Starting on Feb. 2, the population of Carrboro will increase by an estimated four percent in people and approximately eight billion percent in laughs as the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival heads into its 11th year.
Produced by Carrboro's Dirty South Improv (DSI) Comedy Theater, the festival attracts countless established and aspiring comedians—not to mention plenty of visitors (4,000 last year) primed to laugh at them.
This year, the festival features three weeks of themed events designed to help brand the area as a comedy hub.
"I think you can have comedy anywhere," says executive director Zach Ward, who adds, "Everyone's hometown is the center of their universe."
Ward says that the festival has grown exponentially from his initial idea of "let's throw a comedy party" to a destination for many top acts in comedy.
"The acts that come here are celebrated," Ward says. "Not only is Carrboro welcoming to the artists, but once they're here, the people who come here are well taken care of. Unlike a larger venue, like New York or LA, where you can get lost in the shuffle, performers are treated like rock stars here."
Indeed, the 64 separate shows at this year's festival include everyone from veteran comics Eddie Brill and Emo Phillips to sketch and improv comedy acts from throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Josh Cohen, one half of the puppeteering act The Josh and Tamra Show, credits Ward for its comic-friendly feel.
"I've been to so many festivals, and I think that one of the things that's most attractive to me about this is that Zach is one of the most creative and kind and welcoming executive producers of any festival anywhere," says Cohen, a veteran of the festival who'll perform sketches with Ward. (His partner, Tamra Malaga, is on maternity leave.)
Cohen says the festival brings the collaborative comedy environment of such larger comedy cultures as New York, Los Angeles and Toronto to the relatively small burg of Carrboro. "For me, being a big city kid, I look at Carrboro and go, 'here's this town in the middle of nowhere, but with the feeling of a metropolitan area with the restaurants and the people and the activity," Cohen says. "They've built something for it that it didn't know that it wanted or needed, and now that it's there, you can't imagine the area without it."
Cohen, a former Muppeteer trained by Jim Henson Studios, specializes in "puppet-based improv." In addition to his shows, he'll headline two workshops that teach the fundamentals of Muppet-style puppetry and using puppets in long-form improv comedy.
Puppetry in comedy, it seems, involves far more than just slapping a sock on your hand.
"One of the fundamentals of my workshop is that truth in comedy is parallel to puppetry in comedy," says Cohen, who emphasizes the need for "fully rounded characters."
"If you want your comedy to be funny, you need to be truthful to the characters," he continues. "Often, puppetry is well-executed, but if the character works, that takes it that much further away from the gimmicky aspects of puppetry. With a character like Miss Piggy or Fozzie Bear, you know what that character is about."
Character and presence in puppetry makes all the difference, according to Cohen.
"One of the reasons Sesame Street endures after all these years is that people can relate to the characters, and it's very hard to find that in CGI. I find nothing cuddly about a Transformer or a Terminator. It's the difference between the Muppet Yoda in the original Star Wars and the CGI one in the newer films. There's nothing charming about [the latter]."
Ironically, the festival's biggest problem might be that it's more widely recognized across the country than at home, according to Ward.
"People travel thousands of miles to get here—some have passport troubles at the border trying to get to play the stage at the ArtsCenter at Carrboro," Ward says.
"But there are still people in the Triangle who go, 'Oh, there's a comedy festival? Where's that?' Our challenge is making sure that we get the word out on a local level."
Ward says that he also hopes the festival helps both local residents and visitors realize the amount of comedy in the area.
"We do a lot (at DSI), DPAC has a great comedy schedule, the Carolina Theatre has a great schedule; there's Memorial Hall at UNC, Goodnight's in Raleigh ... there's so much comedy happening in the area, and this is a step toward helping people realize what's available to them."
His dreams might be coming closer to being realized: Cohen offers the festival perhaps the highest praise stand-up comedy can receive, comparing it to the glory days of vaudeville. "It feels like what the Marx Brothers must have dealt with."
Here's some of the laughs you can expect to find at the festival:
SKETCH COMEDY (Feb. 2–5): Includes DSI Comedy Theater's P.T. Scarborough is a Movie, Boston's Harry Roasts America, Paul Thomas' Comedogenic, NYC's Elephant Larry, Philadelphia's Meg & Rob, Toronto's Annabelle Gets It Back and encore screenings of the TJ and Dave documentary Trust Us This is All Made Up and the "why we laugh" doc, Laughology.
STAND-UP COMEDY (Feb.9–13): Includes more than 50 stand-up acts from around the country, with a showcase at Cat's Cradle for The Late Show With David Letterman talent booker Eddie Brill, Los Angeles comic Aparna Nancherla and Tom Keller, winner of the 2010 award for North Carolina's Funniest Comic.
IMPROV COMEDY (Feb. 16–20): In addition to Josh Cohen, the festival spotlights veteran comedian Emo Philips at Cat's Cradle at 8 p.m. Feb. 19, who will follow BEATBOX, a Chicago-based improv rap act with whom Ward, who was once a member, will perform. Other acts include Impatient Improv with Kevin Patrick Robbins, the improv groups Death By Roo Roo from New York, pHrenzy from Chicago, Harvard's The Immediate Gratification Players, a Super CageMatch with groups from Atlanta, Boston, Toronto and North Carolina, a live video improv performance by Neutrino to be taped around Carrboro, New York's Junior Varsity, Massachusetts' Plan B and musical hip-hop group Northcoast from New York.