How the Women In Comedy Festival inspired a new wave of talent
The Women In Comedy Festival kicks off Thursday with an impressive array of talent from around the country. Phoebe Robinson and Nikki Glaser are among the big names. “The Onion,” HBO, and the Just For Laughs Festival are curating showcases. There will be comedy of every stripe — improv, storytelling, political satire, musical comedy, a film program, and a slate of panels and workshops. And a lot of homegrown headliners, too.
In its 10th year, the festival has now been around long enough that performers who were just starting out in some of its earlier incarnations are coming back as accomplished comedians to topline their own shows. Jamie Loftus, co-host of Thursday’s “The Bechdel Cast” podcast, was a producer with ImprovBoston who had been doing stand-up for around a year when she first performed at the festival in 2015. Seeing comedians like Maria Bamford, Jackie Kashian, and Aparna Nancherla inspired Loftus to be as strange and daring as she wanted to be in her comedy.
“Just to be like: Oh, no, this is something you can do, and you can be cool and funny and true to yourself while you do it,” she says.
Since Loftus moved to Los Angeles three years ago, she has written for “Robot Chicken,” created the “Irrational Fears” digital series for Comedy Central, and co-created “The Bechdel Cast” with Caitlin Durante as a way to talk about the portrayal of women in film — even animated films, like “Toy Story,” which will be the focus of the episode they’ll be recording at the festival. “The goal is for it to be funny, because if it’s not funny — we’re comedians — why do it?” she says. The pair have been “really tearing it apart intelligently while being a dumb-ass. It’s a fun balance.”
Jenny Zigrino, a MassArt graduate, was just happy to be part of a festival when she first played it in 2009. She had been doing comedy only for a year and a half and remembers how the panel discussions demystified business concepts for inexperienced comics like herself. “Everything seems so amazing and out of reach and ‘Oh my God, this is such a big deal,’” she says. “And then you have a panel of people being like, ‘No, it’s really not that big of a deal. Here are the steps to get to it.’ Then you’re like, ‘Oh, I can do this. This is totally feasible.’”
Zigrino returns to headline Friday’s “The Boston Pops Present” show at the Brattle Theatre, and to teach a class on acting for stand-ups Saturday afternoon. She’s been through auditions in Los Angeles and had supporting roles in “Fifty Shades of Black” and “Bad Santa 2,” and will teach aspiring comics some basic concepts. “Let’s build a character,” she says. “You get this script, you have a day to memorize it and learn it. So what are you going to do?”
Boston’s Bethany Van Delft has played the festival since its inception. She’ll be opening for Robinson at the Wilbur Theatre and hosting “HBO Presents Bethany Van Delft’s 38.7%,” shows featuring comedians of color. She’s hoping the showcases will highlight the fact that there is no monolithic voice among people of color. “That’s especially exciting to me, to have three nights of shows, completely different personalities and points of view, and cultures,” she says.
Van Delft’s experience with the festival hit a high point last year when she attended a panel featuring executives from Disney, HBO, NBC, and other outlets. “I can’t imagine what it’s like for a young comedian coming up . . . to look up on that panel and see all those super-powerful, decision-making, gatekeeping women,” she says. “That has to impress upon you that you can do anything.”
Festival cofounder and producer Elyse Schuerman says its mission has always been to celebrate under-represented voices with Boston audiences. But to make sure those voices are heard once the festival is over, organizers have worked on attracting more industry players. They’ve added film and screenplay competitions and sponsor year-round stand-up workshops with Boston Comedy Chicks. “It’s not just coming here to perform in front of a Boston audience but to get those connections,” she says, “to get that sort of understanding of how a lot of the industry works and thinks is critical. If we hadn’t gotten to that point I don’t know that we would have continued doing the festival, because that’s the only way we’re going to see change.”
Jessica Pilot, who books comedians for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” found Caitlin Peluffo on a Sunday brunch performance at last year’s festival and coached her for an October appearance on the show. She prefers the WICF to some bigger festivals, which she thinks can be “dog and pony shows” and not about the comedy. “There’s a real community in Boston and a community within the Women In Comedy Festival that makes it a success,” she says. “This festival is exciting. It is truly a good time.”
10th ANNUal Women In Comedy Festival
At various locations in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, May 2-5. Tickets and details: www.wicf.com