Boston Comedy Festival benefits from thriving national scene
Andy Kindler loves comedy. That might be surprising, considering that his highest-profile gig is savaging the comedy business every year for his “State of the Industry” address at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal. He is no less sparing, in his act, of fellow comedians — especially Jay Leno, whom he would classify as his bête noire.
"I don't know if you have a general note file," he says by phone from his Los Angeles apartment, "but my entry should say, 'He will never be appearing on "Leno" or with Leno or anybody named Leno.'"
Kindler, who is among the headliners of the 13th annual Boston Comedy Festival with Judah Friedlander, Kevin Meaney, and Jimmy Tingle, doesn't comb the tabloids for dirt a la Kathy Griffin. He's more offended by the professional side of things, by subpar comedy or blustery hype. Even so, he believes the current scene is as healthy as it has ever been. "Not to be positive," he says, "but the thing that's great is I think there's kind of a comedy renaissance right now."
The festival is a beneficiary of that thriving scene. Once the last-minute scheduling is done, there will be more than 20 shows spread over the 10 days, ranging from nationally known comics to the wide variety of acts taking part in the contest that is the backbone of the festival. Lenny Clarke will pick up a lifetime achievement award at the contest finals, where Friedlander will collect his Comedian of the Year honor. Boston veteran Tingle will bring his political documentary "Jimmy Tingle's American Dream" to the Davis Square Theatre, which used to be Jimmy Tingle's Off Broadway Theater. In between will be several theme shows such as "Jim Lauletta's Big Gay Comedy Buffet" and "Boston's Funniest Women."
For Friedlander, a high-profile gig will end next year when NBC's "30 Rock," on which he plays comedy writer Frank Rossitano, broadcasts its seventh and final season. He's already looking forward to new projects, such as the CD he hopes to release in late October and an independent stand-up film that he says will be produced and released in 2013. "I kind of view it as senior year of high school," he says. "I'm pretty excited. It's time to move on."
A veteran of last year's Boston Comedy Festival, Friedlander is ditching the parties the night before the Sept. 23 Emmy Awards ceremony, and probably the ceremony itself, to be here. The Comedian of the Year Award means more to him, he says, because it's for his stand-up and not for work with an ensemble. The Emmy parties "can be fun, but they're also big industry schmoozefest networking things," he says. "So I was like, I'm going to skip that and go to this."
Friedlander also sees the industry in good health. "I think the past few years, there's been more comics selling huge amounts of tickets than there has been since I can remember," he says. "I think comedy's become a bit of a bigger business. That doesn't always mean there's better comedy going on. Just because someone's selling thousands and thousands of tickets a show doesn't mean they're the best comic."
Meaney offers some perspective on Boston's comedy history. He moved here from another hot scene, San Francisco, in 1981, when Boston comedy was booming. Locally, there was a lot more work then at a greater number of clubs. Meaney remembers crashing at a former Harvard dorm in Cambridge during the day and carpooling with other comics to shows in the evening. "We'd just go out every night and do three, four, five shows a night," he says.
"I don't think there's one geographical area in the country that's more passionate about comedy than Boston," he says. "It's just this place in the country that embraces insane people."
Meaney's latest project is a Web series with Henriette Mantel called "In the Middle," which he is shopping to networks. The autobiographical show is a fictional account of his coming out to his wife. While many of his friends said they could have told him he was gay a long time ago, he says that when he played the festival in 2010, some audience members thought his material on coming out was a joke. "Once you tell your wife that you're gay, you can't go back and tell her you were just kidding," he says.
The Boston Comedy Festival has survived for this long by changing almost year to year, shifting venues and programming philosophies. "It's easier, too, because we've streamlined it," festival cofounder Jim McCue says. "The things that we do well, we do very well."
The festival constant has been the contest. A mix of 96 younger and somewhat more established comedians compete in eight rounds and four semifinals to get to the finals show. At stake are a $10,000 purse and work from some of the judges: club owners and industry professionals.
A lot of comics don't particularly like comedy contests, but they are a popular way to drum up interest in festivals. "I love it and hate it," says Joe List, a young comic who got his start in Boston and has competed in five of the festival contests. "I hate the idea of comedy contests. I think it's silly. But they've become a necessary evil."
The contest shows are also the ones that attract the agents, managers, and other industry players to the festival. "It's been the engine that runs it," says McCue.
Kindler has played a lot of festivals, and though it may be part of his job to take aim at what's wrong with the business, he sees a lot about which to be hopeful. "I am very, very impressed right now by the quality of how stand-up is," he says. "There are really a lot of amazing stand-ups."
Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at email@example.com.