The History of The Cape Fear Comedy Festival: A Festival By Comedians, For Comedians

Where It All Began

I hadn’t been long into doing stand-up.  In fact, in 2009 when the idea first started being discussed, it was just three years since the first had attempted to be funny on stage other than riffing in between bands at a music festival.  In February of 2006, I threw a party in a loft near Downtown Columbus, Ohio, where I then lived, and did my first stand-up set ever.  It was 15 minutes and of course pretty awful. I didn’t get on stage at all again until one year later at the same annual party.  Then I moved from Columbus, Ohio to Carolina Beach in March of 2006.  I made the move for a new position with my company, which was part-time, allowing me to poke around and see if there was somewhere to start doing comedy in the area.  That is when I found the regular Tuesday night open-mic under the Soapbox run by Timmy Sherrill.

L-R Marc Rice, Forget this kids name (only did it once or twice) Me (Matt Ward in the back) Front Chris Brockmeyer, Timmy Sherrill and Zach Boylston
L-R Marc Rice, Forget this kids name (only did it once or twice) Me (Matt Ward in the back) Front Chris Brockmeyer, Timmy Sherrill and Zach Boylston SUMMER 2007

I began getting on stage every week.  Working up the best 7-15 minutes I could come up with.  The comic turnout in the summer of 2007 wasn’t the best.  Sometimes it would be five or six of us performing for one or two other people.  By the end of the summer, it was 10-12 of us performing for 80 people every Tuesday.  Having worked with managing bands and promoting events I picked some of the stronger comics and began putting on shows called Comedy by the Beach.  We started a monthly paid show in both Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina then slowly expanded from there.  Over the next year Comedy by the Beach would take us as far south as Tybee Island, Georgia where we played the now defunct Terrapin Station and all the way North to Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks where we played Mango Loco (now Gaffer’s Sports Pub).  It doesn’t sound like much, but at the time we had more rooms in that 500 mile stretch then the Comedy Zone.

At the time comedy was not strong in Wilmington, the city closest to me on the Southeast coast of North Carolina.  It was the hub city and the open-mic where I had begun, Nutt Street Comedy, had come and gone.  The space it had occupied now being leased out for some other project.  My performances became more infrequent and the idea went by the wayside.

Nutt Street Comedy Room is Born

Months went by and the business in the basement of the Soapbox Laundro-Lounge shut down leaving the space open again.  Timmy

L-R Timmy Sherrill, Jarrod Harris, Me (Matt Ward), Mello Mike, Kyle Davis
L-R Timmy Sherrill, Jarrod Harris, Me (Matt Ward), Mello Mike, Kyle Davis

then made a deal with Soapbox owner Brent Watkins to start a regular comedy club in the space.  On Thursday June 18th, 2009 the Nutt Street Comedy Room was born soft opening with its first open-mic in nearly a year.  The next night was the first show featuring Kyle Davis, Mello Mike and headlined by Jarrod Harris.  Nutt Street Comedy Room was born, organically.

Cape Fear Comedy Festival is Founded

Later that year I mentioned an idea to Timmy that I had been bouncing around for the better part of a year.  “We should do a comedy festival.” I told him.  We agreed to start the planning stages for it after the New Year.  I then moved to Knoxville, Tennessee.  After the first of the year we started discussing the idea more and we settled on our dates. Memorial Day weekend, 2010.

The initial idea for the Cape Fear Comedy Festival came to me after the success of Port City’s Top Comic, a comedy contest I started in 2008 that had grown so quickly we were nearly filling City Stage, a 230 seat theatre in Downtown Wilmington. So of course, City-Stage and the contest made perfect sense to include as part of our first festival.

Cape Fear Comedy Festival I (May 26th-29th, 2010) We began taking submissions in March and ended after just 30 days primarily using word of mouth and facebook to get the word out. We ended up with about 60 total submissions. In the end we picked 26 of them to perform. The festival ran Wednesday May 26th through Saturday May 29th. All in all we had 11 shows featuring stand-up comics, improv and sketch troupes all closing with headliner Maria Bamford performing at City Stage on Saturday night.  We felt pretty good about things, but learned a ton. Primarily, that Memorial Day Weekend was a bad time to try to book hotels in Wilmington, North Carolina. That’s exactly when people begin to vacation at the beach.

Cape Fear Comedy Festival II (May 18th-21st, 2011)  We began taking submissions for the second Cape Fear Comedy Festival slightly earlier on Feb 7th, 2011. We kept it open about the same amount of time and got more submissions than the previous year but still nothing that was making anyone rich.  We finally had a good selection of comics from all over the country to pick from and it was exciting to see the interest in our festival become national. Submissions ran from Feb 7th until April 20th.  We only took 21 stand-ups in 2011 as the demand was not as great as we had hoped. Looking back having such a short time between announcing our line-up and  the festival happening gave those performing less than a month to arrange travel and accommodations.  This was a mistake we wouldn’t repeat again. We had 12 shows during this festival including a fair amount of improv and sketch comedy.  Kyle Grooms and Marc Price headlined the event with Kyle closing out the festival on Saturday night.

Cape Fear Comedy Festival III (May 2nd-5th, 2012) The major change we made with this festival was steer our focus into being a stand-up comedy festival, not as much one for improv or sketch comedy.  After two quasi-successful years of doing our festival, the buzz was starting to get out and we started getting submissions as soon as we began accepting them.  We also had perfected the submission process a little more accepting submissions from January 1st until the middle of February, making our decisions a full few months before the festival so that folks had time to plan travel. This was the first year we had any industry folks come in with Eric Yoder from Funny Business agency coming for the whole festival. He was great because being a younger guy he fit right in with the comics and talked to them like peers, which many agents don’t seem to have mastered. This was also the first year we created a facebook group so the comics could network, ride share, bunk up together to make things a little more friendly and cost effective.  We invited 40 stand-ups to perform this year closing out the festival with our headliner Tig Notaro.  The major improvement this year was a set schedule and slight increase in the amount of stage time. The festival ended on a Super Moon.

Cape Fear Comedy Festival IV (May 1st-4th, 2013) This was the best festival yet.  We were overwhelmed but the quantity of submissions we received but very much prepared for it. The total amount we accepted moved up to 60 as a result and we worked hard to take the number one request from the comics of the previous year by creating much more stage time.  The shows were great and comics became friends instantly.  Welcome additions on this year were the shuttle bus to take comics to and from their hotels driven by myself and Timmy Sherrill.  We had one venue that was about 8 blocks from the other and our takeaway from this year was that all venues should be walking distance from each other. This festival was closed out with multiple shows by headliner Sean Patton.

What is in store for 2014?  A lot has been learned over the last 4 years running this comedy festival and working it throughout. We learned that comics are hungry for stage time.  We also learned that centralization is not only key to planning, but for crowd circulation and creating more opportunities for comics to see each others sets.  Most importantly, we learned that comics are making lifetime friendships at The Cape Fear Comedy Festival.  Our festival is an experience that for some changes their lives forever.  The little things matter.  Comics are under appreciated and people have stood up and taken notice at our level of dedication to making them feel otherwise.  In 2014 we will have City Stage back for the first time since 2011.  This will give us a big stage for each comic to get the chance to perform on hopefully replacing the now defunct Nutt Street Comedy Room.  We will also have The Beam Room back, this time with proper lighting.  We will be using Reel Cafe’s upstairs room where Nutt House Improv does their thing now every Wed and the Thursday night open mic that started 4 1/2 years ago has relocated to.  We likely will be adding a few more stages as well.  Big things are planned and submissions are now open for the 2014 festival.

Submit to Perform a the 2014 Cape Fear Comedy Festival>>

 

Written by:

Matt Ward is a comedian, comedy show producer and promoter, web designer, graphic designer, musician, father and occasional fisherman.

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