By Katie East
Last weekend, I participated in Hell Yes Fest in New Orleans; a comedy festival that draws in comics from all over the country. Stand-ups, sketch artists and improvisers from New York to LA fly in to the Big Easy to celebrate everything funny. The awesome show opportunities are nothing compared to the social experiment that is a comedy festival.
Comedy is a funny thing – no pun intended. Usually, the people who are the best at creating comedy are the worst at everything else in life. Being funny in conversation is not the same as being funny onstage; it requires two totally different parts of the brain.
Making a group of people laugh at the dinner table is nothing like making them laugh in a theater. And somehow, most comics only know how to read social cues when onstage. When they’re off the clock, a normal conversation is almost impossible to muster up.
After Robin William’s recent death, the plight of the comic has become more talked about in American culture. For some reason, the people who make everyone laugh usually have the saddest insides; brain chemistry is a fickle thing.
As a whole, stand up comics are the most depressed group of people I have ever met: they’re angry, jaded and overanalyze everything to the extreme. It’s their job.
Even using the word “job” is difficult for comics. Comedy is a weird job to have; it’s undefinable and almost no one understands what it entails. For most comedians, you don’t get paid the first five to seven years of performing. It’s baffling why anyone would sign up.
Comedians, like actors and other artists, have to work many different jobs to support their comedy habit. “Habit” might actually be a better word to describe comedy instead of “job.” No one pulls the “Comic” card when playing the board game of “Life.” And if they did, it probably comes with a “Split-Level” house and a very disappointing salary card.
Doing comedy is very similar to having a drug habit: you know it’s a waste of time and money but you keep doing it anyway. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get from it and once you’re hooked you have to keep chasing that comedy dragon. In the end, your brain convinces yourself it’s worth the lows to feel those rare highs.
Stand-up comics aren’t the only breed of humans at a comedy festival: improvisers are their own brand of crazy too. If being a stand-up comic is hard to define, then being an improviser is an enigma.
Improv comedy is the least respected art form on the planet. It’s difficult, requires years of training and no one gives a shit about it.
If you’re wondering: “Improv? Oh, like that TV show Whose Line is it Anyway?” The answer is “Yes, kind of.” And also, “I hate you.”
Long form improv is where a group of people get a one-word suggestion from the audience and improvise a 15-30 minute “play,” never to be seen again. When it works, it’s the most harmoniously hilarious thing you can imagine. When it doesn’t, it’s an awkward nightmare so palpable you can taste it for a week.
It’s rare to be both a stand-up and an improviser. Stand-ups judge people, question everything and deprecate themselves, the audience and anyone in between. Improvisers elevate the dumbest suggestion and think there are no mistakes in life or on the stage. These are two very different types of people.
Stand-ups are cynical and improvisers are idealists; it’s always a hilarious combination when you put them in the same room together let alone on a weekend festival.
If the comedy world was high school, stand-ups would be the moody loners who look like they’ve contemplated a school shooting. Improvisers would be the overachievers who are way too enthusiastic about extracurricular activities. Sketch artists would be the goofy drama nerds because that’s exactly what they are. If you love props, wigs and alienating other people with inside jokes then you might want to consider getting into sketch.
Some comedy festivals are better than others when it comes to bringing these different folks together. Hell Yes Fest in New Orleans did an amazing job of creating a safe space for these weirdos. While I was there, it was easy for me to focus on our similarities instead of noticing our differences.
When it comes down to it, all performers just want to be noticed and liked. And hopefully, we entertain some of you in the process. Next November, make sure to put Hell Yes Fest on your calendar. And until then, support live comedy throughout the year.
Your laughs are our fix.