Gilda’s LaughFest, the nation’s first-ever community-wide festival of laughter, has quickly earned a reputation for being one of the nation’s marquee events for both participants and artists. This major 10- day Midwest festival is based in Grand Rapids is going on March 5-15 and includes events throughout West Michigan. Created by Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids and launched in March 2011 to celebrate laughter for the health of it, the festival features stand-up, improv , film, authors, community showcases, and a variety of seriously funny stuff. In addition, each year of LaughFest has attracted more than 50,000 attendees to West Michigan! We had the chance to catch up with Festival Director Joanne Roehm to discuss this year’s fest, World Record attempts, Hi-Fives, and of course the line-up.
When you see things like Funderwear Run, Laughter Yoga, and Guiness World Record attempt you know this isn’t your normal comedy festival, can you explain what’s going on here?
We very purposefully talk about this being a festival of laughter. We do have a huge portion of stand-up comedy that does happen during the fest, however we recognize we all laugh but not necessarily at the same things. So we try and have programming that has a little bit of something for everybody. That includes family friendly events, clean comedy, improv and sketch, movies and theater, and dance. We have more than 200 events that happen over the 10 days. And we like to challenge people. If you can’t find something you like, we want to hear about it.
What’s going to be this year’s World Record attempt kicking off the fest on March 5th?
We have this history over the last four years of doing this big community kick off event that happens in downtown Grand Rapids, MI outside. And the weather can be quite chilly this time of year. But we’ve done these World Records which we feel is unique and sets us a part from other festivals. Tossing rubber chickens, wearing fake mustaches, and wearing animal noses. This year we are going for the largest number of people gathered wearing paper crowns. And we want to go 5 for 5 on attempts.
Does this mean that you are also, in the meantime, going for the World Record of most successful World Record attempts in a row?
I think there are people who take this record thing way more seriously then we do and have way more records under their belt, however I do believe we still have 3 of the 4 we set.
You have done such a wonderful job attracting some of the best comedians the world has to offer to the festival.
It’s been a learning curve. When we started in 2011, we were looking for a way to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, trying to create some more visibility for the organization. We wanted to create this dialogue about emotional healthcare and specifically the legacy of Gilda Radner and what she was all about while raising funds. Pitching to agents and artists was interesting because we weren’t in the business of doing festivals. But through the hospitality, energy, level of production, and feedback from artists over the years, we don’t have to explain who we are anymore. They come to us now with pitches. It’s been incredible to be embraced by the comedy community.
It’s a different vibe and feeling in the mid-west. Feels more like it’s about Community.
It’s so true. It’s very collaborative and engaged. It kind of goes back to the World Records, we are very proud and we want to put ourselves on the map. So you put a challenge out there and the people just want to embrace it. And the way west Michigan has embraced this festival; I don’t think it would happen in quite the same way anywhere else.
Let’s talk about this year’s lineup. Stand-ups, Movies, the showcasing of up and coming talent.
People ask us every year, how are you going to top your line up and make it bigger and better? We aren’t trying to outdo ourselves, we just want to keep our lineup fresh and diverse and have a little something for everybody. Some of the bigger known names we have this year are Wanda Sykes, George Lopez, Billy Gardell, Patton Oswalt, Jim Jeffries, Bo Burnham. That’s just about half of the headliners. We are also committed to showcasing up and comers and lesser known talent. We have a clean comedy showcase, a national showcase with late night credits, and best of the Midwest and highlight our comics here. We also do an open call in November for people who have never done comedy before. We have people coming from over 30 different states. The level of recognition really runs the gamut from amateur to household names.
I love hi-fives. And you have a Hi-Five Campaign.
This is another piece of the festival and is a testament to everyone who’s engaged with the festival. We have our Hi-Five campaign that kicks off at the beginning of the year. We ask people to make a $5 donation, you get a hi-five button, and all of those donations go directly into the children’s grief and cancer support programs at Gilda’s Club. And we have a matching partner that doubles it up to $25,000 with the potential for $50,000 raised for the programs. A lot of the shows that we put on for the fest are actually free, so we encourage those people to give us a hi-five, and you don’t have to be local to do it. It’s another way for us to talk about who we are and what we do. Because at the end of the day, Gilda’s Club is a non-profit organization supporting people with cancer and grief and we operate year round.
Are we going to see you up on stage this year for a comedy set?
It’s so funny, people will say that all the time when you are a director for a festival of laughter. But I like to leave that up to the professionals. I can organize it all and we have a great team here that works hard, some of who are very funny too, but we leave it to the professionals. (laughing)
Gilda’s Laughfest 2015 kicks off March 5th and you can get your tickets here. For all other information including the complete schedule of events check out the fest page here. And give a Hi-Five while you’re at it!