A decade ago, the phrase “Asheville’s stand-up comedy scene” would have been met with little more than a blank stare. Fast-forward to now, however, and beer and belly laughs are on the menu at an array of Asheville establishments.
The city’s humor evolution is largely due to Laugh Your Asheville Off, a locally produced comedy festival kicking off its ninth annual edition on Wednesday, Aug. 12.
LYAO isn’t your average comedy fest, says the festival’s owner, director and executive producer, Charlie Gerencer. With more than 50 new comics and no repeat performances, each of the four nights of the festival stands on its own and offers an eclectic assortment of comedy styles. “We used to do a lot of late night shows and we would stack shows,” Gerencer says. “This year we’re having one big show per night.” That format is new this year and a rare find in the comedy world, he adds. Each show will feature 10 comics, with each comic performing 10 minutes of their best material.
“The worst-case scenario for attending one any or of our shows is that you’re only going to laugh a lot,” says Gerencer. No one will have to choose between shows, and anyone who opts to purchase the $80 all-access Cosmo Pass (named for LYAO’s mascot, Cosmo the Space Donkey) will see all new material. “We use Asheville as our artistic canvas and we like to try things and see if they work or see if they don’t,” Gerencer says.
The festival launches at its traditional kickoff spot, Highland Brewing Co. That show will feature Billy Wayne Davis, a Tennessean who’s appeared on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing.” On Thursday night, Chris Roach will lead the lineup at the Diana Wortham Theatre. It speaks to Roach’s talent that he’s a rare return performer — the LYAO team usually strives to keep the list new every year, Gerencer says. Other comics in the lineup (which continues Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 7 and 9:30 p.m.) include: Eric Dasilva, who’s performed in Comedy Central’s South Beach Comedy Festival; Laura Crawford, a host and producer of the Los Angeles-based Chimp City Comedy Showcase; Jason Dudley, a three-time finalist at The World Series of Comedy; and several dozen others.
So how do Gerencer and his team narrow hundreds of applicants down to choose a roster for the festival? “Rule No. 1 is, are they funny? That’s something we never complicate,” says Gerencer. “To us it doesn’t matter if they’re complete amateurs or complete veterans or somewhere in the middle. If they’re funny, they’re funny, and that’s undeniable.”
Festival planners also take pains with the lineup’s gender ratio. Because there are fewer female comics than male comics in the world, they try to get as many women as possible up to the mic. “The whole idea that there are no funny female comics is just crap. It’s just because they’re not being exposed and promoted properly,” says Gerencer.
The Asheville audience has evolved along with the festival, Gerencer adds. “They have become much more open, and you can really feel it,” he says. The audience is also extremely eclectic: “You’ll see a couple of 18-year-olds sitting next to a retired couple who’s sitting in front of a WLOS news anchor and his wife who are sitting next to restaurant owners who are sitting next to an African-American family from Virginia — you don’t see that anywhere else in Asheville.”
The humor curator knows what Asheville is all about. He was involved with Tomato Tuesdays, the city’s first comedy open mic. It involved stand-up, a gong and plush tomatoes to toss for less-than-hilarious performers. LYAO’s original founder, Greg Brown, partnered with Gerencer, and the festival blossomed from there. The event has proved its staying power.
According to Gerencer, LYAO’s long-term success is really due to one factor: passion. “Our goal is to have a fun experience,” he says. “The popularity just kind of happened because we were doing something we enjoyed.”
WHAT: Laugh Your Asheville Off, laughyourashevilleoff.com
WHERE: Highland Brewing Co. and Diana Wortham Theatre
WHEN: Wednesday, Aug. 12, 8 p.m.; Thursday, Aug. 13, 7 p.m.; Friday, Aug. 14, 8 p.m.; and Saturday, Aug. 15, 7 p.m. 9:30 p.m. $20 per showcase/$80 for an all-access Cosmo Pass