Since last summer, Laugh Your Asheville Off has been challenging Asheville’s reputation as an uptight little artist’s village and attempting to turn it into a bustling burg of comedy. For its sophomore effort, the festival has stretched to three days and, according to organizers, has thus become the largest comedy festival in the Southeast. (Take out the word “comedy” from that last sentence, and the description also fits Bele Chere—which shows just how far this laugh-fest has come in one short year).
For a comedian, life on the road is decidedly unfunny. Night after night of lonesome travel and poorly attended (not to mention poorly paying) shows often make being professionally funny a rather joyless job. But festivals such as Laugh Your Asheville Off provide traveling comics a sort of sanctuary that the road can’t offer.
These safe havens for the funny bone are more often treated by comedians as a vacation rather than as work—which only makes more fertile ground for laughter. According to festival organizer Charlie Gerencer, getting comedians to relax and let their hair down is a win-win situation. Add in a few networking events and a comedy workshop, and you’ve got a perfect working holiday for professional laugh-makers.
“They are usually on the road with [just] one or two acts, so it’s kind of like a party for them. It’s like an adult playground, and that bleeds over and makes a better show for everyone.”
But is Asheville funny?
The prospect of laughter with the gloves off is rather alluring, even in a town like Asheville, where there are almost as many protesters as there are artists. But given the city’s penchant for earnest activism, it does beg the potent question: Is Asheville funny?
For Gerencer, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
“I don’t think people are as uptight as everyone thinks they are,” he says. “It’s an artistic community. Artists are a different breed of animal. They are quick to be judged, but as a community as a whole, I think [Asheville is] really carefree and open-minded.”
In fact, according to festival co-producer (and stand-up comedian) Greg Brown, Asheville is more than just funny: It’s also one of the smarter audiences in the Southeast.
The audiences here “are more socially conscious than a lot of other crowds,” he explains.
Whatever hang-ups or taboos the local crowds do have, they are often cast by the wayside during the performances. Chalk it up to the pack mentality on Pack Square.
“When you are in an arena like the Diana Wortham Theatre, laughter is so big in that room that it’s easy to laugh,” Gerencer says.
And with a headliner like Alonzo Bodden, it’s even more contagious than usual.
From airlines to punch lines
Bodden is anything but an overnight success. For him, stand-up comedy was more of a whim than a viable career option.
“I used to teach classes for future airline mechanics, and I thought it was more fun to tell jokes than to teach the class,” he says.
But 15 years after sticking his toe in the comedy water, Bodden is now up to his neck in acclaim. If he looks familiar to audiences, it’s due to his appearances on The Tonight Show and his stint on NBC’s Last Comic Standing as the third season’s grand-prize winner.
“The thing about Last Comic Standing was that it introduced me to America. It allowed me to not have to worry about paying rent, and in this business, financial security is the biggest thing.
“Being on The Tonight Show,” he continues, “is also still a big deal. Not as big as when Johnny [Carson] hosted, because when Johnny introduced you, it legitimized you—but it still helps.”
However, it was a comedy festival in another tourist town (Just For Laughs in Montreal) that gave Bodden his big break.
“I often say that I get paid to travel and I tell jokes for free. It’s OK, though—it’s better than paying honest work. I’ve seen honest work, and I know it’s not for me.”
In fact, the bulk of his material is making fun of that world. But the Seinfeld-ian minutia of day-to-day life isn’t all that Bodden has to offer.
“I am moving into more topical material,” he says. “The hardest part of that is that there is so much stuff happening all at once and you don’t have time to think about all of it. Every time George Bush opens his mouth you worry that you are going to blow your own head off,” he sighs.
But really, that exasperation is all in a day’s work. The true sign of success for stand-up comedians is when they can give it up. And Bodden doesn’t want to.
“I love comedy and I can’t imagine not doing it. Steve Martin is one of my favorite stand-ups ever, and an entire generation doesn’t know Martin as a stand-up comedian. So when I worked with Steve Martin in Bringing Down the House, I asked him if he ever missed doing stand-up, and he told me that he did, and when he missed it he would go dabble in it. I asked him where he played and he said, ‘You know, like The Oscars.’ So I guess he’s a little more famous than I am,” Bodden laughs.
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to experiment with fame. Bodden already has his sights set on a movie role that he believes is made for his 6-foot-3-inch frame.
“I want to star in Hancock II, but Will Smith is a little bigger than me. He’s about 6-foot tall, but when he stands on his wallet he’s 7-foot-3.”
Big festival in the little city
The lure of film careers and 15-inch wallets are down the road a bit for Bodden—and for the other comedians playing this year’s festival. What is on the horizon is laughter, and the possibility of the festival somehow getting even bigger.
According to Gerencer, Asheville and its inhabitants will make it happen.
“Asheville has a sense of humor, [and] we’ve tried to pull that out. We try to offer a different kind of art for people in this city. This isn’t playing Uncle Stuffy’s Chuckle Hut in Duluth, so comedians come here, see that we throw a heck of a party—and they have a heck of a time.”
[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
who: Laugh Your Asheville Off
what: A three-day comedy festival
where: Diana Wortham Theatre, with some satellite events
when: Thursday, July 17, through Saturday, July 19 (Cost varies by event, but a three-day pass is $35. Visit www.laughyourashevilleoff.com for a complete schedule of performances and events)