There’s something special about being the only local stand-up comic selected to perform in your hometown comedy festival.
That’s the situation Marlene Thompson finds herself in for the 14th Asheville Comedy Festival. Hundreds of comedians from around the world applied to participate in the annual event, but only 56 were selected. Yet, rather than running full-page ads and printing T-shirts proclaiming herself “Asheville’s Best Stand-up,” Thompson is taking a humbler approach to the honor.
“There are so many talented, hardworking comedians living in Asheville, and I feel very lucky to have been chosen to perform at this year’s festival,” she says. “[But] I do think it’s significant to not have just another straight white male comic representing Asheville in a male-dominated industry.”
Following a two-year, COVID-19 pandemic-induced hiatus, the event formerly known as Laugh Your Asheville Off returns Wednesday, Aug. 10-Saturday, Aug. 13, with shows at Highland Brewing Co. and the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts.
Other than the 20 pounds he put on during the pandemic — “I call it my lockdown love handles” — festival producer and Executive Director Charlie Gerencer is mum on what’s new for this year’s edition. Nevertheless, he is elated to be back at it after a long, difficult layoff.
“It was a bummer, man,” Gerencer says. “It’s an incredibly fun event to produce and attend. Over the multiday run, what’s the worst thing that you’re going to experience? You may only laugh a lot? We’re kind of a win-win type deal.”
A laughing matter
Back in action, Gerencer thinks comedy is in its best shape ever. Throughout the pandemic, he notes, writers, performers and artists created out of necessity for their personal and professional well-being, resulting in a creative juggernaut for comedy.
“Comedians needed to find levity in an awful situation, needed to create an outlet to smile and laugh, and found it necessary to adapt and evolve their comedy to reach the masses in any way possible,” he says. “Dare I say, ‘Thank you, Zoom’? Podcasts and VODcasts exploded, too. It was a literal virtual comedy boom.”
But while the quantity of comedy increased, those who participated in these virtual events are more dubious of its quality, including Atlanta-based comic Jen O’Neill.
“It was a new thing, people wanted to connect, they wanted to support comedians, so for a minute, it was good,” says O’Neill, a veteran of the 2016 LYAO, who will return to Asheville for this year’s event. “We tried, but ultimately, I think it was just too hard for comedians to connect with Zoom audiences when they can’t hear any laughter. It fizzled out fast.”
O’Neill has also witnessed the power of TikTok and its potential to make comedians famous. As such, she’s certain that the popular video app would be the fastest way to grow her audience, though she has thus far resisted taking the plunge.
“The cranky old lady in me is fighting it tooth and nail,” she says. “I’m going to have to cave at some point.”
Whatever avenue she chooses to share her comedy, audiences can expect a shift in her content. O’Neill divorced during the pandemic, and since most of her old material was tied to her relationship and marriage, she decided to start fresh.
“I like to say that I lost half of my jokes in the divorce,” she says.
The pandemic has similarly impacted Thompson’s material. She notes that the past two-plus years have changed her as a person, and therefore the way she writes and views the world. In turn, she essentially threw out all of her jokes from before 2020 to more accurately reflect the world in which we now live.
“I believe it’s important for comics, or any performer for that matter, to engage with the audience about the pandemic,” Thompson says. “It’s a serious disease that affected us all on a deeply traumatic level. Over one million people died. A lot of people lost their jobs, homes and/or loved ones. It would be a major disservice to the public to not mention such a catastrophic global event.”
O’Neill concurs for the most part. “I think it really depends on the comic and their material,” she says. “At the end of the day, it all just comes down to whether or not the joke is funny. If you can make an audience laugh for 30 minutes on straight pandemic talk, then for the love of God, do it.”
The room where it happens
Both stand-ups will get the chance to share their new material at an event that Gerencer says has become known as a “performers-first festival” — a quality that he says comics usually recognize in retrospect.
“All of our efforts are to help make them a household name,” he says. “We don’t produce for any other reason but to do our part in helping them roll the square boulder up the steep hill called a career in entertainment.”
Both O’Neill and Thompson note that comedy festivals have indeed helped further their professional aspirations and enjoy performing in them. They particularly like the perks of getting to travel, network and meet new fans.
“Not only have I gotten tons of work from doing festivals, but some of my best friends are comics that I’ve met on the festival circuit,” O’Neill says. “Now I don’t have to pay for hotels when I go to their cities.”
Such gatherings also feel more meaningful than in the pre-pandemic days. Despite stand-up being more readily available than ever on streaming services, O’Neill feels that communities are finally ready and eager to get out, do things and — more than anything — laugh.
Thompson agrees. “It’s fun to watch comedy from your couch at home. Who doesn’t love a night in with takeout and a comedy special?” she says. “But the shared experience of laughing together at a live performance is something that can’t be replicated on a TV.”
Taking that concept one step farther, Gerencer sees — well, maybe not the potential for world peace, but the capacity for greater positivity across people of different backgrounds.
“In an environment where the comedy is live, you’re more apt to be open to the humor and forgive any initial instinct of judgment, criticism, shock or offensiveness. It’s a safe place to let go from the straps of social norms and just be free to laugh,” he says. “It feels a hell of a lot better than getting in a political argument with someone you don’t know on social media. Laughter, plain and simple, is contagious and a main ingredient to joy. The more people laughing, the more joy there is to be had. I’m such a dork but I know this is true.”
WHAT: Asheville Comedy Festival, ashevillecomedyfestival.com
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, 18 Biltmore Ave., and Highland Brewing Co., 12 Old Charlotte Highway. See website for schedule
WHEN: Wednesday-Saturday, Aug. 10-13. Ticket packages $25-$100