Your Viewer’s Guide To The NC Comedy Arts Festival
February! Across America folks are throwing up their hands in disgust at the thought of another month-plus of winter; in Chapel Hill they’re gearing up for the frenetic end of college basketball season (and sighing with relief that the Tar Heels are apparently okay after all); and of course in Carrboro they’re rolling out the red carpet, because it’s time once again for the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival!
Hopefully, most of you know about the festival already. If you don’t, here’s the scoop: each year in February, the DSI Comedy Theater in Carrboro brings in hundreds of standup, sketch, and improv comics from around the nation (and Canada) for the largest comedy festival in the entire South. They come in from New York and Chicago and Boston and L.A. and everywhere in between—and join the best of the best from here in North Carolina. This year’s festival welcomes famed comedy writer Bruce Vilanch, nationally-known standup Eddie Brill, documentary filmmaker/comedienne Negin Farsad, and sketch god Paul Thomas—among hundreds of others.
It’s a great time—and with so many comics running around at once, it can also be a bit overwhelming. This year it’s eleven straight days of comedy, from February 6-16, with events taking place at ten different venues in three different cities. Every show is worth seeing—and since the backbone of the festival is improv, it’s hard to say in advance which is going to be THE can’t-miss show of the year, especially if you’re not familiar with the comics in the lineup.
Well, you don’t have to worry. I’ve been doing comedy since 2009 and I’ve been involved with the festival since 2010, so I’ll give it a shot. Ladies and gentlemen, behold your viewer’s guide to the 2014 North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival!
(Featuring one or two top picks for each day. If you want to experience the festival but you don’t know where to go, check out these shows first. If you only want a small taste, head down to Friday the 14th and Saturday the 15th—the two absolute must-see shows of the festival, in my opinion, are on those two days.)
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 6
This year’s NCCAF includes a new feature: the finals of DSI’s annual Carolina’s Funniest Comic standup competition. Sadly the big show on Saturday the 8th is already sold out, but two of the four finalists (Adam Cohen and Tracy Cate) are also appearing this evening at 7:30 p.m. at the Nightlight—so if you don’t have your tickets to Saturday’s final, you can catch ‘em here along with several other great local comics.
If improv’s your thing, stick around for the 9:30 show at Nightlight, featuring four great North Carolina acts. Bonecracker is a frenetic-as-hell team from DSI that’s played at festivals all over the South; they’re worth the price of admission in and of themselves.
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 7
Home base for the NCCAF is the DSI Comedy Theater, right in downtown Carrboro in Historic Carr Mill. (Across from Southern Rail, in the alley between Elmo’s and Venable. Trust me, there’s an awesome comedy theater back there.) Head there at 7:00 for the third annual North Carolina Laughter Championship—with special guest Julie Ostrow, a Second City-trained comedian who won the first-ever “American Laughing Champion” crown.
Or if you prefer your humor more topical, head to UNC instead—for a special screening of “The Muslims Are Coming!”, a stereotype-busting, award-winning documentary about Muslim-American comedians on tour. It’s co-presented by the UNC Center for the Study of the American South, Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations, UNC’s American Studies department, and Muslim Life at Duke—and it’s free! The film starts at 7:30 at the Nelson Mandela Auditorium in the FedEx Global Education Center, with a discussion after the show featuring co-director Negin Farsad.
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 8
Bring the kids to Flyleaf Books at 3:00 for a special mid-day edition of Improv Slam, DSI’s weekly family-friendly improv show. (I’ll be on stage as your MC.) And stick around afterward for a family-friendly Community Jam, where the audience gets to play with the comedians.
Saturday evening’s lineup is all about standup. (So leave the kids at home.) The big event is at DSI at 7:00, where Eddie Brill will be on hand for the finale of Carolina’s Funniest Comic—but that show is already sold out. No ticket? No problem! Head over to Nightlight. The lineup at the 7:30 show features Tim Renkow, who’s a must-see: afflicted with cerebral palsy, he struggles just to make it to the stage, but once he’s there he’s one of the funniest comics you’ll see all year.
Stick around for Nightlight’s 9:30 show: Julie Ostrow and Negin Farsad will both be there, if you missed them on Friday.
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 9
If you haven’t already bought tickets, tonight is probably your best chance to catch Eddie Brill, leading the All-Star Standup Showcase at 8:30 at DSI. Eddie is best known as the warm-up act for the Late Show with David Letterman—he’s worked with Letterman for years—and he’s been a much-loved NCCAF regular for years too.
While you’re in Carrboro, head over to Open Eye Café and check out the art on the walls: it’s all comedy-inspired this month, and a lot of it is created by the comics themselves.
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 10
This day and the next are the calm before the storm—things really heat up on Wednesday—but there’s still a not-to-be-missed event on each day.
Tonight, together with UNC’s Program in the Humanities, the NCCAF is hosting the third annual Adult Spelling Bee at 7:00 at Flyleaf Books. Everyone’s welcome to participate, but it’s just as much fun to watch (and the DSI folks will be on hand to make it as funny as possible).
I won my middle school spelling bee in the eighth grade and immediately retired from the business, but it’ll be fun to revisit the old stomping grounds. (The word I won with was “compulsory,” and I fully expect to remember that fact for the rest of my life.)
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 11
The NCCAF is based in Carrboro with occasional forays into Chapel Hill, but tonight it busts out of Orange County altogether—and into Durham, for the Great Durham Pun Championship! Co-hosted by the Regulator Bookshop, it’s literally a dueling pun battle: two contestants stand side-by-side, lobbing puns at each other on a topic chosen by the judges, until one runs out of ideas and the other is declared the victor. By the end of the night there’ll be one left standing—the Pun Master of Durham. (No bull.) I was at Motorco for the last one—not competing, just watching—and trust me, it’s a great time.
It gets underway at 7:00 at Motorco.
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 12
Two big shows at the ArtsCenter Main Stage tonight. At 9:30, Bruce Vilanch hits the stage: you may know him from Hollywood Squares or his work as head writer for the Oscars or the feature-length documentary that was made about him not long ago, but either way, he’s one of the most acclaimed comics working today, and he’s headlining the festival tonight. Get your tickets quick. Prior to that, at 7:30, the ArtsCenter plays host to another round of the beloved local storytelling show, The Monti. If you’ve never seen The Monti, now’s your chance: it’s been around since 2008 and it’s only gotten more and more popular since its inception.
Even with those two headliners at the ArtsCenter, don’t overlook the 7:00 show across the street at DSI, featuring DSI’s three Harold teams, Flash Mob and Escape Plan and Cannon Factory. Those three teams have been doing consistently terrific work for months, so this show could turn out to be a festival highlight.
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 13
Okay, here’s where the action gets hot.
There are seven shows tonight, with twenty different acts, at three different venues, and I don’t think you can go wrong with any of them. There will be improvisers and sketch comics on stage from New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, and way way more. Improv is the heart and the lifeblood of the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival, and tonight is the night it takes over.
Here’s my best guess.
Start the night at the ArtsCenter, where the ImprovBoston All Stars (another returning NCCAF favorite) hit the Main Stage at 7:30 alongside Pop Roulette, a New York-based musical sketch team. (Across the street at DSI is another terrific lineup at 7:00: Buzz Off Lucille and Wicked City, both from New York, and a two-man, multi-character improv team from St. Louis called Bodysnatchers. You have to choose one show or the other, but you’ll be happy either way.)
Around 9:00, two teams from New York’s Magnet Theater go head-to-head, one at DSI and the other at the ArtsCenter Main Stage. Again, you can’t go wrong with either, but since you must choose, head to the ArtsCenter for the 9:30 show. The Flood is the Magnet’s team; they’re joined by LA-based House Meeting, which features two hilarious DSI alums making their triumphant return to Carrboro.
If you’re still in the mood at 10:30, head over to DSI for the nightcap, featuring 4DDI (“Four Dudes Doing Improv”), another team comprised of returning DSI vets. 4DDI are loose, fast-paced and hilarious—exactly what you want from a late-night show.
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 14
Paul Thomas. Paul Thomas. Paul Thomas. Paul Thomas.
There are a ton of great shows at the NCCAF, but two in particular stand out as absolute must-sees. There’s one on Saturday the 15th that I’ll talk about next, but the first is tonight, Paul Thomas, at 9:30 p.m. on the ArtsCenter Main Stage. Paul is a solo sketch artist out of Chicago who’s been lighting up the stage at NCCAF for four years now. His sketches are so fine-tuned, so precise, that just the craft alone will blow you away—but it’s his razor-edged takedown of hypocrisy and casual bigotry that you’ll remember. Paul’s characters are jerks, all of them, but you enjoy watching them because you enjoy watching Paul pick them apart—from the man who pretends to be a racist in order to pick up a cute bigot at a party, to the pedophile who can’t get a kid to talk to him because his pop-culture references are all so hopelessly dated. Is that good Valentine’s Day material? Whatever. This is what comedy is supposed to be. And Paul Thomas has honed it to perfection.
(Oh, by the way, I’m talking up Paul here, but he’s actually only half of the 9:30 show. The other half features Guthrie, a spectacular improv team out of New York. Both are worth more than 100 percent of the price of admission in themselves.)
If you want a double bill, head to DSI at 7:00 for a trifecta of teams from New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade, one of the top improv theaters in the country. Bowlcut Henry, New England and Airwolf will be joined by Haymaker, who’s based out of Greenville, South Carolina.
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 15
Each year, there are a couple acts who come to NCCAF and just blow everybody away. There were two in particular last year that people are still talking about to this day—North Coast and Magnet Theater TourCo—and both of them are sharing the bill this night at 9:30 on the ArtsCenter Main Stage.
If there is one must-see show at the festival this year, this is it.
North Coast is a hip-hop-based improv team that creates songs, soundscapes, stories and scenes out of nothing all at once. Magnet TourCo is a fearless and frenetic group that takes control over not just the entire stage, but the entire room. Sadly I did not get to see the North Coast show last year, but I had the privilege of watching Magnet at the ArtsCenter, and I can tell you it was so good I literally got choked up. I’ve been doing and watching improv for five years now, and Magnet was the best show I’ve ever seen. And there are people who got to see North Coast last year who say the same thing about them.
Okay, I don’t want to oversell it. But seriously, get tickets to the 9:30 show at the ArtsCenter on Saturday the 15th. You won’t be sorry.
Want a double bill? Or a triple bill? Stay in the ArtsCenter all night. On the Main Stage at 7:30 are a couple of top-notch Upright Citizens Brigade acts: the standup Boris Khaykin and the improv team Fun Fun Fun, featuring some of my favorite people in comedy. And stick around after the North Coast/Magnet show for the traditional NCCAF closer, The Bat (improv in the dark!) at 11:00.
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 16
Had enough yet? No? Good. The NCCAF wraps up on this night with two killer shows: first, Mister Diplomat, DSI’s signature team, takes over the ArtsCenter Main Stage at 6:30; then at 8:30, the festival wraps up with the final round of Carolina’s Funniest Comic, pitting (for the first time!) the winners from North Carolina against the winners from South Carolina to determine the ultimate champion.
So that’s it. Your viewer’s guide to the 2014 North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival. But don’t take my word for it: check out the full schedule yourself, and take a look at some of the videos on the NCCAF website. It’s one of Carrboro’s signature annual events—and it’s going to be a great time. It always is.