Launching a comedy festival is certainly never as easy as it seems. There’s a lot of factors that go into it that people tend not to take into account beyond just booking the guests. There is negotiations from everything accommodations, community relations, promotion, securing the venue, and all else in between.
The remarkable thing about Gilda’s LaughFest is how quickly it has cemented itself as a destination for all comedy aficionado’s, and a leading comedy festival the Midwest desperately needs. Located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Laugh Fest sees its fair share of big name talent. Like this year, you’ll see acts like Jim Gaffigan, Russell Peters, Jeff Foxworthy, and Fortune Feimster. But that’s just the beginning. Much of the festival is about inclusion, and making sure everyone gets involved in the fun and excitement, bringing the laughs far beyond just what is going on onstage. All of this has added up to becoming one of the best comedy festivals around.
We recently spoke with festival director Joanne Roehm and asked her to fill us in on what people can expect from Gilda’s LaughFest 2020 as they celebrate their 10th anniversary.
This is a big year for you and Gilda’s LaughFest. Can you share some thoughts going into ten years? Is there any difference to your approach?
I think there was a balance going into 10 years because we’re sort of a unique festival and we are a festival with a purpose and we’re raising funds to support Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids and our programs here. So while we wanted to make sure that we were doing something different and celebrating year 10, we also knew we needed to be responsible about that in terms of managing our budget and we work very hard to put together a format of a festival that works consistently for us. So it was less about being bigger, bigger, bigger, although there’s certainly some big things happening this year. It was more about kind of adding the sparkle of 10 years and finding those intentional ways to celebrate this big milestone for us.
Absolutely. It seems like you’re pulling out a lot of big draws this year as well.
Yeah. You know Jim Gaffigan opens the festival with a big arena show March 5th. That’s not part of our normal framework. So that’s definitely something that’s considered different. We have some large community events this year. We have our world record attempt we’re bringing back. And also a closing event that we’re bringing back as sort of a throwback to the early years of the festival. But we have spent a lot of time over the past ten years building trust in the community and building sort of more of a comedy audience with a better comedy IQ that it’s not just about those big names that you have come to trust and count on. There are gonna be incredibly well produced shows. There may be some people that you’re not familiar with. Not all are Jim Gaffigan’s or Russell Peter’s. There are comedians you should know. We spend a lot of time and energy educating our audience and the community to those shows that we don’t throw out the window for the 10 year. Yes there will always be those well known names, but there will be lots of other shows that people should see.
And it must be cool when you introduce a comedian who they don’t know when in 5 years, they’re the biggest act in the country.
And we’ve seen that happen. I wish we could take credit for it. In the early years of the festival, we had Amy Schumer here before she was Amy Schumer. She was playing little rooms. And then blew up the year after that. A couple of years ago we had Tiffany Haddish. At the time that we booked Tiffany Haddish, people didn’t know who Tiffany Haddish was. By the time the show rolled around, everybody was starting to go crazy for Tiffany Haddish. So we’ve certainly had that happen in line with the festival in the past years. You get to see these folks in small intimate venues before they really blow up.
And at what point did you feel like the festival started to find its footing? I’m guessing the first few years for a comedy festival aren’t necessarily the easiest.
Yesterday. (Laughs). I mean honestly, it’s taken us the best part of ten years to really find our footing. I would say from the get-go, we came out of the gate hard with our lineup in the first year with Kevin Hart and Margaret Cho and Bill Cosby. It was a very big lineup. And that sort of set the precedent for the industry of “Wow, this is a festival to pay attention to.” But we were still the new kid on the block. We didn’t have any credibility on the street because we were brand new. And some people looked at our lineup and said “Wow that’s incredible.” And some people said “Do they know what they’re doing?” (Laughs). And it was a mix of both things. I would say by year four or five is when we really cemented industry credibility. Because we had that trust with agents and managers and artists at that point because we had a proven track record, not only for the type of acts that we bring in and how we produce the festival, but how artists are treated here. And we’ve built an incredibly long name. If you ask any act who’s ever been to the festival, one of the first things they talk about is the level of hospitality our festival and our city provides them and how unique that is. So probably years for and five is when we started to find more of our industry name. And then from an internal perspective in terms of logistics and systems and really being able to run a well-executed event, I think it’s always looked that way externally, but I’d say just in the last couple of years we’ve really felt like “We know how to do this.”
Exactly. And something you mentioned earlier is community. How important is it to you and the festival to have inclusion of the community and those in it itself involved? It seems like you find a way to have everyone involved as participants in the festival instead of just attending it.
Yeah absolutely. The backstory of what we do here at Gilda’s Club and what we do on a year-round basis is we provide support for people who are living with cancer or living with grief. And the type of programming we provide pro-community driven. We create a space and place here for people to come together and be real, even about the tough stuff that happens in our lives. And when we started Laugh Fest, in honor of our 10th birthday for Gilda’s Club, we really wanted to take a little slice of what we do here and the community that we create here out to the broader community. And the reality is that cancer and grief impact everybody in some way, shape, or form. It does not discriminate in any way and it is something that unites us, just like laughter unites us. And it’s an emotions that we all express, and though we don’t all laugh at the same things, we all laugh. So our programming from the get go had a heavy focus on community. We book in a way that represents our community as much as possible, which makes our lineup incredibly diverse in every sense of the word. But also it allows for family events and pet events. I mean there’s a whole bunch of programming that’s not focused on stand-up comedy but ties into humor and laughter. And we like to challenge people to look at the 150 events that happen over the 10 days. And if you can’t find something that interests you, then we’re not doing our job.
When you started, did you imagine folks would be coming from all around for this? Did you see it as a destination beyond the community?
We didn’t know what we didn’t know, that’s for sure. And I think if we had known how big it would have gotten so quickly, we might have paused. I think we were hopeful that this was something that could not impact our organization but could impact our broader community and our economic region. And we’re talking about March in Michigan. It’s not like people are clamoring to come this direction this time of year. So we were hopeful that it would help contribute to our broader community. But we didn’t know what that would look like. And we certainly wanted to increase the visibility for who we are and what we do, and there’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that that has happened locally, regionally, and even nationally. But I don’t know that we’ve really started with an expectation of people coming from 35 states and Canada. We didn’t know that was going to happen.
What has been your favorite memory from the last 10 years?
This is a tough question because there’s been so many incredible moments on so many levels along the way. I mean if you look at some of the talent that we’ve gotten people to bring in. Like how we talked about earlier. It’s always fun to bring someone in right as they’re about to break and then have everybody really react and respond to that. But a lot of my favorite moments include a lot of the family programming we’ve been able to provide throughout the festival. We are a very small staff team. Our infrastructure is very small. There’s 8 to 10 of us who work on the festival, so we rely on about 500 to 750 volunteers to come out and help with the festival. These are people who take time off work to come and be apart of it. So a lot of the shining moments when I think back come from some of these incredible volunteers that come out of nowhere to help make it happen. So it’s really hard to put my finger on one singular thing that’s happened over the 10 years, but there’s been some incredible experiences we’ve been able to bring to the community.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about LaughFest?
Well I think as we celebrate 10 years, which is incredible, we’re gearing up as an organization for our 20th year of operations of Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids. We can’t stress enough that at the end of the day, is that the funny is the purpose behind what we’re doing that shines above everything else. So for the community, locally, regionally, and nationally to come you and support our festival means not only are you coming out here out of your free time, but you’re supporting a great cause that’s doing great work in West Michigan year round. And that is the reason to come out and be apart of this festival.
More information about the festival, its lineups, performers, dates, and everything else can be found on their website.