In 2015, I produced the Columbus Comedy Festival for my second and final time. When I stepped away, no one else stepped in to pick it up and carry the torch. So for that alone, anyone who complained about the way I ran a festival can take a flying fucking leap, because not a single one of them rose to the occasion when the opportunity to run a festival suddenly lay in front of them.
And that's probably because running a festival is a lot of goddamn hard work. Many people think comedy festivals are a get rich quick scam for the people running it, and in some cases, that's true. But as someone who's run multiple festivals, I can tell you this: there are easier, less stressful ways to turn a quick buck than producing a goddamn comedy festival.
After Columbus Comedy Festival wrapped, I turned my focus to a pet project that had come about when my previously mentioned frustrations with running a festival had become a massive source of stress for me. I knew that I wanted to produce a full scale comedy festival, with submissions, and multiple shows and venues, and comics from all over the country. But I needed to ease into that. Crawl before you can walk and all that.
That's how Rock Bottom Fest was born, a one-off weekend of comedy that was branded in accordance with the Redefining Rock Bottom Tour, my first ever headlining tour with friends Mike Kolar, Michael Meyers, and later, Walter Hemmelgarn. I wanted to put on a comedy show, and have a sort of punk rock flea market component as well, so I invited artists and a couple of friends who sold records, made custom guitar pedals, and other stuff along those lines to be a part of this silly thing I was putting together.
Save for my friend and then roommate Lauren Bencaz, Rock Bottom Fest was a total sausage fest, and I low key caught some shit for it. But I also went off of three critera for the people I invited to do this show.
1) They had previously helped me out when on tour, typically with a booking or couch to crash on or both
2) They were on board and understanding of the punk rock/DIY mentality of what I was trying to do with this dry run at my own festival
3) Most importantly, they were willing to come to Columbus for, worst case scenario: no money and best case scenario: some gas money
The only locals on this festival were myself, Michael Meyers, Mike Kolar, and Lauren Bencaz. Meyers and Kolar were on it because they'd been my tour mates, and Lauren I ended up offering a spot because we lived together and I had started talking about Rock Bottom Fest one night, and I figured why not extend an invitation? She was funny and I thought she brought something different to the line-up with her comedy.
But everyone else on the festival was traveling anywhere between 2-6 hours for the hope of maybe breaking even on gas money. And I needed people who were okay with that possibility. From Cleveland, I invited Chad Weaver and Walter Hemmelgarn, who'd both set me up with shows in the past. Tyler Sonnichsen, Matt Chadourne, and Jeff Blank from Knoxville, TN, who had done the same. Tim Myers (from Chicago by way of Ohio) who had put me up while on tour, and Chris Clem (also from Chicago by way of Ohio) who was just someone I'd bonded with at a comedy festival. Hunter Roberts (from Kingsport, TN...or maybe it's Gate City, VA? who fucking gives a shit, he's from the south) who'd set me up with shows in Tennessee. And then Mike Szar (from Toledo, OH), who I'd been friends with for years and had actually went on my first tour (along with Michigan's Stu McCallister and Toledo's Keith Bergman) with in 2013. The festival was two-fold in purpose-to see if I was up to the task of producing something like this on my own, and to try to put together something cool and fun for the people who'd helped me out on the road in the past few years.
The festival ran two nights, Friday, April 10th and Saturday, April 11th. Mike Szar even put together a cool Expendables themed poster for the weekend.
The Friday show was simply my Pop Culture Mixtape show performed at the (now defunct, R.I.P.) Strange Loop Records, and Saturday was two blocks of comedy at the Actual Brewing Company. I'd had a venue miscommunication, and three weeks (give or take) before the festival, I found myself scrambling to find a replacement venue. Fortunately, I'd spent the the last six months or so running a monthly showcase at the Actual Brewing Company, and when I informed them of the crisis, they gladly offered their space.
The weekend of the show rolled around, and we ended up getting crowds both nights. As a producer, the biggest fear is that no one is going to come out to your show. It's a fear that has not gone away in all of the years I've spent producing comedy shows. And for whatever reason, my experience with indie comedy shows is that audiences don't think they have to show up on time, so the show often ends up holding for a bit. We ended up doing that for this show, and at show time I was outside having a panic attack because three people had shown up. Then half an hour later, we had a full audience. Maybe audiences should show up on time, maybe we (comedians) shouldn't cater to the expectation that we'll wait on them to start the show. I don't know what the solution is, honestly.
The show went well in spite of all the obstacles I'd hit along the way, and everyone seemed to have a great time. Chris Clem closed out the second block, because I didn't want to close out my own festival, and frankly, I didn't feel the need to provide one more thing for comedians to shit talk me about in secret Facebook groups. Even though those same comics (for the most part) showed zero interest in supporting something new in their town if they weren't booked on it right from the get go.
The long and short of it was that my little experiment had been successful. Three months later, I would produce the first backyard comedy show under the Whiskey Bear Comedy banner, featuring Laura Sanders, Kyle Tolliver, Kamari Stevens, and Oklahoma City's Cameron Bucholz. That was the beginning of something new and exciting for me, and I'll talk more about the birth of Whiskey Bear on the next round.