Come early March, windowfronts throughout downtown Grand Rapids display yellow signs anticipating the arrival of Gilda’s LaughFest. Businesses swoop up seats by the tableful, sponsoring evenings of employee bonding at Dr. Grins Comedy Club. Sidewalks outside theaters, performance halls and rock clubs swell with throngs sporting smiling yellow “High Five” buttons. Situated nearer to Lake Michigan than Detroit, the ten-day festival steadfastly grapples with lingering winter chill. But for a city already priding itself on local art, craft beer, robust cheese and all things Gerald R. Ford, LaughFest heralds both the impending arrival of spring and an outpouring of community involvement.
“In bigger cities with comedy festivals, you can be there and not even know it’s happening,” says LaughFest director Joanne Roehm. “Here the community feels really intertwined with it; that they are a part of it. There’s this ownership. You can’t really be here during those ten days and not know that it’s happening.”
This year’s sixth edition ran March 10 through 20 with net proceeds benefitting Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, a non-profit honoring original Saturday Night Live cast member and Michigan native Gilda Radner, who died in 1989 of ovarian cancer at age 42. The group annually provides more than 10,000 locals with free emotional-health support in ongoing struggles against cancer and grief.
A Gilda’s Club DBA (Doing Business As entity), LaughFest shares resources and staff (including Roehm). Meaning unlike other modern festivals emerging across the country in record numbers, LaughFest 2016 served as a large-scale charity fundraiser encompassing roughly two hundred fifty events at more than fifty locations for approximately forty thousand to fifty thousand attendees.
Donation initiatives and options abound. The High Five button campaign—signifying the wearer handed event volunteers $5 specifically earmarked for children’s cancer, grief and in-school programs—received a matched donation from the Peter C. and Emajean Cook Foundation. Some ten dozen corporate sponsorship contributions ranged upwards in tiered levels of “Gigglers,” “Chucklers,” “Belly Laughers,” etc. March 12’s An Evening with Seth Meyers Signature Event raised $250 per person at DeVos Place’s five thousand-capacity Steelcase Ballroom.
“People are excited about comedy, but there’s also an association with the cause behind it,” says Roehm. “It’s helped it build and grow because people aren’t coming out just to see awesome shows, but they also want to support a cause that’s close to home and that’s important to them.”
LaughFest’s emotional appeal further extends to the realm of physical betterment. The festival’s LaughterRx program focused on the proven health benefits laughter bestows. In addition to a contest for competitors boasting the “Best Laugh,” disability and women’s-empowerment discussions, a 5K FUNderwear Run (goofy undergarments atop running gear), and daily Laughter Yoga sessions engaged in exploring lighter sides of serious issues. Referring to the festival’s yellow upturned-mouth insignia, LaughFest continued its #YellowUp social-media campaign encouraging the simple sharing of smiles.
Additional programming included a Chris Farley Costume Contest, comedy-trivia night, pet parade, local celebrity lip-syncing, art exhibits, clowning lessons, free lunchtime comedy programming (plus food trucks and Zumba), creative and literary workshops, ‘zine how-tos for teens, a family-activity carnival, kids’ joke-telling at the public library and baby-disco parties.
Says Roehm, “We make sure there was all kind of different programming so all different types of people and even families can come out and be a part of it too.”
Live-comedy shows encompassing an array of audience tastes and performer capabilities reflected the overarching vibe of inclusion. “Every year it’s intentional to have a diversity of styles,” notes Jamison Yoder of LaughFest booking agency Funny Business. “Programming it for the community means clean-comedy options, homegrown talent and community showcases among the variety of genres and styles and types of venues.”
Yoder and Roehm agree the first few years of LaughFest were integral to consumer trust-building, pointing to continuous trial, error and evolution to ensure LaughFest offered comedy options for every taste.
“We first focused on huge names, and as time has gone on it’s been more about simply going to LaughFest rather than going to see someone like a Jim Gaffigan,” offers Roehm. “That’s given us a little more flexibility to bring in things that aren’t as well-known to Joe Schmoe off the street, because people trust in the booking and that they’re going to be well-run shows.” Adds Yoder of ticket-buyers, “They know the talent will be good even if they don’t necessarily recognize the name.”
Sketch, improv and storytelling were highlighted alongside theatrical stand-up including YouTube sensation Miranda Sings, alternative icon David Cross, uninhibited radio host Jim Norton, cabaret breakout Bridget Everett, perennial reinventor Marlon Wayans, celebrity-gossip maven Kathy Griffin, Undateable co-star Ron Funches, Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj and buzzworthy TruTV trio The Grawlix.
Two National Headliner showcases welcomed Ahmed Bharoocha, Jesse Joyce, Annie Lederman, John Roy, Seaton Smith, Caleb Synan, Michelle Wolf and Jenny Zigrino, while the Best of the Midwest Competition awarded a $2,500 cash prize from a field of eight contenders to Chicago Fire player Russ Williamson.
LaughFest’s free Community Showcases across various times and locations represented professional, semi-pro, amateur and college-age comics hailing from more than two dozen states. Uniquely in the festival world, performers were not charged an application fee to submit.
“I am hard-pressed to find another one that does not,” admits regular LaughFest host Stu McCallister. “It is very encouraging of all levels to apply… A seasoned pro can get on a showcase all the way down to someone who may be trying for the first time.”
Citing exposure and increased business for non-traditional venues including Long Road Distillers, Waldron Public House and The Pyramid Scheme, McCallister also praises LaughFest’s pricing flexibility: “Many people may not have the financial means to pay for an event, but there are numerous free events the community can come see. Having hosted several this year, I can say the turnout has been great.”
March 10’s kickoff continued the annual tradition of seeking to break a Guinness World Record. Successes in wearing false moustaches, animal noses and sunglasses in the dark culminated in 2016’s attempt to regain the crown for tossing rubber chickens into the air. LaughFest fell short by a few birds…but fortunately there’s always next year to do it all over again.
Julie Seabaugh grew up on a farm in rural Missouri. She now lives in Los Angeles and covers comedy for Rolling Stone, Variety, GQ, The Village Voice, L.A. Weekly, Vulture, Huffington Post and more. Follow her at JulieSeabaugh.com and @JulieSeabaugh.