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10,000 Laughs Comedy Festival: Six Days of Punchlines, Booze, and Herding Cats

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Bob Edwards is burned out on comedy.

For the past several hours, he and a handful of equally exhausted comedians have been sitting in his living room, wading through a seemingly endless stream of awful web videos that he's projected from his phone to the television. There are brutally amateur improv performers who are barely suited for high school theater, hacky standups flinging joke-book-worthy one-liners, and a 65-year-old woman providing a three-minute tutorial on how to perform fellatio on an old man.

With each passing video, the group gets increasingly slaphappy. Picture a scene out of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but instead of robots in a theater being tortured, it's comedians reviewing submissions for this year's 10,000 Laughs Comedy Festival.

Finally, after what feels like an abyss of bad comedy, Marty Archibald appears on the screen.

The Utah-based comedian has a dark, dry, filthy sense of humor, the last thing (or perhaps the very thing) you expect to hear coming out of his home state. Edwards and company are hooked.

"How have we never heard of this guy before?" Edwards says, glued to the screen. "He's hilarious. We've got to have him."

Jenn Schaal, Bill Young (center), Bob Edwards (glasses)

Jenn Schaal, Bill Young (center), Bob Edwards (glasses)

It's this kind of moment that makes all of their drudgery worthwhile. Over the course of the evening, the group will search for more acts like Archibald, whittling down the list to roughly 100 comedians who will perform in 13 shows across nine venues over the course of six nights.

Now in its fourth year, the 10,000 Laughs Festival has grown into one of the largest and most diverse comedy festivals in the country. This next week will be packed with slam-puns, outrageous drug stories, hip-hop duos, joke-filled brunches, film shorts, cats, and a ton of booze. And that's just what's happening onstage.

A self-described comedy nerd, Edwards spent several years as a working comic in Omaha before moving to Minnesota in 2008. Not long after, he began producing shows at the famed Comedy Corner Underground (the club located in the basement of the Corner Bar), and saw an opportunity for something bigger.

"I couldn't believe there was this really big, really well developed comedy scene and there wasn't a festival to help show off all of that talent," he says. "Then I realized it was just because no one was willing to put in the effort to organize one. That's because getting this many comedians together and keeping them on schedule is like herding fucking cats."

In 2011 Edwards put together the "Mini-Minneapolis Comedy Festival," which included six shows (all held at Comedy Corner Underground), 15 performers, and around 170 attendees. Small in size but mighty in talent, the roster for that first year consisted entirely of homegrown comedians including Gus Lynch, Chris Maddock, and Tommy Thompson. Now just a few years later, Edwards expects approximately 2,000 people to attend this week's festivities, which will feature performers from more than 25 states, including acts like the Puterbaugh Sisters from Chicago and Dhaya Lakshminarayanan from California.

"The thing about this festival is that it's like a drunken summer camp," says Bill Young, a 12-year comedy veteran from the Twin Cities who took part in the festival that very first year and has every year thereafter. "You get all of these comedians in the same room that first night, and you're kind of anxious and not really sure who anyone is, just like the first night at camp. You have these comedians from Portland, Chicago, California, everywhere, and no one knows anyone else. Then you start drinking and everyone becomes best friends."

Camaraderie among comedians isn't unusual at festivals, but Young says 10,000 Laughs has a decidedly rock 'n' roll mindset. Last year, several comics rolled into town without any plans for where they would stay. They met Young that day, crashed on his couch, and were already up drinking whiskey at 8 a.m. the next morning. The nights were filled with booze, comedy, and more booze.

"Some of the shows we feature during the festival are really writing-focused," Edwards says. "You'll see hungover comedians all over town in bars or coffee shops working on material together for later that night. It's like comedy zombies took over for the week."

Not every comedian is as eager to binge drink all day and booze it up all night. But comedy festivals don't usually offer much programming during the day. ("You eat a lot, sleep a lot, and masturbate. That's about all you have to do," Edwards says.) In order to combat that vicious cycle of sadness, for this year's festival he has added daytime events, some of which are only open to the comedians. They're even trying a brunch show on Saturday morning.

"That's going to be really weird because it's going to be noon, which means it's going to be light outside, and people are probably going to be somewhat sober," says Edwards. "Somewhat."

Later that afternoon there will be two shows at Comedy Corner Underground that are just for performers. One is a comedy class where attendees will watch a bunch of VHS tapes of Mr. Show that someone bought from Community creator Dan Harmon's garage sale. Afterward they'll host comedy trivia.

"Really it's just our way of finding cool things to do and keep people entertained so they don't just drink all day," Edwards says.

As for those hilarious, bizarre, sometimes disturbing stories of a standup comic's roadie life, Edwards has captured that side of comedy in his "Sex, Drugs, and On the Road" show, which is dedicated to nothing but comedians talking about the seedy side of their journeys.

"Everyone who has ever done comedy on the road has some type of story," he says. "I've heard about guys getting in fights with fans in the parking lot after shows, or even on stage occasionally. It's not really like we did a lot in terms of the concept of the show. All we did was give them a microphone and say, 'Go tell that story you told us in the bar on stage.'"

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Not every comedian is as raw or raucous or drug-addled as the reputation suggests. Jenn Schaal, one of the festival's assistant producers this year, is among the type of comic who doesn't thrive on that R-rated type of comedy, and find plenty of other opportunities at the festival.

"The Sex, Drugs, and On the Road show is sponsored by Fantasy Gifts, to give you a little bit of an idea of what that show is going to be like," she laughs. "I definitely wouldn't fit in there. I'm in bed by 9 p.m. when I do shows, so my awesome stories would be about what I had for dinner and what movie I watched on TV. I like talking about my cat, but I don't think that's what they're looking for.

"The great thing is that we have shows that are the total opposite of that," Schaal continues. "We have shows like Pundamonium, a slam-style battle of puns, and Think Fast!, which is like improvised standup. By having so many unique shows, we as comics get the chance to flex some of our nontraditional comedy muscles, whereas other festivals a lot of times are just straight standup comedy, with everyone doing their best material."

Trevor Hill, a comedian based in San Francisco, has performed at the festival for the past two years. Much like Schaal, he sees the week as an opportunity to perform in front of a better-than-average comedy audience.

"Every show I did last year had a smart, appreciative, and comedy-savvy audience," he says. "You'd be surprised how much of a rarity that can be. It's always a bummer to travel across the country to bomb your butt off for a theater full of people that disfavor your critique of Thomas Kinkade paintings. I'm looking at you, Nebraska."

Hill has performed at other festivals across the country, and insists that 10,000 Laughs is completely different from the experience you'll get anywhere else.

"10,000 Laughs is kind of like the Goldilocks of comedy festivals," he explains. "It's not too big or too small, and it's probably upsetting to bears. I've performed at festivals like San Francisco Sketchfest that are comedy behemoths consisting of hundreds of shows at dozens of venues. I've also done festivals that take place over the course of two days at a single club. 10,000 Laughs is a really nice middle ground where it doesn't feel tiny or shoestring, but you also don't feel like you're getting lost in the mix."

Indeed, some comedians and comedy shows have used 10,000 Laughs as a launchpad. In its very first year, the festival played host to a show called "Punchline Punchout." The brainchild of local comics Andy Erikson and Trevor Anderson, the show has two teams of comics competing head-to-head to write and perform the best jokes they possibly can, using topics revealed to them only hours before show time. What began as not much more than a blip on the radar back in 2011 has grown into a cross-country comedy phenomenon.

"Doing Punchline Punchout was kind of an afterthought the first year," Edwards recalls. "Now that show has gotten huge. We still hold it at Comedy Corner Underground, but then Acme Comedy Co. actually adopted the idea and did it over there last spring. Now Andy lives in California, and she and Amber [Preston, another breakout performer of the Twin Cities scene] do that show at Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles, which is the same place where Comedy Central shoots the show The Meltdown. It's become one of the most popular shows of the entire week, no matter who is performing."

As for the future of the festival, Edwards says even with how quickly it's grown these past four years, there is still a lot of opportunity for it to continue expanding.

"This year we really just focused on slightly more alternative venues like Campus Pizza or Sisyphus Brewing. Next year I'm thinking maybe we'll bring in a huge headliner and have them perform at the Varsity Theater or something, but we'll see."

As the festival grows and the headliners get bigger, Edwards insists he's still the same comedy nerd who moved to town back in 2008.

"Promoting this festival gives me the chance to put on the types of shows that I want to see as a comedy fan," he says. "I like shows that are weird or unusual, but are also super interesting. Every single show in the lineup this year fits that description, and I think the fact that we have so many amazing comedians in town who can fit into these shows is why this festival is just going to keep getting better."