Madison's reputation as a great comedy town has grown over the last several years. Comedians who normally don't play cities this size regularly stop at the Majestic and Barrymore. The Comedy Club on State has developed a reputation as one of the best comedy clubs in the country, and comedian Marc Maron went out of his way to hype it on national television.
For Eve Paras, who is a manager at the Comedy Club on State as well as her family's newest purchase, the Orpheum Theatre, this city was still missing one thing that would establish it as a comedy capital.
A comedy festival.
Paras and her family have spent the last two years setting up the Madison Comedy Festival, running Oct. 16-19 at the Comedy Club on State, the Orpheum Theatre, the Majestic Theatre and the Barrymore Theatre.
She knew a festival would be logistically tricky, so she partnered with bookers like Majestic Live. While Paras knew comedy, she was less comfortable with festivals, so she enlisted the help of WJJO's Randy Hawke.
Even before she started work on her own festival, Paras traveled to various comedy festivals to identify new talent for the Comedy Club. She started to see what worked at those festivals and what didn't. When designing this festival, she decided to focus on an event that would be a fit for Madison audiences.
"We aren't booking a ton of shows. Instead we are doing a smaller number of shows and focusing on making each show unique and important. Small and strong," says Paras.
Often, comedy festivals do put on lots and lots of shows, and they start to feel muddy and indistinct. The audience suffers from a comedy overload. The shows are also filled by comics no one has ever heard of. But the Madison Comedy Festival has at least a half-dozen marquee performers.
Some festivals also book a bunch of comedians who look and sound alike -- a full week consisting mostly of bearded hipsters in hoodies. Paras notes that the best festivals provide different flavors of comedy.
"There isn't just one type of comedy. I want anybody in town to be able to find a show they can connect to."
Using that philosophy, Paras and partners booked a festival that includes clean comedy as well as dirty comedy. Alongside regular standup, there will be shows with more of an alt-comedy flavor, a podcast recording, improv and musical comedy.
Mike Schmidt, who works at the Comedy Club on State and is a very funny comedian in his own right, compares it to another Madison festival.
"Think of it like the Wisconsin Film Festival. They've been successful because they don't just target people who are really into movies," says Schmidt. "A lot of people only go check out one or two movies that interest them, while some people go to screenings every day of the festival. We want to welcome a similar range of audiences."
The Madison Comedy Festival also does not have a submission charge. Many comedy festivals charge comedians between $25 and $40 to submit a video to the producers. For comedians who submit to a dozen festivals a year, that cost can quickly add up. While acknowledging that submission fees can help cover costs, Paras says that was never an option.
"I just don't believe comedians should pay us to perform. We pay comedians, not the other way around. That's how the business should work."
Paras and her fellow bookers focused on comic acts that they've wanted to bring to Madison for a while, such as Chris D'Elia and comedy folk duo Garfunkel and Oates. They also invited a number of comedians who had been audience favorites during previous stops at Madison.
"Comedians like Chad Daniels and Kevin Bozeman, you can tell they really love Madison and the audiences always love them. Our audiences tell us who to book with their responses, and we listen," says Paras. "We've also got local comedians performing. Monkey Business Improv will be doing a show."
If the festival is successful, Paras hopes to make it an annual event and grow it into something that more groups and venues can be a part of.
"We'd love to extend this festival to the Overture Center. They were already booked this time. We'd like to put on shows in the new spaces down on campus at the Memorial Union. We want this to grow, but we still have to get through this year first."
Here are some highlights of the Madison Comedy Festival.
Chris D'Elia (Oct. 17, Orpheum) is a comedian and surprisingly decent rapper (under the moniker MC Chank Smith) whose talents have been woefully underused on network television. His sitcom roles as Whitney Cumming's boyfriend on the short-lived Whitney and as the lead in the reheated Scrubs knockoff Undateable only show a fraction of his range.
Margaret Cho (Comedy Club on State, Oct. 16 and 17) has never been one to shy away from social and political topics. She's an LGBTQ advocate famously critical of right-wing politics, and her shows have faced threats of protests and cancellations -- though that hasn't been a problem in Madison. Cho is just as forthright with her own life, particularly her difficult family history. She often performs in large theaters, so it will be a treat to see her on the relatively intimate stage of the Comedy Club on State.
Favorites from the Comedy Club on State such as Kevin Bozeman and Chad Daniels will all perform throughout the festival, and they'll share the stage in a Best of the Fest showcase at the Comedy Club on State (Oct. 18). They all regularly sell out their Madison appearances, and with good reason.
Lectures, but funny
Nick Offerman's one-man show is a reminder of how much Offerman is like Ron Swanson, his character on NBC's Parks and Recreation. It is simultaneously a reminder of just how different Offerman is from his TV alter ego. Offerman comes across as a modern Thoreau, his deep love of theater and literature existing in harmony alongside his love for nature and craftsmanship. He also makes a lot of dick jokes. So basically Thoreau with dick jokes. Prepare to leave Offerman's show (Oct. 18, Orpheum Theatre) inspired as well as amused.
Pete Holmes records an episode of his podcast You Made It Weird at the Comedy Club on State on Oct. 17. You Made It Weird usually consists of insightful interviews Holmes conducts with other comedians and entertainers. For this live edition of the show, he'll likely draw his guests from other performers at the festival. It will be a unique opportunity to get into the heads of the people behind the humor. For those who would prefer to see Holmes telling jokes instead of asking questions, he will also do more traditional standup shows on Oct. 16 at the Majestic.
On Nov. 13, musical duo Garfunkel and Oates bring their unique brand of comedy-folk to the Barrymore. Kate Micucci and Riki Lindhome have just finished season one of their show for IFC. Their catalogue includes songs like "Pregnant Women Are Smug," "This Party Took a Turn for the Douche" and many titles that are mildly inappropriate to publish.
Author and Daily Show contributor John Hodgman once wrote a satirical book about how the world was going to end in 2012. He has weathered the fact the Earth keeps spinning by heading back on tour. Hodgman helps close out the festival on Oct. 19 at the Barrymore with a unique variety show few other humorists could master. Esoteric monologues, intricate crowd-participation bits, socks and hot sauce packets thrown into the audience -- all can and will happen in a Hodgman show. It may be the most intellectual and least intellectual comedy in the festival.
The local scene will also be on full display in the festival. Madison's standups will get a showcase at the Comedy Club on State on Oct. 19. Monkey Business Institute bring their standup/improv fusion show "The Merge" to the Comedy Club on Oct. 18. And in what will be the most exciting and hilarious show in the entire festival, retired local sketch comedy revue The Dan Potacke Show will make a return for one night only (Oct. 19, Comedy Club on State). (Note: The author of this article is the main writer/performer in The Dan Potacke Show, but his journalistic objectivity prevents any bias.)
[Editor's note: The Pete Holmes standup show on Thursday, Oct. 16 has been moved from the Barrymore to the Majestic, the Ms. Pat performance on Saturday, Oct. 18 has been canceled, and the Garfunkel and Oates show originally scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 18 has been moved to Thursday, Nov. 13.]