Convincing Minnesotans to spend some of their precious summer nights indoors is no laughing matter. But the organizers of the Minneapolis Comedy Festival believe they have an irresistible lure: an unprecedented week of celebrated stand-up comics who will make the downtown theater district as star-studded as the Vegas Strip.
Opening Monday, the first in what's envisioned as an annual event offers something for everyone. (See our top five picks here.)
For those who remember landlines, there's Bob Newhart's timeless phone calls to historical figures. "Girl With No Job" host Claudia Oshry, who boasts 3 million Instagram followers, will open a new national tour here. Broadway babies get John Leguizamo's Tony-winning "Latin History for Morons." People eager to catch the Next Big Thing can see John Crist, who specializes in Christian-based humor. TV fans can spend a not-so-late night with Seth Meyers.
"One of our thoughts was that Minneapolis was a market that really needed something like this — and who doesn't want to go to Minneapolis in June?" said Mike Smardak, owner of Outback Presents. The company hopes to duplicate the success of its Nashville Comedy Festival, which sold more than 45,000 tickets in its recently wrapped second year, featuring the likes of Jay Leno, Ali Wong and Janeane Garofalo.
Outback is jumping on a hot trend. There are now nearly 250 comedy festivals held annually around the world, with more than two dozen new ones cropping up each year, including last February's Duluth Comedy Festival, with Tig Notaro.
The big-tent approach feeds a growing appetite for stand-up, triggered by a seemingly endless selection of comedy specials on Netflix and podcasts.
"Everyone is consuming so much content, and we see how rabid the fans are," said Outback promoter Andrew Farwell. "Packing it together in a festival format is a no-brainer."
Newhart, who was also part of the Nashville lineup, said the fests have the potential to re-create the vibe from his early days in Las Vegas, when stand-up comics got together after their sets to bond over cocktails and Vic Damone.
"If I'm on the road, these days it's just me and my manager," Newhart said. "After I'm done, I've still got that adrenaline rush, but I just wind up back at the hotel and watch TV until 1 in the morning."
Contrast with rival festival
The Minneapolis Comedy Festival isn't designed to conjure that communal spirit, at least not yet.
Although most of the five venues are within walking distance, there are no events designed to bring talent together, either formally or informally, and no multiday passes will be available for spectators.
The 10,000 Laughs Festival, which started in Minneapolis in 2010 and relies heavily on bars and restaurants in the West Bank area, takes a more traditional approach. Half the fun for fans is sidling up to the bar between sets and watching comics get to know one another.
"Festivals are like comedy summer camps," said Minneapolis-raised comedian Chloe Radcliffe, who will serve as artist liaison in October. "You go for four days, hang out all day, party all night and make a bunch of friends. The goal is to get to know as many people as possible and, hopefully, some of those relationships pay off one day."
Radcliffe said her event is shooting for 4,000 attendees this year. It also will make a concerted effort to bring in industry insiders who are always on the prowl for new talent.
"Comedy doesn't have formal job applications," she said.
She lives in New York, where she was recently selected to participate in NBC's prestigious Late Night Writers' Workshop. "The job of festivals is to get comedians to people with more immediate access to power," she said. "They may not book you on a TV show next week, but you establish a relationship."
While this year's 10,000 Laughs will have its fair share of national acts — "Corporate" star Aparna Nancherla and "Conan" favorite Ron Funches are booked — the emphasis will remain on locals.
This week's downtown fest has no Minnesota-based comics on its schedule.
"It's a little odd," said 10,000 Laughs founder Bob Edwards, who owns the Comedy Corner Underground in Minneapolis. "If you're going to have a festival named after a city, you should be helping artists who are struggling to make a name in that city."
About the only local presence is a free outdoor screening of "The Naked Gun," the 1988 film co-written by Columbia Heights native Pat Proft. But that may change when the festival returns next summer.
After receiving blowback from the Nashville comedy community, promoters there made sure to book Tennessee native Nate Bargatze this April and to host a brunch spotlighting local comics.
"One of the things we want to make clear is that this is Year 1," Farwell said. "We know we need to grow and we want to grow."
Despite their differences in philosophy, leaders of the two festivals say they harbor no hard feelings.
"We're not trying to hurt anything that they're doing," said Minneapolis Comedy Festival producing partner Andy Warg, who also serves vice president of entertainment at the Armory in Minneapolis. "There's definitely room for both festivals."
Radcliffe, the 10,000 Laughs liaison, agrees.
"Anything that increases the love for stand-up in the Twin Cities is a positive."