This year’s Memphis Comedy Festival – which opens on Thursday, March 5 and runs through Sunday, March 8 - is shaping up to the biggest, and arguably best, in the event’s history. What originally started as a last-minute schedule filler for local “non-commercial” performance space Theatreworks, has evolved in four short years into full-blown comedy bonanza, with well over 20 individual shows and workshops spanning across a myriad of venues in town, including Theatreworks, Co-Motion Studio, the Hi-Tone, and Studio on the Square. The festival’s founder, comedian and popular Memphis tweet-er Katrina Coleman, spoke to FOTW this week about organizing the event and much, much more.
Fly On The Wall: What inspired you to start the Memphis Comedy Festival?
Katrina Coleman: Like all good origin stories, there are three that are all very nearly the same with one variance. I started the Memphis Roast Club to bring all the best comics I knew together and do work on the comedy scene. Larry Clark, an international artist, is based out of Memphis. He had booked Theatreworks for his nearly-yearly one man show, “Just Larry.” Circumstances and a busy winter kept him from putting together a whole new show to his standards in time, so he opted not to. He was talking with our close friend and stage manager Nathan Hiller about it and as founding members of the Roast Club, decided maybe we could use the theater for something. When they called me, we talked about a series of shows or a headliner or. . . why not all of it in a festive fashion? All three of us think it was our idea, but it was mine because I say it was. So in six weeks we pulled off the first one and it was so good, we had to again. And again.
How has the festival grown since that first year?
The first year, our banner was very carefully cut sparkly letters taped to a dollar store table cloth and I made stickers with a manual Xyron machine. This year, Lauren Rae Holtermann designed our posters and we'll have merch that, holy crap, doesn't look like a craft project. The shows have also come to include every kind of comedy, with so many in the weekend that no one person could physically see every single performance. The community support through sponsorships and volunteer efforts has grown by incredible and humbling leaps.
The thing that really gets better and better is the support we get in accommodating the comics. They generally crash on couches, they're fed every day, given coupons and passes and discounts from all manner of local businesses. This city just flings its doors open wider and wider so that when people leave to go back to their various homes, they feel like they've been the cool side of their family.
What would you say your primary role in the festival is? Who else contributes to putting it together?
Most of my time is probably spent just listening and nodding and saying things like, "We'll fix it. It's ok. You have to go tell jokes now. Blow your nose." In years past, I've taken crash course in promotions, organizing, scheduling, festival-ing in general. From making the interview appearances to plunging the "trouble toilet" again, my job is just to keep going. My role is also largely recruiting the right people. Every year the core team grows and changes, but keeps improving. Nathan Hiller has always been the guy who knows all about the stuff that plugs in. I tell him every year he has the job no one notices until he screws up, "And buddy, no one noticed you! Thanks!" Kate Mauldin has been our volunteer coordinator this year, thanks to her expertise in complimentary sandwiches. Cara McLane came on, and with Doug Gillon have made the marketing stuff just so beautiful it hurts. The Stanley Justice team organizes the entire film night, and Josh McLane has even taken the additional role of hospitality coordinator. Benny Elbows wrestles the monster that is our schedule and also is always awake when I text at 2 AM to tell ask him what I forgot to do today. Jada Brisentine headed sponsorship and she is very good at getting yes as an answer. Richard Douglas Jones is the sonic screwdriver of the festival, hosting shows, running cable, shaking hands, all things. Mike Degnan wrangles improvisors. Katie Wood comes by to yell when yelling's needed. Twin Face Kline, OAM Audio, Looks Like Lisa, all those teams are holding down a station. It never would have happened without the support from the beginning from Jack Pirtle's, who feed us every year. Every single year I get to watch a new person discover fried chicken livers. There are at least three dozen people I could list, and another dozen I wouldn't get to before you ran out of pages. Team effort doesn't even cover it, this is an army effort.
What is the booking/submission process like? Is it tough to decide who gets in and who doesn't?
Every year, we solicit comics all over the place to send us a video, bio, and a small fee. Then, we sit in a room and watch and yell and discuss and yell more. This year we only meant to take 27, and ended up with 32, because we simply could not bear to cut the list shorter. Every dispute is handled in a manner that may not be dignified but is certainly group effort. I've been outvoted more than once. This year, 127 videos played in Richard's living room and great battles played out to have our favorites here. There's an unofficial policy that if someone gets shoved over your submission tape, automatic entry.
How much importance do you place on showcasing local comics vs. bringing in out-of-towners?
There's always local talent, specifically as hosts, and a vast majority of our volunteers and staff are local comics. There's a local showcase specifically for us, but most shows we try to fill with visitors. We take a fairly Southern approach to hospitality, giving our guests the finest portions, as it were. We get the joy of Memphis audiences the other 361 days of the year, so we use our good manners and share.
What have been some of your favorite events or performances over the years?
Oh, that's a hard question. Comedy Secrets came last year. They do a show in which comics tell a true, personal story that has never been on stage. There's even a vow of secrecy at the beginning so I can't tell you much, but in an hour and a half I cried like a baby and laughed so hard I was choking. The Memphis Film Society gave us a live commentary over an awful sci-fi softcore movie from the ‘70s that included a game that got at least two people out of their pants. Jason Earl Folks comes here every year and every single year I find myself spelling his name for someone who just HAS to find him on Facebook RIGHT NOW. Twin Face Kline once interviewed Tawanda and Cordell Pirtle and I found out that Mrs. Pirtle is the funniest, sharpest woman in town. And she's not afraid to tell a comic to shut the hell up.
Is there something you’re really looking forward to this year?
The Stanley Justice guys haven't let me see the film submissions, so the anticipation for Don't Be Afraid of the Shorts might kill me. Unlockable Characters is a nerd-centric, queer-positive show that I have been begging Amy Sulam to bring to us for MONTHS. But Penny Wiggins may be what I'm most excited about and will be hiding from all responsibility in the booth to watch. She's just so very, very funny.
Tell me about Penny Wiggins, this year’s headliner.
Penny is better known as “Psychic Tanya,” the lovely assistant to The Amazing Johnathan. Since his recent illness, she's returned to her standup roots. She's an actress, too, so she also has a whole pocket full of characters. Happi Johnson, a locally based comic, but definitely an old pro - she used to write for Phyllis Diller - knew Penny and basically called in a favor for us. It's the right time for Penny as she's just begun touring again, and for us to have a chance to see her before she comes back through and has to play the Orpheum. Getting her here may or may have not included a promise to take her to Graceland.
Do you feel there is a legitimizing effect on the festival in bringing in more well-known performers like Penny and last year's headliner, Billy Wayne Davis?
Oh, absolutely, yes. For comics considering submitting, the headliner becomes a huge incentive to them. In addition, it's gained us much respect here at home. From tablecloth banners to hosting performers with resumes longer than my arm, I certainly think people believe we aren't just dabbling in this.
As the festival grows, is it getting harder for you to personally attend and oversee every single show? Do you see yourself ever wanting or being able to step back from that?
Last year was the first year that one pair of eyes could not have seen all of every show, and I was so very proud of that. Everyone knows that at the Beale Street Music Festival you have to make difficult decisions, sometimes, right? Because so many incredible bands are around you just have to sometimes run from one end of the park to the other. Music is everywhere you look. The idea of a weekend like that with comedy, well, it makes my heart beat real fast. Last year, I was just able to check into every show and then run off to make sure the next was ready to go. At the very least, I was able to see each crowd for myself and get a feel for how it was going. This year, the schedule is such that I can't do that at all. I've got enough capable people that I can trust to make sure the lighting is right and the chairs are reasonably spaced. It's like my little baby has gotten too big for me to tie her shoes or walk her in to school any more. Maybe one day I'll relax and just enjoy the shows, let other people handle the way the tshirts are folded and what color cups we have and can I please have a ladder to adjust this light? Maybe I'll just relax. No, I won't.
How do you see the festival growing in the future?
Bigger. I always want it bigger. Scratch that, I want it stronger. I want it to be a thing that comics want to come to so badly that they send us bribes in the mail. (Rum. I like spiced rum.) If I got my wish, of COURSE I'd have Louis CK or Maria Bamford here. I still hold on to hope that Chris Hardwick will come back home to visit. Going forward, we've toyed with the idea of outdoor events, things that families might enjoy. I've also decided that by next year, I'll convince Tony Allen to do an open mic.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about this year’s Memphis Comedy Festival?
Buy a pass. Sit on the top row at Theatreworks. Hydrate. Don't be late, you'll miss something. Follow the @memcomedyfest so you know what's poppin’ off and where. Always be prepared to dance battle. And never, ever, EVER buy a comic drinks after midnight.