Last year, the Orlando Indie Comedy Festival brought out more than 800 people to venues across the city for a four-day celebration of stand-up that packed houses. While it was a shining moment for a local comedy scene that has gone from budding to blooming, perhaps the most important thing about the festival was the experience that out-of-town comics had.
"To be completely honest, I had no impression of Orlando's comedy scene prior to last year's festival," says Trae Crowder, a comic from Knoxville, Tennessee, who performed at last year's festival. But after spending a weekend hanging around Orlando's funniest comics, Crowder was "impressed with the passion and drive of the core group of comics down there. It's obvious they care a lot about the scene and are actually putting in the effort to build it."
Central Florida native Liz Magee, now a performer out of New York City, wasn't familiar with the Orlando comedy scene before finding out about the festival. "Last summer when I was planning a trip back home, I Googled 'Orlando comedy' to see if there were any open mics or shows I could do while home. The website for the Orlando Indie Comedy Festival came up. Submissions were still open. It was all very serendipitous," she says. She came away from the festival with a newfound respect for her old stomping grounds. "After participating last year I have concluded that a comedy scene in Orlando does indeed exist, and it is fabulous. Every comic I met was kind and welcoming. Every show included local talent and they all killed it."
Though Kyle Kinane's headlining set at Will's Pub was the biggest moment for many attendees, comic after comic said that the real highlight for them was the sense of camaraderie that the festival engendered between performers. "It's not easy to get a large group of comics to get along," says comedian Dave Losso of Chicago. "I attribute it to the guys creating an environment where we weren't competing. We were down there because they believed in our ability to entertain the people of Orlando, and that's what comedy should always be."
For this year's festival, taking place Thursday-Sunday, Oct. 1-4, organizers Dave Plotkin, Matt Gersting, Alex Luchun, Doug McPherson, Tom Feeney and Nick Pupo were faced with the challenge of replicating that success without repeating the exact same festival. Though there was talk of the festival trying to secure a larger venue, the organizers ultimately decided against it. "It was kind of a shock how consistently [last year's comics] were killing these packed rooms. This year everyone wanted to create more of those warm, small-house shows rather than getting too ambitious too soon," says Plotkin.
The festival secured two headliners this year: Sean Patton and Eddie Pepitone. Though they don't have the name recognition of Kinane, both are highly respected among die-hard comedy fans. Pepitone's career stretches back decades, and his credits include Late Night With Conan O'Brien, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Chappelle's Show, Bob's Burgers and his own podcast, "Pep Talks."
Pepitone's stand-up material is often topical, dealing with both social and personal injustice, whether real or perceived. "I've always had a political bent," he says. "My dad was a union leader when I was young, and I started reading political writers." That upbringing often comes out on stage as Pepitone skewers the materialist culture that he sees around him. "It seems like the country is divided into winners and losers. One of the pervading threads of consciousness is 'Who are the winners?' People want to identify as winners and the homeless, the unemployed, [people in] mass incarceration, those people are considered 'losers' by people who have means and money."
Sean Patton, whose credits include @midnight, Inside Amy Schumer and Maron, has worked with the organizers of the Orlando Indie Comedy Festival before: He stopped into Will's Pub last year for a "secret" show that drew a sizable crowd. Patton got his start in New Orleans, another city that has developed a strong comedy presence over the last few years. "All of these smaller scenes popping up are a beautiful thing," says Patton. "I think NYC and LA will always hold a somewhat dominant position as destinations for comedians, but I don't think you necessarily need to move to one or the other nowadays. If you have the Internet – and a scene that supports true stand-up, weeds out the hacks and thrives – then you can level up." Patton sees similarities between the Orlando comedy scene and other successful cities. "The Orlando scene seems to be very DIY, run by comedians for comedians, which is why it is thriving."
Laughter is the best medicine
The festival is a benefit for the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an organization dedicated to the eradication of the stigma associated with mental illnesses and to the improvement of the quality of life for all whose lives are affected by these diseases. The association between the comedy festival and NAMI is particularly poignant after the high-profile suicide of beloved comedian and actor Robin Williams in August 2014.
When asked whether or not the perceived link between comedic entertainers and mental illness is valid, Pepitone responds, "I think a lot of it is true. One of the big driving forces why anyone wants to be a comedian is this desperate need for approval that the comedian didn't get at a young age, and that is a form of mental illness. ... In the course of my life I have found comedy to be therapeutic, because I work stuff out on stage."
Patton agrees: "Comedy is an art, and most artists struggle with some sort of ailment. It's part of the balance. The reason we can make things funny is because we have to laugh at ourselves in order to cope. Truthfully, I wish people would care more about mental illness in every other field. Specifically whatever field someone who just bought an AR-15 is firing off practice rounds in."
After the success of last year's Underwear Comedy and Late Late Breakfast showcases, this year's festival features more themed shows. New Orleans' Massive Fraud (Joe Cardosi and Andrew Polk) presents Karate Fight, which combines filmed sketch comedy and live stand-up. Arguments & Grievances, from Chicago, is billed as a combination comedy show and debate, with topics like "Hugs vs. Drugs," "Dr. Dre vs. Dr. Seuss" and "The McRib vs. Macbeth." The Late Late Breakfast – a show where comedians have to complete challenges like performing jokes while being sprayed with water bottles or telling jokes over the phone to a random audience member's most recent contact – returns, as does Atlanta comedian Joe Pettis' Underwear Comedy Showcase, where comedians perform in their skivvies. For a complete schedule of the festival and to buy tickets, visit orlandoindiecomedy.com.