For me, standup comedy is a giant conversation with a bunch of people, trying to figure out what we all have in common,” said Caroline Rhea, who will be the headliner at “Laughingstock,” the Woodstock Comedy Festival’s April 26 fundraiser at the Bearsville Theater.
Rhea (Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Caroline Rhea Show) will be joined by Phoebe Robinson (MTV’s Girl Code), and local comics Verna Gillis and Audrey Rapaport in an all-female show that launches the festival’s second year. Last fall, the three-day event, starring Dick Cavett and Bobcat Goldthwaite, raised $5000 for Family of Woodstock’s domestic violence programs and the Polaris Project, which fights human trafficking.
This year’s festival, scheduled for September 19-21, will continue to donate all net profits to the two charities. Organizer and former Woodstock town board member Chris Collins said fundraisers, such as the April 26 show and another event scheduled for Manhattan in June, are “a big help to put on a major show. It’s an enormous expense to bring in comedians from out of town, but we made a profit the first year. We put it together in about six months, our first time working as a team. This year we have it much more together.” An addition to the team is Woodstock resident Robert Small, creator and producer of MTV’s “Unplugged,” for which he received three Emmy nominations.
The idea of an all-woman comedy show grew out of last year’s performance by comedienne Sasheer Zamata, who has since gone on to join the cast of Saturday Night Live. “That was a huge inspiration,” said Collins.
Rhea (pronounced “Ray”) is both a standup comic and a TV personality. Originally from Montreal, she studied standup at, of all places, the New School for Social Research, where Jon Stewart was in her class. She cut her teeth in New York comedy clubs, playing 500 shows a year.
“I remember one year eating Christmas dinner and thinking, I’ve got three shows after this,” she mused. “But there was no day I didn’t want to work. New York is a great place to go if you want to pursue something because you have to try your hardest.”
Her life was tough for a while. “The only place I had any comfort was in the bathroom at the Plaza Hotel,” she recalled. “The bathrooms even had pay phones. I’d do auditions and then go hang out at the Plaza.”
Then Hollywood called, and Rhea moved to Los Angeles to pursue film and TV gigs. She hosted “The Biggest Loser” for a year, has appeared on many shows including Comedy Central’s “Pulp Comics,” and did several movies, co-starring with Jim Carrey in Man on the Moon. Six years ago she moved back to New York to raise her daughter.
Rhea said her Woodstock performance will feature “something for everyone. I have hours of material, but what I do depends on who’s in the crowd. I like to improvise 50 percent of my show.”
“Being a female comedian is like being a woman in any work environment where you’re outnumbered by the men,” she remarked. “Being a black woman, I’m outnumbered race-wise too. There are some racially insensitive people, but I make sure to surround myself with people who have their minds right about how to behave respectfully. I escape a lot of the foolishness that happens.”Also appearing will be Phoebe Robinson, a member of the new generation of comedians who are taking advantage of the Internet to showcase their talents. While working for the College Humor video website, she met Josh Ruben, son of former Onteora High School principal Barbara Ruben and a talent recruiter for the festival. Robinson has blogged for Huffington Post, Blaria.com, and Glamour, and she has performed on the Smoking Jacket and Rooftop Comedy websites. More recently, she made her TV debut on TV Guide’s “100 Shows to See Before You Die,” and she was named by pop culture website Flavorwire as one of the “25 Female Comedians Everyone Should Know.”
Robinson is psyched about performing at the festival. “So much about standup is self-absorbed,” she said. “You’re commanding attention to yourself, and this is about raising awareness for domestic violence and human trafficking. That’s what I’m most excited about. It will raise the energy, and I’ll put on an even better show than usual.”
Rounding out the set list are two local comediennes who slayed a Colony Cafe audience at last year’s festival. Audrey Rapaport is an actress and comedienne who has appeared in a number of films, such as The Accidental Tourist, TV shows including “Cheers,” and plenty of theater, but she still comes home to entertain Woodstock audiences. A memorable show a few years back was a benefit with James Judd for Performing Arts of Woodstock.
Verna Gillis is a freelance producer with a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. She performs what she calls “sit-down comedy,” a one-woman show entitled “Tales from Geriassic Park.” She has written a book, I Just Want to Be Invited — I Promise Not to Come! (Life as One-Liners).
The Woodstock Comedy Festival: Comedy for a Cause presents Laughingstock with Caroline Rhea at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock on April 26. Reserved seats can be purchased for $25 at www.bearsvilletheater.com. Doors will open at 7:30 p.m. for a 9 p.m. show. A pre-show meet-and-greet, 7:30-8:30 p.m. is also available for $20.