Arts & Culture

Comedy festival brings dozens of comics to the Triangle

DSI owner Zach Ward, center, is director of the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival.
DSI owner Zach Ward, center, is director of the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival. KEVIN PATRICK ROBBINS

Want to see something funny?

Then get out for the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival, running through Feb. 15 at venues in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Durham.

Now in its 15th year, the NCCAF features marquee headliners such as comedy veterans Maria Bamford and Emo Phillips, as well as several mixed-format evenings of stand-up, sketch and improv. This year’s festivities will include more than 100 local and out-of-town comedy performers.

The festival is organized each year by the DSI Comedy Theater, which relocated last year from Carrboro’s Carr Mill Mall to a much bigger space on West Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. Other venues in this year’s festival include Local 506 in Chapel Hill, the ArtsCenter and Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro and the Carolina Theatre in Durham.

But ground zero for this year’s festival will be the new DSI digs at 462 W. Franklin St., a prime piece of real estate in the town’s booming west side. Since moving to the new location last May, DSI has expanded its performance schedule to five nights a week and boosted its lineup of comedy classes in the building’s new basement classrooms.

The club has also seen a significant bump in attendance, thanks to foot traffic from Franklin Street and proximity to the UNC campus. Crowds at the nightly shows have doubled on average, said DSI owner and NCAAF director Zach Ward.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Ward gave a tour of the new facilities while preparing for festival events. In terms of simple elbow room, Ward’s club has made a significant leap – from 1,400 square feet in the old location to more than 7,000 in the new space, including the basement classrooms and upstairs administration offices.

“There are times on weekday nights when there are classes in both classrooms, two or three shows upstairs, and the green room is active,” Ward said. “Students are able to finish their classes, go upstairs, grab a beer and catch the end of a show.”

Ward said the improved facilities have turned DSI into a kind of informal clubhouse for the local comedy scene and will make handling logistics for this year’s festival much easier. “This has become more of a community hub for all the students, performers and fans that are part of the family,” he said.

A growing festival

Meanwhile, the NCCAF has grown into one of the largest annual regional comedy festivals in the U.S. – drawing talent from East Coast and Midwest comedy hubs such as New York and Chicago, and even as far as California and Canada. In addition to staging performances at the various venues, the festival also offers workshops and clinics for attendees.

Master classes this year will be offered by Charna Halpern, founder of the famous iO Theater in Chicago (formerly ImprovOlympic), and comedian Kevin Allison, who also will host his popular live podcast “RISK!” at 8:30 Friday night on the DSI stage.

This year marks the eighth annual running of the “Carolina’s Funniest Comic” competition, which pits stand-up comedians from North Carolina and South Carolina against one another in a series of tournament-style events – with winners determined by audience ballot. Interstate bragging rights will be decided at the final showdown at 8:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at the DSI theater.

This year’s finalists from North Carolina – Chad Cosby of Carrboro and Leo Hodson of Greensboro – will go up against two comics from the Alchemy Comedy Theater in Greenville, S.C.

Cosby, who moved to Carrboro from Vermont last summer, said he’s been very impressed with the energy and friendliness of the local comedy community.

“I can say that in my limited time here, there seems to really be a thriving comedy scene in the Triangle,” Cosby said. “The first time I went to an open mic at DSI, I met a bunch of great comics from all around the area. People were sending me info on other open mics and offering to carpool to shows in other cities.”

Ward said he thinks this sort of community spirit has made the NCCAF an increasingly popular destination for both comedy fans and performers. “People really seem to respond to the energy here,” he said. “Plus, now we have a real green room.”