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Bucking the trends, DSI rebrands and expands its comedy festival

Comedic growth

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New York's Death by Roo Roo, on the bill at Cat's Cradle Saturday, Feb. 21, at 8 p.m. - PHOTO BY KEVIN THOM/ N.C. COMEDY ARTS FESTIVAL

N.C. Comedy Arts Festival
Stand-up Comedy Week: Feb. 12-15
Improv Comedy Week: Feb. 18-21
Various venues in Chapel Hill and Carrboro

In this time of economic contraction and disappearing jobs, there's at least one sector that's experiencing impressive growth, possibly in response to all the bad news: homegrown comedy festivals.

Following nine years of steady growth, the Dirty South Improv Festival is being summarily expanded and rebranded. It's now called the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival (NCCAF), in recognition of an added week of stand-up comedy to go with the customary slate of improvisation.

For DSI Comedy Theater and festival founder Zach Ward, the expansion reflects an organic outgrowth of his theater's broadening mission. "We started with an improv festival because that's all DSI did at the time," he explains. "And now DSI Comedy Theater does sketch, we do improv, we do stand-up, so our festival, it seemed like it had reached its maximum growth."

By including stand-up and expanding the festival from one to two weeks, Ward has doubled his workload, but it's just the beginning of a multiyear plan for further expansion: "We're going to do a week of stand-up this year, and the goal is for next year and 2011 to grow it into a full month of comedy—one week of improv, one week of stand-up, one week of sketch comedy and then one week of digital video."

The theater started producing stand-up shows in 2006. Last year, Ward attended the Aspen RooftopComedy Festival (not affiliated with the HBO- and later TBS-sponsored US Comedy Arts Festival, held in Aspen through 2006 but since moved to Las Vegas), a venue for up-and-coming comic talent. Ward struck a deal to make the NCCAF a showcase for the festival in Aspen, with a Rooftop producer on hand to recruit performers.

For the first week of the festival, 10 stand-ups from North Carolina will be joined by 26 others who have come from as far afield as Orem, Utah, and Sarasota, Fla. In addition to stage time, they'll attend workshops and panel discussions on such topics as harnessing social media to build a fan base: As the comedy industry moves increasingly online, the Web is becoming both a new route to traditional careers in TV or movies, and a comedy destination in its own right. This puts local comedy scenes like the Triangle on more of an even footing with conventional industry hubs like New York and L.A.

"There are people who are from mid-sized markets who are really good at what they do," says Ward. "You know, if you're going to look to move somewhere and do comedy, D.C. is an alternative, Atlanta is an alternative, and, quite frankly, North Carolina is a really great alternative to moving into one of the larger cities. And so the reason we have instructors from all these places is to give the next generation of comic who's looking to 'make it,' to put the idea in their heads that they don't have to move to a big city to do the things to 'make it' now."

The festival trades on the unique qualities of the Triangle for its second week of programming, which features improv by some 70 teams from around the country. For the last several years the DSI Festival has been one of the nation's largest improv festivals, and the NCCAF will build on what's become a burgeoning improv scene.

"The reason it's gotten to be one of the largest [festivals] is that groups and comedy acts that come into town feel really supported by our North Carolina crowds, and they come back the next year," says Ward.

Dan Sipp, an instructor at past DSI festivals and director of Raleigh's ComedyWorx Training Center, which teaches improvisation, agrees: "I do feel like the audiences down here are more receptive and warm.

"I lived in Chicago for a number of years and performed there," Sipp says, "and the vibe from the audiences—most of those teams don't play for a packed house of people who are just totally into their show, so it's a really great experience for them [to come here]. So much so that they're willing to pay their own plane tickets and rent a hotel room just so they can have a day or two when they really feel like rock stars, because that's how they're treated when they come down here. In Chicago, the audiences are kind of jaded, and it's hard to stand out because there are so many good teams and good improvisers out there."

Ward, too, followed the well-trod path through Chicago. A graduate of Chapel Hill High School and UNC-Chapel Hill, he moved to Chicago after college to study improv, then returned home in 2001 to start a festival and found his own theater. Since then, DSI has been instrumental in the burgeoning Triangle improv scene, training nearly 1,000 fledgling improvisers. This kind of breeding ground is vital to the success of the art form, as long-form improv is often an acquired taste; hence, building an established community of enthusiasts is even more important than in traditional theater or stand-up.

"We're really big on education for the local audience," says Ward. "The more comedy that a local audience gets to see from New York, or L.A., or Chicago or Austin, Texas, and they see something that maybe people in North Carolina aren't doing yet, but they see someone from New York do it—they say, 'Oh, that's hip, that's cool.' And so when someone from North Carolina tries it, they're set up to succeed. Our local comedians sort of get to hit the ground running and the audiences are hip to that format."

Among the high profile acts returning this year are Death by Roo Roo, one of the premiere improv teams from New York's Upright Citizens Brigade Theater; from L.A. (where they recently relocated from NYC), The Josh & Tamra Show, featuring improvised puppetry by Jim Henson-trained Josh Cohen; and MC Chris, a "nerdcore" rapper with a large online following who sold out two shows at the Cat's Cradle in 2008 (he's interrupting his Ph.D. studies to perform at the NCCAF this year).

Another headliner is stand-up Bryan Tucker, a UNC-Chapel Hill grad who's currently a writer for Saturday Night Live. A sketch he wrote for Chappelle's Show in 2004, "The Racial Draft," was chosen as one of the 50 greatest comedy sketches of all time by Nerve and IFC.com (google "racial draft" if you haven't seen this inspired bit of sociology masquerading as comedy).

"With the economy the way it is, you need to get out and laugh," Ward says. "It's worth $10 for the night to make you forget all the b.s. that's going on around us."


Indy contributor Marc Maximov and intern Hobert Thompson logged some serious YouTube time to file these observations about the stand-up performers appearing at the N.C. Comedy Arts Festival. When you see them, thank them.

MC Chris, also from New York and also at Cat's Cradle Saturday, Feb. 21, at 8 p.m. - PHOTO BY KEVIN THOM/ N.C. COMEDY ARTS FESTIVAL

Thursday, Feb. 12

7 p.m. — DSI Comedy Theater

  • Kerin Hayden: A young actress and prolific youtuber from North Hollywood. Her act includes many musical moments.
  • Jeff Havens: Peppy observational humor in the vein of George Carlin. A former teacher, Jeff Havens has a pretty hilarious bit about his idea to improve schools.
  • Mary Sasson: UNC-Chapel Hill student Mary Sasson performed at last year's RooftopComedy Festival in Aspen.
  • Spencer King: From Orem, Utah. He's got a pretty deluxe Web site, with lots of videos, and he's not afraid to get political.

9 p.m. — DSI Comedy Theater

  • Dan Wilbur: A comic who got his start at Bard College. He claims that performing for his peers at school has given him an edge.
  • Angel Yau: Quirky and random comedy from a New York native. She is a part time filmmaker and animator.
  • Selena Coppock: A comedian from New York who resembles Paris Hilton. Her honest and witty blog bodes well for her performance.
  • John Loftin: Hailing from Hillsborough and now residing in New York, he was named "Carolina's Funniest Comic" (watch video) at the DSI theater in 2008.

Friday, Feb. 13

7 p.m. — DSI Comedy Theater

  • Lisa Meyers: An "in-your-face" observational comic from California. She recently performed with Robin Williams.
  • Anthony Sarfino: Anthony Sarfino grew up in the suburbs of Chicago has performed at clubs around the East coast. He draws his material from his personal life, including growing up in a large Italian-American family and his fiancé.
  • Joe Zimmerman: A comedian and writer from Charlotte who's currently based in Asheville. He shows his observational-humor chops by pointing out the absurdity of Applebee's "Eatin' good in the neighborhood" campaign.
  • John Betz, Jr: A Raleigh resident whose sources of comedy include working as a high school math teacher, and being married to an English teacher.

9 p.m. — DSI Comedy Theater

  • Jodi White: A comic from Sarasota, Florida, who jokes about her life as an adopted Hispanic child in a white family. She will also appear in an upcoming PBS docu-comedy Young Comedians Roadshow.
  • Carl Lee: A self-described "class clown," Carl Lee's childhood led him to becoming a comic. He has previously opened for Ron White, Damon Wayans, Lewis Black, and Mo'nique.
  • Brooklin Green: This Wilmington resident was a finalist for "America's Funniest Mom." It's not often you get to hear a comic riff on pregnancy and finding play dates.
  • Greg Brainos: The observations from this Raleigh comic and N.C. State grad are sometimes caustic. Mentally challenged children, beware.

11 p.m. — DSI Comedy Theater

  • Tom Keller: A Greensboro sports reporter, he was voted the funniest stand-up at Michigan State University in 2005.
  • Timmy Sherrill: Born in Reidsville, N.C., Sherrill's material comes from his "dirt road mentality." He is also an SAG actor, recently appearing in a One Tree Hill episode and in the HBO miniseries John Adams as Attorney General Charles Lee.
  • Mike Trainor: Born in New Jersey and getting his start in New York in 2003, Trainor is a high-energy comic with a self-described "giant" style of comedy.
  • Marc Kennedy: This comedian from Burlington employs a truly random, stream-of-consciousness style.

Saturday, Feb. 14

7 p.m. — DSI Comedy Theater

  • Nick Cobb: An "outburst" comic known for his tendency to rant. Recently finished a college tour and acted as a commentator for MTV.
  • Daniel Enfield: A relatively new comic from Denver. Daniel Enfield has a self-deprecating observational style.
  • Aparna Nancherla: Just a year into her stand-up career, this DC-based comic of Indian descent was a finalist in NBC's "Stand-Up for Diversity" tour in 2007.
  • Mike Blejer: This ambitious (and prolific) young comic from DC just finished posting a joke a day on YouTube for a whole year.

9 p.m. — DSI Comedy Theater

  • Jeffrey Gray: A local comic from Chapel Hill. Jeffery Gray has a clean act that highlights the way he sees life.
  • Maria Ciampa: A comedian, actor, writer and yoga instructor from Boston who recognizes the comic value of phrases like "sit bones" and "pelvic bowl."
  • Zach Ward: The organizer of the festival steps away from his Blackberry long enough to take a turn onstage.
  • Gene Renfroe: After 20 years as a corporate accountant, this Chicagoland performer finally heeded the call of the stage.

11 p.m. — DSI Comedy Theater

  • Michelle Dobrasky: A comic, improviser, and musician. She took a break from comedy to pursue her law degree and now practices law by day in New York.
  • Ghuffran Ali: A comedian from Chicago who originally hails from Pakistan. His humor comes from his travels and attacks on cultural issues.
  • David Angelo: A political sophisticate living in New York, much of Angelo's comedy has a sharp intellectual edge to it.
  • John Kunik: A seasoned veteran of both the comedy circuit and the Army (thanks to the draft in the 1970s) drops in from Minneapolis.

Sunday, Feb. 15

9 p.m. — DSI Comedy Theater

  • Donna Lee: A comic who finds her humor in her mixed family. Her mom is Thai, her dad is Irish, and her ex-husband is Mormon. Donna Lee uses comedy as therapy.
  • M. Dickson; A jaded twenty-three year old comic. Is a regular on MTV's FNMTV premieres and on the college circuit.
  • Mike Brody: A charmingly dorky Iowan paranormal enthusiast with an exhaustive MySpace page, Brody is looking for "Networking, Dating, Serious Relationships, Friends."
  • Eric J. Krug: Krug, out of Austin, has a winning presence onstage with a casual, natural delivery. And he's not afraid to tell dumb jokes.

Saturday, Feb. 21

8 p.m. — Cat's Cradle

  • MC Chris: MC Chris is an Atlanta based "Nerdcore" rapper famous for his voicing of characters on Aqua Teen Hunger Force. His show at Cat's Cradle will be both a concert and a comedy show with improv troupes Death By Roo Roo and The Beatbox.

9 p.m. — The ArtsCenter

  • Bryan Tucker: The UNC-Chapel Hill graduate who made good as a sketch writer with Chappelle's Show, The Chris Rock Show and Saturday Night Live performs a stand-up set.

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