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Acts to catch at Boston comedy festivals

England’s Cambridge Footlights troupe will kick off the Boston Comedy Arts Festival.
England’s Cambridge Footlights troupe will kick off the Boston Comedy Arts Festival.

B oston is about to be deluged with comedy for the greater part of a month, with the Boston Comedy Arts Festival Sept. 4-9 and the Boston Comedy Festival Sept. 13-22. So what’s the difference between them, besides the word “Arts”?

The Boston Comedy Arts Festival started life as an improv and sketch festival connected to ImprovBoston, and those genres are still where its heart lies. You’ll find more than 30 shows with improv, sketch, and storytelling acts from all over the country, and even abroad: The Cambridge Footlights are coming from the other Cambridge, the one in England.

The Boston Comedy Festival is now one of the longer-running comedy festivals in the country, entering its 13th year, and it is much more centered on stand-up. Its 20-plus shows over 10 days include nationally known headliners such as Judah Friedlander, Dom Irrera, and Andy Kindler; local veterans Jimmy Tingle and Tony V; and a slew of comedians in a contest with a $10,000 purse.

Even the most devoted comedy fan won’t have time to spend the next few weeks seeing more than 50 shows at both festivals. So here are a few cherry-picking tips.

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The Cambridge Footlights, a troupe that has produced the likes of Hugh Laurie and Monty Python’s John Cleese, kick off the Boston Comedy Arts Festival with two shows on Tuesday. This might be the moment to catch some budding stars. The other higher-profile performance is “Risk!,” a storytelling show headlined by former State member Kevin Allison. The late lineup on Wednesday sandwiches “Gore-fest,” ImprovBoston’s blood-soaked Halloween show, between the groups Bastards Inc. and 1.21 Jigowatts. Elsewhere on the schedule, if you’re familiar with the Upright Citizens Brigade, maybe Big Bennessy will catch your eye; if you like musical improv, Briami Sound Machine might intrigue you.

At the Boston Comedy Festival, focus on the stand-ups. Tony V, who is doing several shows, is an improvisational everyman and the soul of the local scene. DJ Hazard and Kevin Meaney were both staples in the 1980s but moved to New York. Take this chance to see them. The Lost Brothers & Company offer the best opportunity to see both Tony V and Hazard, with the never-miss Kelly MacFarland as a bonus. Seeing Meaney, who performs Sept. 22 at 8 p.m., will mean skipping the contest finals, where Friedlander and Lenny Clarke will also get awards. Tough choice, but you can and should catch World Champion Friedlander that day at his 10 p.m. show. Lean toward Meaney for the early slot.

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The contest shows are worth checking into, if only for the hosts. All of them are local or have local roots, and most are emerging headliners such as Joe List, Tom Dustin, and Mehran. The understated, joke-heavy Joe Wong has already logged several “Letterman” appearances and caught the attention of Ellen DeGeneres.

“Jimmy Tingle’s American Dream: Live on Screen & Stage” and Kindler are back-to-back at the Davis Square Theatre Sept. 15. Tingle presents his political documentary, featuring voices from Howard Zinn to Sean Hannity. Kindler’s Louis C.K. rant turned heads at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal in July, but he’s a comedian’s comedian, a guy who can subvert comic formats and the industry. You won’t likely see him playing a local venue outside of this festival, so see him here.
Nick A. Zaino III