A Festival For The Restival (Part One)
It's that special time of year again for comedians, when they start getting acceptance or rejection letters from festivals. It's a goddamn exhilirating feeling to find out you got into a really cool comedy festival that you were pumped for, and it is a gigantic fucking bummer to find out that you didn't make it into one. It's easy to get bitter and frustrated over shit like that, because lord knows I've done it myself in the past. You can typically tell because people will Facebook or Tweet or whatever about what complete bullshit it is that they didn't make the cut for something and how festivals will never get another cent of their money ever again. That's fine, too, but you can just not submit and go on with your life instead of having to make it into a whole thing. It sucks hard not to get into festivals, and it sucks to see people get it over you that you think you're better than. But that's a completely unhealthy way to think about comedy (or anything you pursue, really), and if that's your attitude, that other people getting something is somehow holding you back, then you're never gonna go very far anyway. I think most people have no fucking idea the amount of work that goes into producing a festival. And that's what I'm here to talk about.
I've done a bunch of different comedy festivals in different towns in the last five years. I've also been rejected from several in the last seven years. Since 2014, I have produced five different festivals, and by the end of next month, I will have produced my sixth. So I've definitely had some experience on both sides of the coin as far as running a festival. In the fall of 2014, I took over running and producing the Columbus Comedy Festival along with friends Michael Meyers (a fellow comedian) and Sarah Fulmer (one of the showrunners of Speak Easy, Columbus' longest running storytelling show). I stepped in because my friend Sumukh Torgalkar (another comedian), who had been one of the producers of the festival for the last few years, was stepping away from it, as were the other producers who'd been involved. Basically, unless someone took the reigns and continued producing, the Columbus Comedy Festival would cease to exist. I had just moved back home from Chicago and was trying to be more proactive and put into the scene what I wanted to get back from it, so I asked if it was something that I could take over, because for the city to lose what had become a comedy staple would have been a major disappointment.
Once the torch had been passed to me and my producers, we were then left with the unenviable task of having to first bump the festival back to the fall (during Buckeyes football season, no less), because we would've had one month to turn everything around if we'd tried to do the festival during it's usual time of year in April/May, and then we had to hammer out our line-up and finalize bookings within the month so we could work on scheduling, procuring sponsors, and all the other minutiae that most folks don't realize is a the unsexy but necessary part of running a festival. Because we didn't have time for a submission process, we decided to book it (which is how the festival had been run in previous years), and boy, did we get a lot of fucking clapback from comics who weren't booked. Suddenly, every comedian in the city knew how to run a goddamn comedy festival and how to produce the best possible show. This was a festival that featured sketch, improv, and stand-up, and over the course of three nights, stand-up only accounted for about 1/3 of the programming. So we had limited spots. We booked our line-up with comics who ran shows or mics, people who were making a significant contribution to the comedy scene somehow, which me and my producers all thought was a pretty fair way to go about it. In spite of a lot of shit talking, the festival ended up being a success, and we all had a great time.
The second year with the Columbus Comedy Festival, me and Michael Meyers made an executive decision to cut the improv, because historically, it had been the one part of the festival that people had regularly complained about. And that's not to disparage the current state of improv in the scene, because it's grown by leaps and bounds. Comedians dog on improv, but I've seen just as much (if not more) bad stand-up as bad improv in my life. But back then, it was a little rougher to sit through that, and most of the time the improvisers would do their set and then bounce right the fuck out. Like the second they were off the stage. Every comedian on that festival showed up at the start and stayed for the whole show on the night they were booked, because that's what you do. You support the show, especially when you're on it. When we booked comedians that year, we decided to open things up and book out of towners to expand, my first real taste of attempting to produce a festival on a larger scale. The pushback was a little less than the previous year, but there were still people bitching that we should have a submission process and all that.
The nice thing about comedy is that it is now easier than ever to start a mic, a show, or even a festival if you're motivated enough. When I expressed interest in expanding the Columbus Comedy Festival and including satellite venues and the like, the way a real festival does, I was met with resistance from the venue. The venue who'd also expressed dissatisfaction that I'd cut the improv from the festival. The venue that I was paying to rent out for the event, who were not producing or putting the work in for the festival in any way. So I wasn't thrilled by the opposition I was getting. I decided then and there that I was going to produce my own festival, and start something completely new. And so the seeds of what would become the first, last, and only Rock Bottom Fest began to germinate in my mind.
PART TWO COMING SOON!