Just because Asheville doesn’t have a comedy club doesn’t mean it’s not a funny place.
“Our improv scene is fantastic,” says Greg Brown, author, chef and comedian-turned-festival-organizer. “The Oxymorons and Feral Chihuahuas are doing that late-night comedy program at 35Below, and that has the snowball effect of getting people used to that kind of comedy.”
But if what you want is standup in the tradition of Margaret Cho or Jerry Seinfeld, you’re committing to a road trip to Charlotte or Atlanta. For Brown, a native Southerner and stand-up enthusiast, the trek to other towns left him longing to bring good comedy to the mountains.
“Over the winter I’d go to Charlotte and Atlanta to work in comedy clubs and perform,” he explains. “The comedian community is good for a nurturing process. The best performers will tell you what you did right and what you did wrong.”
He adds, “It’s kind of a weird subculture.”
Finding the support for his own developing craft was one aspect of the scene that appealed to Brown, but seeing successful, sold-out shows especially inspired him to create the first Laugh Your Asheville Off Comedy Festival.
“There’s no ‘Laugh Your Cleveland Off’”
Brown’s partner, Rowan Lischerelli, asserts, “We’re artists ourselves. We attend all these different festivals, LEAF and Bele Chere, but we don’t have comedy.”
There was the short-lived Asheville Comedy Club on Biltmore Avenue, but it closed after just a handful a shows. Brown attributes the quick turnover not to a lack of interest but to bad location. The expensive downtown venue, he says, would’ve been better off in a River Arts District locale with less overhead, freeing up more funds to bring in skilled performers.
He reasons that Asheville’s lack of stand-up venues is intimately related to its relative dearth of comedians.
“Unfortunately, there’s nothing here for them. Not enough open mics.” To nurture their acts, Brown explains, comedians have to “be on stage every week—trying new material and fine-tuning really minute subtleties.”
“The feedback from other comedians is invaluable,” agrees Lischerelli.
So when the couple set about creating LYAO, they decided to break a few molds. For starters, it’s only happening here. “There’s no ‘Laugh Your Clevend Off,’” Brown promises, though he wisecracks that to cut costs he’ll be outsourcing next year’s performers from India and Mexico.
The festival’s talent includes Brian “Big B” Fox, who calls Asheville home. The 3’ 4” comic and star in Asheville: The Movie has been touring the comedy circuit since 2003.
Headliner Todd Barry, who’s appeared on Sex and the City, Jimmy Kimmel Live! and HBO Comedy Showcase, is what Brown calls a “comedian’s comedian.”
Johnny Millwater, nicknamed “The One Man Freak Show,” blends rapid-fire-delivery stand-up with daredevil magic tricks like fire-eating.
Joe Zimmerman, recently named Charlotte’s Comedian of the Year by Creative Loafing, bases his show around fortune cookies, penguins and dating disasters.
The list of featured performers also includes Carnival Comedy Challenge winner Scott Oseychik, self-proclaimed “King of Simpsons References” Mike Buczek and Carnival Cruise Comedy Challenge runner-up Clint Nohr, among others.
Another break with the comedy-show formula: LYAO doesn’t allot most of the evening to a single headliner—instead, expect variety. Seven openers present five to eight minutes of material each, allowing the audience to test-drive a number of styles.
“We were raised in the Sesame Street generation,” Lischerelli offers by way of explanation. “There isn’t time to get bored.”
Beyond an understanding of short attention spans, Lischerelli brings to the festival a decidedly Asheville angle: She’s interested in the healthful aspect of laughter. A former Laugh Yoga instructor, she enthuses,“it’s so healing … it reduces your blood pressure and it reduces stress and depression and clears up your problems in life in general.”
Laughter may be the best medicine, but that doesn’t mean it has to come from low-brow humor or at the expense of those less fortunate. “This [show] is definitely for mature audiences,” Lischerelli points out. But theatergoers should still expect humor based more on unusual perceptions, intelligent delivery and sharp punch lines rather than material from what Lischerelli refers to as “the Andrew Dice Clay era.”
“Our comics are the ones in the corner, jotting down last-minute thoughts like quirky poets,” says Brown.
Laugh Your Asheville Off happens at Diana Wortham Theatre at 8 p.m. on Thursday, July 19, and at 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Friday, July 20. Tickets are $28/general, $24/seniors and students. Find info at 257-4530 or www.laughyourashevilleoff.com