Charlie Gerencer knows humor. As the head of comedy television development for Pigmy Wolf Productions and Lionsgate Television Studios, it’s his duty to scour the nation for the fresh new faces of the funny business. And for the past decade, Gerencer has brought some of that talent to the annual Laugh Your Asheville Off comedy festival. “I live and breathe comedy all day,” says Gerencer. “Casting, looking for comics.”
This marks the 10th anniversary for LYAO, and this year the festival has gone from four nights to five, beginning with a two-night launch party at Highland Brewing Co. on Tuesday and Wednesday, Aug. 9 and 10. The festival then moves to the Diana Wortham Theatre from Thursday, Aug. 11, to Saturday, Aug. 13. More than 70 comedians will take the stage, trying to crack up the local audience while catching the interest of industry talent scouts.
Only a few local comedians are on this year’s roster — Blaine Perry, Jason Webb and Grayson Morris — as well as a handful of regional performers, such as Leo Hodson, from Greensboro. But that’s not intended as a snub to Asheville’s comedy scene. “For years we did a local showcase,” Gerencer says. “Now every venue in town does it weekly.” What LYAO does offer to locals is full access to network with those in the industry.
“It’s almost better to network, stay in touch and keep the industry up-to-date on what they’re doing,” says Gerencer. An onstage slot for a performer who’s not quite ready can be more hindrance than help: “The terrifying thing with stand-up is … if it doesn’t land, it’s very obvious.”
Gerencer has been helping build LYAO into a nationally recognized cultural event since its beginnings in 2006, filling the roles of director and executive producer, as well as helping to vet and book the comedy acts. These days, he says, it’s regarded in Hollywood as among “the best new-faces event in the country. I want to know not only who’s next, but who’s right on the cusp. That’s who we book.”
This year’s lineup runs the gamut of comedic styles, backgrounds and ethnicities. At least a third of the performers are women, including Linda Belt, a housewife-turned comedian; Eman El-Husseini, a Palestinian Muslim; and former international war crimes lawyer, Jess Salomon. For those looking for brainy material, Jeff Kreisler is the winner of the Bill Hicks Spirit Award for Thought Provoking Comedy and senior writer for “The War Room.” Meanwhile, Damon Summer is “the guy who can crack jokes during the poorly structured fish fry.” And Prateek Srivastava jokes about his Indian heritage and the ways his name is butchered (“Petite Sriracha”).
Comedian Carl LaBove — one of the original Texas Outlaw Comics with Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison — will be headlining the festival. He has appeared on “Seinfeld” as well as many episodes of “Saturday Night Live.” He will also be hosting and emceeing at LYAO during other comedy performances throughout the week.
When asked about how raunchy or “blue” the shows will get, Gerencer says, “Some acts are blue. Some other festivals do late-night ‘Blue Comedy’ shows. I think that segregates comedy. If somebody is funny enough, but they are blue, well, funny is funny, and when it comes down to it, that’s what we’re looking for.” LYAO is aimed at more mature audiences (18 and older at the Diana Wortham Theatre, 21 and older at Highland Brewery Co.), and attendees should come expecting many different comedy styles in each showcase, ranging from the near-philosophical to the outright bawdy.
“I never thought I would be part of creating a scene somewhere,” says Gerencer. “There was no comedy scene in Asheville 10 years ago, not even at open-mic nights. It was all poetry and music.” Things have changed. Now comedy open-mics take place weekly at venues such as The Southern and The Orange Peel, and there are monthly stand-up shows at The Mill Room. As for LYAO, it has continued to grow, building relationships with the Asheville community and its local business sponsors.
“Over the next 10 years, I want to see a continuation of what we have, [but] on a larger scale,” Gerencer says. “Organic growth. In my experience, if you don’t build a solid foundation, you will burn out. There is no sign of us burning out, because of the respect we show the performers and the town.”
There’s one more item on Gerencer wish list: “I want a seat in the audience so I can see the show!”