The third annual Woodstock Comedy Festival (“Comedy for a Cause”) will feature veteran stand-up comic and actor Robert Klein, while also making an opportunity for non-professionals to try their wings in a comedy contest. The three-day festival, which raises money for Family of Woodstock’s domestic violence program and the fight against human trafficking, will run from Friday, September 18, through Sunday, September 20, with shows at Bearsville Theater, Kleinert-James Arts Center, and Upstate Films.
“People come up to me and say, ‘I’m really funny. Can I get into the festival?’” said Chris Collins, a former Woodstock town councilman who started the WCF two years ago and continues to head the organizing process. “I ask, ‘Where have you done stand-up before?’ They say, ‘When I go home for Thanksgiving, they think I’m a riot.’” Collins wants to give everyone a chance to shine, but admission fees are already low, and he can see no way to make enough money on an open mic to turn a profit for the charities he’s sponsoring. This year’s inspiration was to hold a pair of video comedy contests.
To nurture rising talent, Collins and his staff invited stand-up comedians to send links to videos of their routines. (Deadline was September 1, but interested parties can start working on next year’s submission.) WCF producers will judge the videos. The winner of the “New Faces of Comedy” award will have a chance to perform stand-up on axs.TV’s “Gotham Comedy Live!” filmed at the famous Gotham Comedy Club in New York City. The runner-up will join Robert Dean, Brendan Eyre, Megan Gailey, Jeffrey Joseph, Cynthia Kaplan, Shane Torres, and local favorite Audrey Rapoport in the “Laughingstock” improv and stand-up show at the Kleinert, Friday, September 18 at 8 p.m. A second contest invited work by comedic filmmakers, and the film chosen for the “Funny Eye” award will be screened along with an array of comic shorts at Upstate Films on Sunday, September 20 starting at 1 p.m.
Headliner Robert Klein will perform Saturday, September 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the Bearsville Theater. Klein has been on the Tonight Show and Late Night more than a hundred times, hosted Saturday Night Live, received Grammy and Tony Award nominations, acted opposite such stars as Barbara Streisand and Al Pacino, and put out a special boxed set of his HBO stand-up comedy specials. But he considers his highest role the voice of God for the Hebrew National Hot Dog campaign. Also appearing will be KIein’s longtime accompanist Bob Stein and comic Karen Bergreen, who riffs on modern motherhood.
Other events to look forward to include Saturday, September 19 afternoon’s panel discussions addressing George Carlin’s work, a Joan Rivers tribute, and what it’s like to be a stand-up comedian, held at the Kleinert from noon to 3:30 p.m. Friday (September 18) night’s VIP party at Cucina and Saturday’s (September 19) after-party at Commune Saloon provide chances to schmooze with talent.
The 2013 and 2014 festivals yielded $5000 each year to benefit Family of Woodstock and Polaris Project, an organization that fights human trafficking. “Bring It,” an August showcase of comedians at Littlefield in Brooklyn raised money to put on the festival. Attendees were offered a discount at the door if they brought toiletries or cosmetics for survivors of domestic violence. Family of Woodstock supplied a list of needed items, and Birchbox, a company that offers subscription deliveries of beauty products, gave a substantial donation. The goods were delivered to Family on August 31, for distribution to at their battered women’s shelter.
“I want to do something good for humanity before I die,” said Collins, who grew up in a funny family but was never a comedian, except to warm up the classes he has taught at SUNY Ulster. “Running the festival is as close to stand-up as I can get without actually doing it,” he mused.
With no experience in the field, he finds that jumping into action without a lot of knowledge is “stimulating.” He is in awe of the talent of comics. “To stand up and make hundreds of people laugh continuously — that’s difficult. It takes extraordinary creativity. You have to know what’s going to work, how many laughs you’re going to get.”
Collins has assembled a staff of professionals, including Josh Ruben, a local boy who’s been making good on the New York City comedy scene and has helped to produce all three festivals so far. This year, Ruben is anchored in Los Angeles, producing a TV program, but he still books talent and helps with promotion from afar.
Scheduling comics for the festival is challenging. “We’re always waiting for callbacks,” said Collins. “Many comedians already have commitments for lucrative contracts, and our offer is more of an honorarium, since it’s a benefit. I prefer that people get some kind of pay, but we’re limited. It’s exciting when a booking comes through. Robert Klein is an icon. I heard his name for half my life.”
Collins loves what he does. There’s always anxiety and pressure, but he said, “We laugh a lot, along with our community, and people who need help are benefited.”
The Woodstock Comedy Festival will be held September 18-20 at venues around Woodstock. For a full schedule of events and to buy tickets, visit https://ulsterpub.staging.wpenginecomedyfestival.org.