As anyone who watches the license plates on I-40 can tell, word of Asheville as a tourist mecca has drawn plenty of out-of-towners to the mountains. More unexpected, perhaps, is the city’s appeal to a different class of visitors — comedians. But the Laugh Your Asheville Off Comedy Festival, which starts its 11th edition on Wednesday, Aug. 9, at Highland Brewing Co., has given Asheville a reputation, attracting far-flung comics such as Florida-based Shereen Kassam.
“A bunch of comedians from Florida have done the festival before, and they’ve raved about how great it is,” says Kassam. “Because Asheville is a pretty small city, they felt a camaraderie with other comics, just hanging out and creating a network together.” That low-pressure friendliness has helped make LYAO, the largest comedy festival in the Southeast, a highlight of the circuit for performers from the Sunshine State and across the country.
Charlie Gerencer, executive producer of the event and head of development at Pygmy Wolf Productions, explains that he fosters a welcoming atmosphere through the festival’s noncompetitive format. “I find that a competition tends to bring out the worst in people, sometimes,” Gerencer says. “I love being in the green rooms during our shows because everybody is supporting each other to go up on that stage and knock it out of the park.”
That approach extends to the scheduling of shows throughout the event as well. In contrast to many other comedy festivals, LYAO has no overlapping performances — a dedicated fan could see more than 50 different comics over four days. As Gerencer points out, this arrangement also ensures that every comedian gets the chance to impress the talent scouts who attend. “As far as I know, we’re the only festival that guarantees industry presence at every show,” he says. “No one has to pick and choose which shows they’re going to attend, which means everybody’s comfortable and set up for success.”
Each night of the festival features a completely different showcase of comics, most of whom are making their first appearance in Asheville. “We keep a very wide revolving door with fresh talent coming in — a lot of events end up booking 50 percent of the same acts,” says Gerencer. This year’s headliners include Women Aren’t Funny producer Rich Vos, “Last Comic Standing” finalist Tammy Pescatelli and “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” contributor Mike Yard.
The lineup intentionally covers a wide range of comedy styles, from slice-of-life observational humor to raunchy “blue” material. Political comedy such as Trevor Noah’s “The Daily Show” and Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” may currently command popular attention, but Gerencer says he casts a wider net in his selection process. “I can’t turn on the TV, my computer or my phone without continually being bombarded with something political,” he explains. “In my personal opinion, it’s oversaturated.”
Kassam, a Muslim comic whose routines often include jokes about her immigrant parents and Islamic gender roles, agrees that political humor for politics’ sake is played out. “People get anxious and exhausted by it. When they come to a comedy show, they just want to laugh,” she says.
Instead of belaboring her message, Kassam focuses on relating with her audiences to challenge the Muslim stereotype. “I want people to think, ‘Wow, she could be my friend. She’s funny, she’s smart — she’s a typical American woman.’”
Although LYAO now reaches nationwide, the event was founded by local comedian Greg Brown and remains committed to supporting area performers. The festival’s late-night sets Wednesday through Friday at The Southern Kitchen and Bar partner with Disclaimer Comedy, Asheville’s longest-running comedy open mic. Proceeds from all presale tickets benefit local comedy booster Michele Scheve, who is currently awaiting pancreas and kidney transplants.
Asheville native Chase McNeill, who developed his stand-up craft in the city before relocating to Los Angeles earlier this year, says LYAO’s variety helped spark his creative juices. “The first time I went was like drinking six comedy Red Bulls all at once,” he says with a laugh. “I wouldn’t have had access to this infusion of people unless I got in a plane and went out to a major market.” By mixing the local with the national, the festival gives area performers inspiration beyond their open-mic circuit.
McNeill notes one thing in common between the festival and the regular Asheville comedy scene: the quality of the audiences. “They’re paying attention, they’re pretty hip and they’re willing to go with you on some weird tangents,” he says. “There’s a huge cross section of America in Asheville, and they all collide at once to make a great American pie.”
WHAT: 11th annual Laugh Your Asheville Off Comedy Festival, ashevillecomedyfestival.com
WHERE: Highland Brewing Co., Diana Wortham Theatre and The Southern Kitchen and Bar
WHEN: Wednesday, Aug. 9, to Saturday, Aug. 12. $20 per showcase/$10 per late-night show/$65 all-showcase “Cosmo Pass”