedian of the Year," echoes her sentiment." It has a very creative vibe to it, which is very encouraging for comedy," he says. "I've always heard people say it's growing like Austin was, and now Austin has one of the best comedy scenes in the country. … I feel like it's kind of an investment in a new scene."
Both comics cite community and audience support as a main draw of the area.
"Charlotte's got more open mikes, but it's mostly just playing to an empty room. Audiences in Asheville are so much more receptive to ideas, so much more receptive to going out and having fun," Zimmerman says. "Whereas Asheville seems very out and about, a lot of singles, people having a good time, Charlotte felt like a stifling atmosphere, because everyone was so 9 to 5, not really big supporters of the arts really. At a typical open mike, if you go anywhere in the world, there's not much crowd, not much laughter … whereas here there's a crowd of people having a good time."
Journey to Feralton
The recent transplants are discovering the support that Tommy Calloway says lifted the Feral Chihuahuas sketch comedy troupe from their humble beginnings performing in a Woodfin garage to their current eight-show run at the Asheville Arts Center. "We went from seating about 23 people to having our yard full of people we didn't know, police showing up, neighbors complaining; going from there to where we are now, doing a bigger venue and actually selling tickets. We were doing free shows in the garage — that is very Asheville to me — that independent spirit, do-it-ourselves kind of thing," he says.
The group's current shows intertwine witty live skits with standup routines, choreographed musical acts and professional-quality video and multimedia sketches. Each weekend run throughout the summer features all new material tied together by the theme of "Feralton," what Calloway calls "this fictitious place where all of these characters and situations exist."
On a recent journey to Feralton, those in the audience encountered the hilariously pathetic attempts of a single woman attempting to meet a "good man" at strip clubs ("Worst Places to Meet Men"), a behind-the-scenes look at the original writing of the Bible complete with inter-apostle arguments with their authoritarian publisher ("Will Anyone Read It?") and an advertisement for a promising product that enhances "natural" male odor ("Man Douche").
"There's no sacred cows, so we go after everybody. I'm sure we've offended somebody at every show. But that's part of what we do, and it's not offensive for offensive's sake. Usually there's a message in there, some sort of social commentary," Calloway says. "There's tons of characters and odd situations that you can get yourself into in Asheville that inspire sketches, I think. That dude at Greenlife who's taking your groceries who's an oddball and has this quirk about him, and you're like 'I'm going to do something with that guy, or and an exaggerated version of that guy.'"
Graham Livengood, a member of The OxyMorons improv troupe since its founding in 2002 at the now-defunct Artists Resource Center (which had a tiny performance space on Wall Street), says that their group is also inspired not only by the support of their audiences, but by the content they provide. "Since it's improv, it's so reliant on audience suggestion and audience participation. We can judge what kind of show we're going to have pretty quickly from the things we're getting from them," he says. "Our tag line that we use is 'Asheville Improv,' and we've been using it for a couple years now, and people keep suggesting that we use an apostrophe so that it's 'Asheville's Improv.' But we feel that with our audiences from Asheville, and how they've kind of formed the troupe throughout the years, we feel that no matter where we're performing—whether we're here, whether we're in Winston, or in Chapel Hill or Atlanta—we feel that we're going to bring a lot of eccentricities, and a definite Asheville kind of flavor to whatever improv we're doing."
Still, even with all of their love of the town and their audiences, local performers report that for now Asheville remains a tough, if not impossible, town to make a living at comedy.
Professionals like Brown, Maloy and Zimmerman say they rely on income from tours and opportunities outside of town to get by, while members of local groups like the Feral Chihuahuas, The OxyMorons and LYLAS say they all have day jobs.
Gerencer and Brown are hopeful that their efforts to bring more industry attention to the town and local community will breed more financial opportunities in the future. Gerencer says the word is starting to get out about Asheville's lively scene among contacts he's cultivated through his career, turning Laugh Your Asheville Off into a tastemaker festival on par with those of bigger cities.
"For the future of these comics, if they can get out on that stage and deliver, it can launch their career—that's our goal. You have to be in L.A., so they say, to get the exposure. But we're bringing the people who can give the exposure here, to Asheville. It's a great town. Everybody should be here," he says. Further revealing their ambitious plans, Brown adds that "it'll be the Sundance of standup comedy festivals in the next couple years, I think."
While the media of standup, sketch and improv are vastly different, there seems to be a mutually supportive feeling among Asheville groups and each other's efforts. "Anything that brings life to comedy in Asheville, it's good for everybody," Livengood says. "I would say that any competition is between live music, and that's pretty much it. The comedic groups in town, we're all working to carve out the comedic niche around here, and kind of exploit it the best we can."
For now, it's the love of the laugh that's motivating local performers like Jenny Bunn of LYLAS. "Nobody's getting rich doing this in Asheville—it's nickels, basically. For me, I feel like it's probably as close as I'm ever going to get to being a rock star, and it's really far away from being a rock star. But I mean the feeling of 100 people in a room laughing at a joke you wrote three months ago, it's just a great feeling," she says. "It makes all the long nights, all the crazy rehearsal schedules and everything like that worth it."
[Jake Frankel is an Asheville-based freelance writer.]