There are two sides to the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival, which takes over numerous Chapel Hill and Carrboro venues Monday and through Feb. 14.
There’s the obvious side: Comedians get on stage and make audiences laugh. On this side, there’s significant variety. This year alone features an on-the-spot fake church, improv that takes place completely in the dark and impromptu comic opera. On this side, too, there are respectable headliners, such as Kevin McDonald of “The Kids in the Hall” and Emo Philips, whose career and credits date back three decades.
Then there’s the less obvious side: Comedians treat it like a professional conference. They socialize and go to parties, and they network. They sign up for workshops and fine-tune their skills. Some of them even take their vacation in February and spend it in North Carolina, says Comedy Arts Festival executive producer and founder Zach Ward. They perform a 30-minute set or two, and then spend a week or so among their kind.
Ward’s had an active role in every Comedy Arts Fest since its 2001 inception, and he’s seen these sides build each other. More people started showing up, so the festival offered more workshops, which led to more performances, and so on. From the start, the mission was education. Looking back, Ward feels, that has translated to both audiences and comedians.
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“Comedy audiences now in the Triangle have come to say that going to a comedy theater like DSI is kind of like going to the Cat’s Cradle,” he says, noting they now know comedy, like music, comes in a variety of flavors. “They’ve broadened their horizons as to what comedy can be.”
This wasn’t always so, Ward says. He started doing improv comedy in 1993, when the scene around Chapel Hill felt limited – particularly compared to today. There were two options: stand-up comedy in clubs or “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” -style improv. Sketch comedy was limited to television and shows like “Saturday Night Live.”
“Our goal has been getting people to appreciate the range of what could be considered comedy,” he says. This year the fest offers character-based sketch comedy and several one-woman shows that Ward is excited about, particularly North Carolina native Sarah Barnhardt’s “This is the Worst.”
The day before the festival, Ward is opening DSI Theater to UNC Cypher, a freestyle hip-hop group trying to break the Guinness World Record by freestyling for 13 hours. It may not be comedy, but it’s certainly improv.