Four-day Asheville Comedy Festival returns

FUNNY BUSINESS: "I like to balance jokes with crowd interaction," says Brevard native and current Chicagoan Hobert Thompson, right, who will perform at the 13th annual Asheville Comedy Festival. "I want the audience to feel like they're in on my bit, not just passengers." Fellow North Carolinian Maddie Weiner, left, is also on the bill, along with dozens of other comedians. Photos courtesy of Weiner and Thompson

Brevard native and current Chicagoan Hobert Thompson is returning to Western North Carolina this week to perform at the 13th annual Asheville Comedy Festival. But that’s not his only motivation for coming home.

“I’m definitely going to make some time to visit family … and go to Bojangles,” he says. “We don’t have Bojangles in Chicago. I don’t want to sound like I’m only returning to eat a Cajun filet biscuit, but it was a factor.”

Thompson is one of 51 comedians selected from a substantial applicant pool to perform at this year’s event. The festival’s executive producer, Charlie Gerencer, declined to comment on the exact number of submissions but noted that it takes approximately four months to select the official lineup.

Those who made the cut for the 2019 Asheville Comedy Festival, previously known as Laugh Your Asheville Off, will perform at three venues (Diana Wortham Theatre, Highland Brewing and LaZoom Room) Wednesday-Saturday, Aug. 7-10.

“The comedians at our festival are top-shelf,” Gerencer says. “[They’re] well-known, established comics and are, or will be, stars in the comedy world.”

Take Thompson: The N.C. State graduate has never performed in Asheville, though he has appeared in Brevard and Hendersonville. He’s a relatively new convert to stand-up, having moved to Chicago from Raleigh in 2014 with the aim of pursuing improv. Not long after arriving in the Windy City, however, he felt compelled to try open-mic stand-up.

It stuck.

“I stumbled into something I love doing,” he says. “Chicago has been great so far. I really feel like its comedy scene is conducive to letting performers try new and different things.”

Thompson is certainly trying different things. His act is offbeat, avant-garde and often incorporates his extensive improv background.

Take, for instance, one of his most popular bits, which he begins with the declaration that a paternity test has proved that he’s the father of every single person in the audience. He then proceeds to walk through the crowd, grilling his “kids” about their drug use, career paths and other fatherly topics.

At least one iteration of this bit — a 2016 YouTube video filmed at CAMP comedy showcase in Chicago — finds Thompson shouting at one of his “sons” to “stand in the corner and stare at the wall” because he hasn’t done his homework. It ends with the comedian belting out Elton John’s “Circle of Life,” while inviting his “children” (including his disgraced “son”) onstage for an absurd, grandiose finale.

“If I had to describe my act to someone in a gun-to-my-head scenario, I’d quickly blurt out, ‘Conceptual crowdwork, please don’t shoot me,’” he says. “I’d understand if they shot me anyway because that sounds obnoxiously pretentious.”

But basically, he continues, “I like to balance jokes with crowd interaction. I want the audience to feel like they’re in on my bit, not just passengers.”

While Thompson is more off-the-cuff, Pedro Gonzalez is a stand-up traditionalist. Gonzalez’s story is unique. Born in Colombia, he moved to the United States at age 19 to join other members of his family who had already immigrated here.

Gonzalez, who now lives in New York, initially wanted to be an engineer. He soon realized he was better suited for a creative field. So he ended up at UCLA, pursuing a Ph.D. in literature “so he could get a cushy job teaching at a university and work only a few hours a day,” as the bio on his website puts it.

He eventually ditched the Ph.D. track for comedy after he realized the latter requires even less work.

“I grew up a middle-class city child, but I come from a long line of farmers,” he says. “Which is funny, because I’d die if I had to harvest my own food. The only reason I do stand-up is because all it requires is a piece of paper, a pen and an imagination.”

Much, but not all, of Gonzalez’s act addresses the struggles of living in Trump’s America with the name Pedro and a strong accent. He employs a deadpan, nonsequitur style — ala Mitch Hedberg — to grapple with the touchy subject of race.

In one bit, he talks about a girlfriend he once lived with in Manhattan. The girl’s father, “an old wealthy dude,” as Gonzalez puts it, tells the comedian that he doesn’t like Hispanics because they come to America and “live off the government.”

“I was like, ‘Sir, I’ll have you know that I’m Hispanic and I don’t live off the government. I live off your daughter. So get out of my house,’” Gonzalez responds, to uproarious laughter.

Though Gonzalez’s material often pokes fun at the prevalence of racism in America, his actual experience in this country has been mostly positive. He’s never encountered “aggressive racism,” as he puts it. But he has had to deal with occasional affronts.

“Having the name Pedro makes me pretty unsexy on dating apps, for sure,” he says.

Whatever bigotry he’s come across has generally been offset by the welcoming nature of others — especially those in the New York comedy community, where he’s found a home. On the whole, that community has been a bastion of acceptance, filled with fellow comics who have fully supported Gonzalez’s version of the American dream.

“[The New York comedy scene] is filled with hardworking, positive friends who have encouraged me for years, and I’m grateful for that,” he says. “I have nothing but good things to say about los gringos.”

WHAT: Asheville Comedy Festival, ashevillecomedyfestival.com
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, 18 Biltmore Ave.; LaZoom Room, 76 Biltmore Ave.; and Highland Brewing, 12 Old Charlotte Highway. See website for schedule
WHEN: Wednesday-Saturday, Aug. 7-10. Ticket packages $20-$70

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