Columbus Comedy Fest showcases humor and hard work

Jesse Tigges, Columbus Alive

Despite all the laughs, being a standup comic isn't easy. It requires copious amounts of hard work - writing jokes, perfecting them on stage and securing valuable gigs is a full-time job - as well as talent and opportunity. And sometimes it's gruelingly painful and occasionally thankless. Bombing onstage happens to every comedian, yes even the stars selling out arenas, and it can be soul-crushing. Hecklers and/or inattentive crowds are even more frustrating. For the numerous (and growing ranks of) standup comics in Columbus, dedication is a defining characteristic - as well as being funny, obviously.

The Columbus Comedy Festival revs up Thursday and runs through Saturday at Wild Goose Creative, and is a microcosm of the commitment this city's comics have to their craft. After holding a three-day Columbus Comedy Festival in October, the organizers rallied to coordinate another one in a much shorter window; it usually takes a year to plan the city's best comedy festival.

Four Columbus comics - who each deliver hilarious material on stage, while also working tirelessly at producing new material and finding or establishing stages to showcase it - are specific representatives of a community that faces ups and downs with gusto. For Dustin Meadows, Kamari Stevens, Lauren Bencaz and Mike Meyers, comedy is their passion, their lifestyle, their love.

Each has translated his or her talent (and hard work) into a reputation as one of the funniest people in the city while also performing successful tours outside Columbus. It takes a lot to reach this level as a standup comedian, and these four are by no means satisfied with their standing.

"I grew up playing basketball and I was a coach's son, so I have my stepdad's voice in my head about desire, dedication and all that stuff I didn't really apply to basketball. So I'm trying to apply it to comedy. There's somebody out there getting better and if I let up somebody is going to surpass me. I need to be out there," Stevens said.

Thick skin is essential. Starting out, you should expect things to go poorly; even if these four had positive first experiences on stage, it wasn't long before they all "ate shit." And even if you've stumbled through those early catastrophes, every comic - veteran or not - experiences the dreaded "bomb."

"After I won the Funny Bone contest ['Funniest Person in Columbus' in 2012], I ate shit at the next five shows so badly. But no, I'm funny, right? And it was in rooms I'd done great in before, no less," Meadows said, citing how even at their most confident, comics can have unpredictably bad performances.

Stevens had a similar experience. Coming off a number of laugh-filled nights, he was excited and confident for a show where the audience was mainly college students. It didn't go well.

"I bombed the entire seven minutes. I was the first person up so I had to sit through the rest of the show, thinking 'This is so terrible' and 'I hate my life right now.' The worst part was at the end of the night when [a fellow local comedian] was doing a joke about the n-word, this white dude in the back made this really racist comment. And I was the only black dude there so everyone was looking at me, making it this extra level of uncomfortable. Then I had to walk home in the rain," Stevens said, chuckling about the absurdity of it all.

While these tales are symbolic of many comics' experience, Meyers has one that's extraordinary. He was performing at Sidebar 122's now-defunct weekly standup show a year ago, and things went, well, just outlandish.

"There was this girl who walked in and I commented to [local comic] Laura Sanders that her boobs were hanging out and I hate to be judgmental, but I'm sure she's not very cool because I don't know many cool girls who just have their boobs hanging out all the time. Laura said I should write it down and tell it as a joke. I said, 'I will, but not tonight because she'll probably know I'm talking about her,'" Meyers said. "Nobody did very well that night, and I was just bombing. Just eating shit! Then I noticed [the busty woman] was filming me on her phone. I asked why. She said, 'You're funny and I want something to laugh at later.' I said, 'You're not laughing at any of my jokes now, so clearly all you're going to do later is ridicule me with it, or put it online. So stop.' And she didn't so I was like, 'Alright, look you're a really beautiful girl and that's the last nice thing I'm going to say to you.'"

Meyers had an exchange with this uncouth audience member - reminiscent of an episode of "Louie" where the comic dealt with a female heckler - that drew the ire of another female audience member who wasn't aware of the entire situation.

"Then out of the dark, I just see this lemon coming from the back of the room. I didn't even have to dodge it because it was like 15 feet to the left. The bartender yelled at [the woman who threw the lemon] and I was like, 'Well this was fun and I'm done.' The lady apologized to me after because she didn't even know what happened. I put the lemon on my mantle and I thought about getting it bronzed. It looks like a dried up peanut or something now. It's funny because it's such a cliché to throw fruit at a bombing comedian, but I'd never seen it happen. Then someone threw fruit at me. Luckily, I'd been doing comedy long enough that it didn't just completely destroy me on the inside."

Every comic has these bleak moments - or surreally comedic if you have the experience and perspective of these four. Thankfully, there are powerful ups too, that can be borne of woeful downs, and more importantly the highs resonate much longer.

"I [feel] like after you bomb, you write some of your best stuff. That's totally true," said Bencaz, citing how after some abysmal out of town shows she didn't let it get her down and participated in the 10-day "I'm So Excited!" tour in February with Sanders and Lisa Berry - a local standup comic who, like Bencaz, is a regular performer in Wild Goose's "Monday Night Live" monthly sketch comedy showcase.

"It was the most anxiety I've ever had concerning comedy, but it also ended up being the best time ever. It was so great to see people outside of Ohio find me funny. One night [after a great show], we were in our pajamas, going to put on face masks and have the sensible glass-and-a-third of wine. We were like, 'That show we just did was amazing. Let's get into our pajamas, ladies, and talk about how awesome it was.' Then we ended up getting kicked out of a hotel room for being too loud [laughing at] a Hallmark movie, and had to move to where no one else was booked."

That was a big up with a minor (Hallmark-movie-assisted) down.

For Meadows and Meyers, an independent tour - last summer's "Redefining Rock Bottom", which also featured local Mike Kolar - was such a success it produced reinvigorated enthusiasm.

"We [made some money] and had fun. We built a lot of contacts and have been asked to come back in the future. We're continuing our relationships with those people," Meadows said, referring to a second "Redefining Rock Bottom" tour that kicks off at Actual Brewing Co.'s "Actual Comedy" showcase May 28 before heading to cities in the Midwest and South.

"That was huge for me, because right before that tour I was considering quitting. I was so burned-out and ... if the tour didn't work out, it might have been time to hang it up. I still have doubts every now and then, because you do, but that [tour] being successful was a huge bolster to my confidence. Things like that make you feel like everything is not completely fucked."

Standup comedy, for whoever, or wherever, is defined by dichotomous experiences. It's epitomized by the most demanding component of standup - writing and perfecting new material - which is also the most rewarding, when a new joke erupts with cacophonous laughter.

"New material is what keeps you going. If I get this idea that I think is funny, I'm so geeked to go to an open mic. And open mics are fucking rough. I have to go to this open mic tonight so I can see if this is funny," Stevens said.

It's not just about getting laughs from a new joke. The process - especially among these four, who quickly went from promising five-to-ten-minute open mic sets to producing longer, feature-length material for paid gigs - is never-ending.

"Right now things are good, but any point you get to, you always want more. It's because if you want to be a good comic, you constantly want to write new material and do new material. If you're content with doing the same 15 minutes every time you do comedy, then maybe you just don't really want to be a comedian," Meyers said.

Meadows reiterated Meyers' sentiments by speaking about how even though he'll often source material from pop culture, he rarely uses previous bits.

"I don't even do the material from [my early] days. I do my Star Wars blowjob joke every now and then," he said. "It's not very often because I look back at it and it's very clearly one of those first jokes you write."

The reason Bencaz, Meadows, Meyers and Stevens - or any devoted comic - is happy and proud to experience the rollercoaster that is standup is because it's in their bones. From a young age, Meyers and Stevens were enamored with standup.

"I always wanted to do comedy. I would stay home sick from school and watch Sinbad and Mark Curry, the biggest influences on me when I was young," Meyers said with a chuckle about how his tastes have changed as he's matured. "When I was 14 I told my mom I want to be a standup comedian. She didn't really say don't do it, but her response was, 'That will be a really hard life.'"

No matter how hard it gets, comedy is always an escape, a reassurance, a confidant to pick a comic's spirits up.

"I'm a diehard standup fan. If it wasn't for standup I wouldn't have made it. I identified with comedians like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle - and think of them as modern day philosophers. Whenever I feel bad, I pop in [Rock's] Bring the Pain and Bigger and Blacker or [Chappelle's] Killin' Them Softly and it reminds me why I do this. I know it's a long shot, and those guys are at the pinnacle, but I want to attain what they have. And it's not so much the stature, or how they're selling out fucking arenas and shit. It's that I want to be that master of my craft - a singular voice and an original where people respect what I'm doing," Stevens said. "They were all in our position - Louis C.K. and all those guys. They were all sitting there after bombing a fucking open mic and they were like, 'Man, I want to end this. What am I doing with my life?' But then they got it! So it's a possibility. I can't reach it if I stop. I have to keep clawing at it. And it's fun as shit when it goes well."

Bencaz and Meadows may have found their love for comedy later in their 20s, but it's just as strong, because standup brings them immeasurable (challenging) joy.

"I think with any artistic endeavor or anything you do by yourself, you have to get to a point where you can inspire yourself and keep having fun. If I'm not having fun, then I should not do it. But I am having fun," Bencaz said.

The fun will certainly be in full-effect this weekend at Wild Goose. The Columbus Comedy Festival has made some adjustments from the previous years. In part, to produce a more streamlined show, but also to bring new faces and jokes to the stage to keep things fresh for audiences who attended the October festival.

Out-of-town comics will join some of Columbus' best for the three-night fest. Each show will kick off with an original Wild Goose comedy program - humorous storytelling in "Speakeasy," "Monday Night Live" and the Meadows-created "Struck A Nerve: The Pop Culture Mixtape," which features a hilarious pop culture focus, only sans standup. Then the show will close with 90 minutes of standup from five performers.

Photos by Meghan Ralston

Columbus Comedy Festival

Wild Goose Creative

7-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, May 14-16

2491 Summit St., North Campus