For the last 18 years, Boston Comedy Festival has facilitated both the bombast that comes along with a nationally headlining comedian and a platform where hundreds of local comics are given the chance to strut their stuff for the masses. For nearly 20 years, its allure is tied within both the new and established, and it makes for one hell of a comedy showcase here in Boston.
Except this year, that showcase shifted to several venues across Somerville, and fest was among its finest efforts in its nearly 20 year history. Comedian and gentle giant Jim McCue, along with his sister Helen, have worked tirelessly each year to curate the best festival possible for comedy fans coming to the city with their well-seasoned standard of what passes for a great line-up that everyone can enjoy. The 2017 installment of the festival, condensed into five days instead of the usual nine, should not be looked at as an exception to that standard.
It’s humanly impossible to cover every single show on the fest's impressive (and intimidating) calendar, with more than 100 comedians showing off their skills across Somerville. But we made the rounds accordingly, and below is a loose recap of the gems that shined the brightest at this year’s Boston Comedy Festival.
The Stand-Up Contest
Spread across numerous venues across Somerville and Cambridge (The Rockwell, Thalia Theatre, the backroom of the ever-cozy Burren in Davis Square), the annual BCF stand-up contest brought the crowd through the gauntlet of both homegrown and national comedy acts. Spanning from uproarious laughter to a rare pin-drop silence, local faces, including-but-not-limited-to Sean Sullivan, Andrew Mayer, Zachary Brazao, Jeff Pfoser, and Nick Ortolani, kept the laughs and applause rolling through the preliminary rounds on Thursday night, with North Carolinian Justin “J Bliss” Chambliss, Bronx native AJ Foster, and Texas' Usama Siddiquee proving that Boston is an inclusive comedy city by earning a spot in the next round. Hosts Kendra Cunningham and Will Smalley effectively warmed up the crowd for those shows, with help from 2006 BCF Stand-Up Contest champion Dan Boulger.
From those early rounds, many of those names made it to the finals on Saturday night -- including Chambliss, Sullivan, Mayer, Brazao and Siddiquee among others -- with Andrew Mayer and Drew Dunn claiming co-victory of $10,000 and bragging rights as the 2017 Boston Comedy Festival The Stand-Up Contest champions.
James Scott Patterson's taping of Superior Design at The Rockwell
James Scott Patterson, who began his stand-up career in Boston, returned to Somerville to shoot his first special. The room took a bit of time to fill up, but once the seats were filled, and the lights were dimmed, the evening took off slowly, but unlike most of the trains on the red line, once this train began a’ rollin’, it didn’t stop.
Tim McIntire and Larry Murphy primed the crowd, with McIntire riffing on family life, and how absurdly liberal he is (Something along the lines of “My son is frustrated, because he’s 13, and he can’t rebel because his parents are way too open-minded”), and Murphy, of Bob’s Burgers fame, playing the role of an overly-nervous stand-up. Profusely sweating and stuttering and only uttering one or two words every few seconds, Murphy played an uncomfortable performer almost too well, almost like he had been pushed out onto the stage against his own wishes, as he stammered through reading jokes from his notebook verbatim, applause cues and all. Finishing with a brilliant Christopher Walken impression, Murphy relinquished his time to Patterson, and the room was ready for the main event.
Patterson took the stage with the demeanor of a stereotypical pediatrician. Relaxed composure, a low and soothing voice, and the calculated steps of a man on a mission -- sort of like if David Allan Boucher decided to take up comedy.
With a glass of Maker’s Mark in hand (And then another... and another...), Patterson riffed on his personal life for the most part, in addition to reading a letter he sent to Bill Gates asking him to pay his rent. As the night went on, and the cameras continued to roll, Patterson controlled the underground stage with a measured certainty that he had the crowd in the palm of his hands the entire time, pausing every now and again to hold off on a punchline as the crowd, inched closer to the edge of their seats, waiting to erupt at another tongue-in-cheek joke or an admission of a life that hadn’t gone as planned (“I thought ninja throwing stars were gonna be a much bigger part of my life as an adult...”).
Given the energy in the crowd, and in Patterson’s material, mixed with his calm, cool, and collected delivery that only had to stop and re-up a small part of a bit for editing purposes, the final product of his “Superior Design” must not be overlooked, as it is sure to be a very honest and heartfelt laugh machine.
Matt Braunger at The Center for the Arts at the Armory
With local comedy heroes Tony V and Boston Comedy Festival creator McCue warming the crowd for the main event, this was a venture deep into the mind of the townie comedian. The crowd reacted positively to the local references, with outbursts of laughter to signify their relation to the material.
Matt Braunger wasted no time -- after describing the room at the Armory as a “joyful AA meeting Christmas Party” -- unleashing his long-form storytelling style of comedy, with outrageous tales of ordering pizza while high on ‘shrooms, and being noticed by people in the Caribbean, as well as thoughts on the state of the country and how generation X is the worst name for a generation, ever. The Portland, Oregon native’s artistic use of the “fuck” word just added to the boisterous laughter that radiated throughout the set, and as he gears up for a new one-hour special, Braunger delivered the material that showcased the absurdity in his life with such precision and finesse, that it was as if he was reading it from a book. That book must be called How to Slay at Comedy, by Matt Braunger.
Tony Hinchcliffe's Kill Tony at The Center for the Arts at the Armory
Joined by the legendary Eddie Brill and Matt Braunger, LA Comedy Store-staple Tony Hinchcliffe brought his hit live podcast Kill Tony to the Armory, during which he gave random sign-ups -- whose names he pulled from what he ordained “the Bucket of Boston” -- 60 seconds to deliver their best stand-up material on-stage, which would then be followed by both workshop-like critiquing and no-holds-barred roasting.
The crowd filled in with excitement, as Hinchcliffe commanded the stage with a rockstar-like attitude, offering up his best zingers, as well as his best advice to aspiring comics (and a few people who did it as a dare), all the while garnering massive applause from his cult following as he pushed the envelope further and further as the night went on. Hinchcliffe, with the help of Brill and Braunger, as well as his right-hand man Brian Redban, displayed their ability to be merciless one minute, and gracious the next, showing just how dialed in they all are to what ingredients make up a good comic.
While they did have to adhere to a strict hard curfew of 10:30, Hinchcliffe stayed after the show to meet with all of his feverish fans, taking pictures with as many people as possible, and showing that being a comedian with a diehard following doesn’t have to go to your head.
Todd Barry at the The Somerville Theatre
Todd Barry sealed the Boston Comedy Festival with a 10 p.m. set Saturday night that showcased his best attributes, from his bone-dry deadpan approach to his crowd work skills, and further explained why he is one of the most well-respected names in comedy over the last 20 years.
Celebrated homegrown product Ken Reid opened and hosted the show, with the flair of a vintage game show host, complete with bright red sport coat. The TV Guidance Counselor host discussed his time living in Somerville, as well as the oddity of pornographic VHS tapes, and having a phone number nearly identical to that of the local dominos that made for both interesting and aggravating Saturday nights.
With appearances by Kathe Farris and Casey Crawford, the crowd was primed and ready to go for Todd Barry.
Most of the Bronx native’s material touched upon the lack of common sense he has observed in people, including the odd decision to buy an egg salad sandwich at a restaurant and how seeing crowd members texting during his shows is distracting and aggravating for him (“It’s always an emergency, but not big enough of an emergency to leave a comedy show, I guess...”)
Barry showed just why he’s such a “massively famous comedian,” as he puts it in his new book. He was precise with his scripted material, but showed his expertise in crowd work and improvised riffing -- and while he delivered his set with the tone of a NPR Radio Talk Show host, the laughter roared consistently, ending the Boston Comedy Festival on an exciting note.
The Finale at The Somerville Theatre
All the hard work put into the weekend, by staffers and performers alike, boiled up to the climax of the Boston Comedy Festival finale, congregating at the Somerville Theatre on Saturday night, for both entertainment and acknowledgement.
The final nine contestants of the stand-up competition, chosen throughout the previous three days, laid their best material on the stage for the grand prize, and if the contest was judged by applause alone, the decision would have been much harder to come by. McCue, acting as emcee for the evening’s proceedings, encouraged the crowd to clap and laugh regardless, the energy in the laughter made it apparent that people genuinely wanted to laugh at the material presented.
Even with the contest ending in a tie, fans, friends and family of the contestants cheered wildly as their names were announced, embodying the raw excitement that comedy brings to the city of, and surrounding areas of Boston.
Awarded “Comedian of the Year,” Medford native Robert Kelly did a few minutes of hometown riffing before being officially awarded by Jack Connelly, and praised Boston for not only bringing him up as one of comedy’s most noticeable faces, but also for what the city has done for other comics, as well.
“The reason that we’re funny is because of these streets, and because we’re miserable people, and because the Red Sox never won [when I was coming up],” quipped Kelly, in a lighthearted approach to a serious sentiment about the love he has for his city.
Speaking of Boston’s contribution to comedy, our town's scene wouldn’t be what it is without the work and dedication of Barry Crimmins. Hailing from the small town of Skaneateles, New York, Crimmins hitchhiked to Boston on Memorial Day weekend in 1979, leading to him founding a comedy club at the Ding-Ho Restaurant, and the rest is history.
“Stand up for people in worse shape than you are. At the end of the day, when you go home, you won’t have to look for a leader because you’ll be that leader,” said Crimmins, before he accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award, also presented to him by Connelly, on behalf of the BCF.
It was a well-worded summary of what makes Crimmins such a legend in not just the comedy scene, but in the American political and social landscape, as well. The subject of Call Me Lucky, the critically-acclaimed documentary by Bobcat Goldthwait (A close, personal friend of Crimmins) encouraged the crowd to react to hate with love, and violence with peace, while also throwing a few barbs at Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, which everyone everyone howled at with laughter.
It was a heartfelt, emotional moment seeing Kelly and Crimmins be acknowledged for their comedy wizardry, as it should be. Their contribution and commitment to comedy, in Boston and abroad, is really second to none, and it’s about time they were acknowledge for such dedication. And acknowledgement at the 2017 Boston Comedy Fest was the perfect place to do it.
Below is a look at some of the scenes around Boston Comedy Fest. All photos by Jason Greenough for Vanyaland; follow him on Twitter @DadBodVanilla.