BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Good comedians kill in front of a packed room. Great ones do the same when hardly anyone's watching.
Ben Roy proved he belongs in the latter category during a recent comedy festival in Bloomington, Ind. Despite fewer than two dozen spectators, he performed like he was taping a Netflix special. For nearly an hour, the Denver-based comic worked up a sweat, ranting at the top of his lungs, climbing on chairs and running in place.
By the end, he looked like he needed a towel — and a hug.
"I don't want to get too emotional," Roy said moments before punctuating his show by bounding into the audience to high-five Bobcat Goldthwait. "But this was one of the greatest nights of my life."
If you simply looked at the numbers, the Limestone Comedy Festival, held earlier this month on the border of the Indiana University campus, was a flop. Organizers say they sold about half of the tickets they have in previous years.
But the participants were seeking solace, not standing room only.
"The comedy festival, as one would imagine, always has a very fun, positive vibe. But this year it felt truly joyous," said co-director Mat Alano-Martin, who managed to be in so many places at once throughout the three-night event that you'd swear he had a twin. "That was true for both the comics, who maybe haven't been able to perform in over a year, and the fans who have been waiting to get out to a big event again. Odd as it may seem, even with the lower attendance, it felt very special. In many ways, this was my favorite year of the festival."
I could certainly relate to the desire to congregate.
Even though Limestone has been going on since 2013, I've never thought of making the trip. Just getting there means flying into Indianapolis and then taking a one-hour shuttle ride. While big names like Patton Oswalt, Tig Notaro and Maria Bamford have appeared in the past, the festival is largely made up of road comics who would struggle to book time on "The Tonight Show."
But after 18 months of quarantine, I needed to hear laughter that wasn't just coming out of my TV set. The other attendees seemed to feel the same way.
If there were complaints about having to wear masks at the shows, I didn't hear them. While seeing more than 25 acts, I didn't have to deal with one heckler or folks seated behind me having an animated conversation about where to go for dinner.
Church was in session.
But don't assume the comics were in a reverent mood. Minneapolis stand-up Ellie Hino made a male audience member squirm as she directed a breakdown of a Pap smear exam to him, comparing the speculum to a tiny car jack. Fellow Minnesotan Moe Yaqub used some of his stage time to confess to his previous night's drunken exploits, which included an awkward pass at a security guard.
Dina Hashem, one of the sharpest writers in the business, defended her fascination with niche porn. Some of the fans at her show in the backroom of a bar didn't quite know how to react to a bit about making Mecca more attractive to visitors.
"I'm a Muslim woman," she joked. "It's racist if you don't laugh."
One subject that was clearly out of vogue was the former president. After more than four years of Donald Trump jokes, comics seemed relieved to move on. Many used the occasion to test out new material about the pandemic.
Sabeen Sadiq reflected on having to move back in with her parents. Emil Wakim compared going to a restaurant these days to sneaking into a gay bar in the 1930s. Natalie McGill wondered how store employees rationalized pushing napkins as a proper substitute for toilet paper. David Rodriguez gave himself a poor grade on home schooling his kids.
During his joint appearance with Dana Gould, Goldthwait appeared ready to mourn the loss of radio hosts who had railed against vaccines and subsequently died from the coronavirus.
"It makes me feel really bad," he said, waiting a beat. "That I didn't get to see them die. If you don't think science is real, you don't get to go to the big science building."
Jackie Kashian, who opened the fest at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater, shared that she used part of the quarantine time learning how to make yogurt.
"I found out quickly that I don't eat a lot of yogurt," she said.
Kashian, who spent her formative years as a stand-up in Minneapolis, delivered one of the more polished acts of the weekend, largely because she kept busy in 2020 by doing Zoom shows.
But many of the comics were back at square one.
Beth Stelling, best known for starring in HBO's "Crashing," spent a lot of her set at the Comedy Attic working out the kinks.
"I usually have a flow," she said after a joke went south. "This is what it's like to do stand-up sometimes."
No one seemed to mind.
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431