On the Road

Whiskey Bear Comedy Festival (An Incredibly Late Retrospective)

Much like everything I write on this website and the internet in general, I don’t just sit down and vomit 1,100 words out aimlessly. I try to let drafts sit so I can keep perpetually returning to them at non-ideal times, keep getting distracted, and post them two weeks later than anyone concerned about the subject would give two shits. It’s how I both guarantee a dearth of readers and that I’ll never be successful in comedy, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

But I’m not going to let the world on go on without my reflections on the most fun weekend of comedy I’ve had in insurmountably long: The Whiskey Bear Comedy Festival, May 12-15 in Columbus, Ohio.

photo 1

Lisa Berry and Dustin Meadows prep us for the opening night showcase on Thursday night. Other festival impresario Tom Plute (in one of his 28 plaid shirts) looks on from the left. Matt Chadourne is distracted by his hangnail.

To encapsulate why the festival was great, I’ll say this: Normally, in the days following a comedy festival, the participating comics’ Facebook feeds are loaded with platitudes about how much fun they had, congratulating the organizers and tagging various old friends and new about good jokes and good times. Fairly often, these platitudes are not entirely dishonest but gloss over a laundry list of deficiencies: shade one comic may be tempted to throw another, gripes over lackluster audiences or lack of audiences in the first place, or something involving excessive alcohol, drugs, and related shittiness. In the days following the inaugural Whiskey Bear Comedy Festival, I enthusiastically hit “like” on every catch-all thank-you status every comic posted, because I knew they all meant it, and I felt the exact same way. I can’t even describe how great that sensation was and still is, weeks later.

Dustin Meadows, Lisa Berry, and Tom Plute accomplished something pretty rad the other weekend, and I’m not saying that just to be nice because they’re my friends. Dustin recently posted that this festival essentially began the moment he decided that stand-up was something he’d like to do; it was a natural outgrowth and massive stepping stone. Of course there were snags; one of the venues double-booked itself (strange how disproportionately much this happens to stand-up comedy…) and the shows needed to be maneuvered, but they all happened. One comic, Joe Pettis, wasn’t able to make the trip from Atlanta to host his Underwear Comedy Party, but Erik Tait and the ensemble of comics on the show banded together, stripped down, and gave the folks at Zeno’s a spectacular time in Joe’s stead. A common adage in sports is “good teams find a way to win/make their own luck.” Good comics find ways to make shows (and by proxy, festivals) great.

photo 2

Mary Zee performs for a capacity crowd at Broken Records and Beehives (Friday Night).

Dustin, Lisa, and Tom have probably already gotten expansive praise from people for various combinations of the reasons I’m about to list, but here’s an incomplete list of reasons why Whiskey Bear was fucking great. Some are obvious, others aren’t. Many are also easily applicable to any individual comedy show, for you kids trying to get something monthly or even one-night-only off the ground.

1) Everyone was cool.
“Hey, isn’t being funny the most important part?” Of course, but I would argue that this trickled out into the environment of the shows in ways that basic funniness wouldn’t have necessarily done.  I’ve been called gregarious before. I love talking to people. Sometimes, being sociable and networking at comedy festivals can get exhausting because often, comics enter hive-mind and begin (for whatever reason) an unspoken contest (with no discernible award) to out-irony each other into the fucking core of the Earth. A vast majority of my conversations around WBCF felt comfortable, professional, and completely lucid. That means that, somehow, the Whiskey Bear Council managed to select 45 actual adult people who were not only funny, but also sincere and pleasant. This isn’t a coincidence, though. Dustin and Lisa have been both hosting comics from the region in Columbus as well as touring regionally, getting to know their performers as more than just faces and submission fees. It’s amazing how much of a difference that makes. Even comics who rubbed me the wrong way initially (because I judge people…it’s fun!) all wound up being wonderful offstage.

photo 5

David Zoe Leon, on the Sunday late show.

2) Everyone was fucking funny.
Not just funny. Fucking funny. I didn’t see one person bomb, or even have a bad set. Sure, there were plenty of individual jokes that didn’t exactly get applause breaks, but nobody went onstage with a tired 10-minutes that they’ve been suffocating audiences with for 5 years. I laughed so hard at comics like David Zoe Leon, Mary Zee, and Alex Stypula (to name a few) that I nearly cried, and that shit is tough to make an old bitter dude like me do these days. These shows and audiences let the comics play to their strengths. For example, Chad Weaver, 20 years old and seriously resembling a young Tom Kenny, spent the first 2 minutes of his set during the ‘Dungeon’ show thrashing around with a stack of pots and pans, and it killed (two nights after he had to eat like 15 hot dogs as part of a show, which I’ll get into more shortly).

3) The comics were diverse.
Last year, Dustin put together a regional base of comics for the one-day Rock Bottom Fest who (as it happened) were all white and almost all male. Mike Kolar commented on this to start the show, and it obviously resonated. See, I know Dustin Meadows. He is nothing if not open-minded and thoughtful about diversity and power-bombing the patriarchy out of comedy, and of course Lisa and Tom are no different. This time around, we had female comics, LBGT comics, black comics, Latino comics, Asian-American comics, and hegemonic ol’ white male comics on every single show. Many performers made jokes about stand-up’s relative lack of diversity (or relative abundance, if you’re comparing it to NASCAR or something), which of course was always coming from a constructive place. As we know, there has never been a single show in history that has suffered from a greater variety of voices and perspectives. If you disagree, you’re probably some contrarian troll who doesn’t deserve love.

header-image4) The local press hella contributed.
When I got to the Friday night show at Broken Records and Beehives, I spotted the latest issue of Columbus Alive with Tom and Lisa on the cover. The local alternative weekly gave the consortium (plus Erik Tait and Nickey Winkelman) a 7-page spread and printed the entire festival schedule right in the middle of their issue. They even did a full-on professional photo shoot at Mikey’s late Night Slice and profiles on all five of them. I feel like this should go without saying, but this is the value of cultivating a great relationship with the local alternative press, whether or not the mainstream one are smart enough to pay attention themselves. They knew their readership would be interested in patronizing something like this, and patronize they did, because…

5) The audiences ruled, partially because Columbus rules.
My friend and Atlanta comic/”Dungeon”-master Remi Treuer told me that the show he did at the OSU Campus Donato’s Pizza on Friday night was approximately half-full, which by this festival’s standards was fairly slow, but damn was it still fun. The Sunday night late show upstairs at Mikey’s was about 1/3 full, but to be honest, I couldn’t even tell the difference. Everyone was laughing their ass off and the room was full of energy. These were mainly people who knew local comedy, but also many people who hadn’t been to a local comedy show before (or my friends/family who hadn’t been to a show since I was in town last), but they all gave the performers everything they deserved (which [see #2] was a lot). This is what happens when you tactfully plot out a series of well-groomed shows in a city full of relatively open-minded young people with time and enthusiasm for supporting the arts in Ohio’s biggest city (check the census).

6) The venues actually gave a shit.
Rather than shoehorning comedy into venues unaccustomed to it, the Whiskey Bear trio stayed loyal to the venues which had been loyal to them: Mikey’s downtown franchise, Zeno’s in Victorian Village, Broken Records and Beehives in Grandview, Six 3 Collective on the other part of Grandview, Camelot Cellars in Short North, and Donato’s on Campus. While they were hardly walking distance from one another, they actually spanned a substantial chunk of the city and let visiting comics (who hadn’t had the fortune of spending time in CBus before) experience different corners of town. I think I once remarked how brilliant the Orlando Indie Comedy Festival was for concentrating one night in the Milk District and the other in whatever district Will’s Pub is in, thereby concentrating audience and performers. After Whiskey Bear, I’m not entirely convinced that proximity is the key to foot traffic/success. WAY TO BREAK THE MATRIX, WHISKEY BEAR.

7) No +1s for Performers.
I hadn’t even thought about this one until Dustin mentioned it to me. Nobody was complaining about it (because we aren’t a bunch of entitled losers like every non-comic on Reddit would want you to believe), but the more I thought about this, the more sense it made. From one standpoint, Whiskey Bear raised money via Kickstarter to help cover expenses, so the cost to submit was relatively low for comics, most of whom are broke as the Ten Commandments. From what I saw, audience members didn’t balk at the $5-8 admission fees, as many people had weekend passes anyway. Everyone who came to see those of us who were visiting had no problem paying, almost as if they knew it was a contribution. But also, every venue had ticket-takers, cash boxes, merch, and other professional-looking shit. Did anyone on the festival even bring their significant other? I don’t think so, actually.

8) Wonderful Specialty shows that were perfectly measured so not to outweigh the straight stand-up
Hot Dog!, Dungeon, QED: Tiger Style, The Roast of Fred Durst, and other specialty shows shook up the program perfectly. Hot Dog! and the Midnight Power Hour show were also pure goddamned anarchy. In the former, Dustin got to show off his sadistic side and force comics to eat one hot dog (veggie dogs were available because they aren’t monsters) per pre-selected performance indiscretion. Chad Weaver’s was something pretty arbitrary, and I think Dustin made him eat about 20 hot dogs. I don’t know, I lost count, but it was a lot. Chad survived, somehow, though. Lisa Berry’s trigger was every time she smiled. When Dustin announced this before her set, someone even yelled “you asshole!” at him (it was me), as Lisa smiles nearly constantly on stage. She had accumulated about 4 hot dogs before she even said a word, and the crowd blew up laughing.

photo 1

Lisa Berry smiles and racks up her hot dog tally, while Andy Picarro (Pittsburgh) looks on and Chad Weaver (Akron; at least 15 hot dogs) contemplates mortality.

There are probably other reasons that Whiskey Bear was a success, and I probably had a few others pass through my brain over the course of the adrenaline-fueled weekend, but like I said earlier, it was too good not to let anyone who finds this website know. Sorry to Dustin, Lisa, Tom, and everyone involved for taking forever to post this. Tune in next week as I may as well talk about the successes of the Glass-Steagall Act. Here are some more photos from that weekend because there is literally nothing more interesting to look at on the internet.

One thought on “Whiskey Bear Comedy Festival (An Incredibly Late Retrospective)

  1. Pingback: JANUARY: Columbus, Saw Works, What a Joke Fest, Huntsville, and More | sonic comedy

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