If you’re a comedy fan in Boston, this is your month. Two festivals will highlight local and national talent, offering everything from traditional stand-up to sketch, improv, and podcasts.
The ninth edition of the Boston Comedy Arts Festival in Cambridge runs through Sunday, to be followed by the 18th Boston Comedy Festival Sept. 20-24.
The two festivals have similar names, but they offer different formats and perspectives. The Boston Comedy Festival has two main components: its showcases for popular stand-up comedians like Todd Barry, Judah Friedlander, Ms. Pat, and Tony Hinchcliffe, plus a stand-up contest that has been a staple of the festival for years. The Boston Comedy Arts Festival is organized by ImprovBoston and is inclined toward improv, sketch, and music. Those forms are well-represented on this week’s schedule while the festival is also pushing in a new direction.
“This year in particular we were really looking at amassing a collection of acts that shows the increasingly diverse and powerful types of comedy out there,” says Mac Gostow, ImprovBoston’s lead producer. “Our headliners this year are showcasing perspectives that aren’t just the white male experience. We have Aparna Nancherla, who is a household name and has been stoking that type of dialogue; Deanne Smith, who has the LGBTQ perspective; and the Defiant Thomas Brothers, which are a renowned sketch comedy group from Chicago. They tackle race matters head-on.”
The Boston Comedy Festival also has a new wrinkle this year. Its schedule has been cut in half, from the usual eight or nine days to five, with only one show, “Comics for Recovery,” on the final day. The bulk of that time comes from reducing the field in the stand-up contest from 96 to 48, which will allow audiences to see more of the shows and make for a more manageable time commitment for the comedians. It also puts more of an emphasis on headliner shows and showcases, like the taping of Tony Hinchcliffe’s “Kill Tony” podcast and the “Ding Ho Show,” featuring comedians Barry Crimmins, Eddie Brill, Chance Langton, Tom Gilmore, and Tony V, who all trace their roots back to the legendary ’80s comedy club.
“We just raised the level of all the big acts we’re bringing in,” says Boston Comedy Festival founder Jim McCue. “Realizing there are other festivals, we’re raising our bar to make sure we’re on the top of that crest.”
Booking a festival is a tough business these days. There is competition not only from the proliferation of festivals around the country and worldwide, but from other opportunities comics might have. “We had a very, very competitive year making offers and connecting with some people and not connecting with some people,” says McCue. “Comedians are getting offers. Not just club and theater offers, they’re getting movie offers.”
Comedy is booming, at least in part due to its prominence on social and streaming platforms. Netflix keeps adding new stand-up specials to its roster, from big names like Jerry Seinfeld and Amy Schumer to lesser-known comedians. Last year, Ali Wong became a star on the strength of her “Baby Cobra” Netflix special.
“Every time I go back to my hometown there’s at least 50 new comedians,” says Atlanta native Ms. Pat, who plays the Rockwell in Somerville Sept. 22 as part of the Boston Comedy Festival. “Every time you come around, there’s new comedians everywhere.”
The festival circuit is growing in response. TheImprovNetwork.org, an online resource for venues and improvisers, currently lists 140 festivals worldwide. Most major cities host at least one comedy festival. Boston has at least four, including the Women in Comedy Festival and Thunderfest: Comedy Bacchanal.
There have been comedy booms before. The most recent was in the 1980s; and when live comedy waned after that era, it was blamed on the rise of stand-up shows on TV, especially HBO, and too many working comics who weren’t funny enough. People could see the big names on television, and what they were seeing in the clubs was sometimes a watered-down product. But Gostow and McCue are hopeful the dynamic is different now.
“The more we see the oversaturation of streaming and digital,” says Gostow, “there’s this counterbalance of live acts that require the live audience and really see the value in performing in front of an audience and having that live engagement, that live feedback.”
Says McCue: “Comedy is never as good as it is live, in any other medium. If you’re in that audience, you’re literally part of that show, because the way you’re reacting is changing the temperature of that room and the way the comedian is reacting to the way you’re reacting.”
Boston Comedy Arts Festival
At ImprovBoston and other venues, Sept. 6-10. Tickets: www.bostoncomedyartsfestival.com
Boston Comedy Festival
‘Every time I go back to [Atlanta] there’s at least 50 new comedians. . . . Every time you come around, there’s new comedians everywhere.’
At various venues, Sept. 20-24. Tickets: www.bostoncomedyfest.comNick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.