The Memphis Comedy Festival brings
four days of funny to the MidSouth
Story by Tonya Thompson
Photos by Lee Otts, Casey Hilder & Adam Joseph
April Fool’s weekend in the MidSouth is going to be funny.
Especially for those attending the Memphis Comedy Festival — a four-day showcase of the comedic arts from March 31 to April 3 — as it runs its meandering, laugh-inducing course across multiple venues in Memphis. With more than 44 international comedians participating, the event has grown even beyond what its founders could have anticipated.
“It’s amazing,” says festival co-founder and CEO Katrina Coleman. “The quality of comics we are able to bring in, the support from local audiences and businesses. Memphis is ready to laugh and they know the festival will deliver.”
With shows at Theatreworks, P&H Café, the Hi-Tone, The Basement, Studio on the Square, Dru’s Place, and the Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center, the Memphis Comedy Festival is facing its biggest year—along with some of the biggest names in the business. Pheobe Robinson, a Chicago comedian who has appeared on Last Comic Standing, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, @Midnight, Broad City and Late Night with Seth Myers is headlining. Also featured are Seattle comedian Derek Sheen and New York comedians Kenny DeForest and Mike Albanese.
Between events, stand-up showcases, specialty shows, workshops, parties, open-mics and the Don’t Be Afraid of the Shorts comedy short film showcase, the festival provides more than 60 hours of comedy shows and events across four days. “In previous years,” says Coleman, “we’ve been called ‘The summer camp for comics’. This year is so big, we want everyone to upgrade us to Space Camp.”
The Rookie - Will Loden
It might be easy to misjudge comic Will Loden from his resume. After all, a degree in History and Economics from Ole Miss isn’t the most humorous approach to life, and he’ll be the first to admit that. But it’s far more difficult to misjudge his roots, especially when he pronounces ‘Mississippi’ as only natives do.
“I say Mississippi properly…M-i-s-s-i-p-p-i,” says Loden, “that’s it, we don’t need all those extra vowels and consonants. My mom’s from Aberdeen, in Monroe County, and my dad’s from Amory in Monroe County. We all slowly scattered across Mississippi, so I got kin in Corinth, Aberdeen, Oxford, Hernando. We’ve got some people in Greenwood… so yeah, they’re all floating around.”
It was through his family experience that 26-year-old Loden found his true passion in rhetoric and storytelling before he had barely learned to speak. “I started doing comedy when I was three,” he says, “just because of my family dynamic. We’re a very loud, happy family. Every time we gathered together, they would just hold court, and whoever could tell the most interesting story got the table. You know…if you got people to laugh, that was awesome. It’s always weird, I try to introduce girlfriends to my family and it typically doesn’t last very long because it’s just conversational Darwinism at its finest.”
Teaching High School football and Lacrosse in Collierville as his day job, Loden describes performing comedic standup as a sort of addiction. “Once I got on stage and I got that first laugh, I was hooked.” Despite being the rookie comic, he’s seen a change in the Memphis comedy scene in the three years he’s been in it. “We have a bunch of young comics who are really good and really different,” he says. “Since we don’t have any structure, you get to hear some really crazy stuff and get a lot of awesome experimentation. It’s DIY.”
That kind of growing, DIY scene allows rookie comics the opportunity to participate without jumping through a lot of hurdles. “If you’re funny,” says Loden, “you can play in Memphis. “We’re all just flying by the seat of our pants, getting it out, and it allows for some really good successes.”
The Veteran - Richard Douglas Jones
Richard Douglas Jones will be the first to say that comedy, quite literally, saved his life following a series of depressing personal events. “So I was sitting in my apartment, depressed as hell, collecting unemployment, and comedy was something I always wanted to try. I found out about some open mics here in the city and went and checked it out and have been doing it ever since.”
It turned out to be a good direction for him. Now, the 37-year-old substitute teacher by day/ comic by night is a recognized comedian in the Memphis comedy scene, in addition to co-hosting a weekly podcast called Black Nerd Power Hour with Markus Seaberry and Malaika Salaam. With discussions of the worlds of Sci Fi and Fantasy from a black point of view, the podcast has over 2,000 subscribers and gets 600 to 800 clicks daily. In addition to playing an integral role in bringing in this year’s headliner, Phoebee Robinson, he also will be hosting several shows at the Memphis Comedy Festival. Added to that are the responsibilities of being technical director, as well as “cattling” (as he calls it) the comics, show organizers and volunteers to make sure everything runs smoothly. “I remind people to eat…’What are you doing? Have you eaten?’” he says, laughing.
Despite watching the Memphis comedy scene grow and change significantly in the past five years, Jones admits that even he was surprised to see how big the 2016 festival was becoming. “Everything kinda’ grew this year,” he says, “everything just kind of took off. I was actually looking at a Facebook post from last year and we were bragging about how we had 120 applicants for comics. This year, we had well over 300 submissions, and a few international ones. Well…just Canada, but still, we’re counting it.”
He credits the unexpected growth to satellite shows, with multiple shows in multiple locations starting at or near the same time. It was risky but would turn out to be a great move for the festival organizers. “I’ll be the first to admit that I was the voice of dissent on that one,” says Jones, “I thought it would be better to keep everything in a centralized location. But Katrina [Coleman] kinda’ talked us all into it. And sure enough, every show we did at every location was packed.”
Watching the Memphis comedy scene grow is exactly what the area’s seasoned comedians want to see. But why comedy in the first place for them? Jones says it’s all about the challenge.
“Because not everybody can do it,” he says. “As a comic, you have your good nights and your bad nights. When it’s good, I mean, really good…it’s better than anything you can think of. You’re very much chasing that audience high. And I feel like sometimes people like what I have to say. It is my belief that it is the comedians’ job to be the mirror to society, in exposing society’s truth and ugliness, all the while making people laugh. That duality is always amazing to me.”