Comedy on the Fringe

Pictured are Kelly Conrad (left) and Stacie Lyons.
Erin Cartlidge

From the lot of humorous smaller cast performances and funny one-and-two-handers on the 2021 Fringe Fest schedule, you’d think that its founder-curator Nick Stuccio needed a laugh. “More than ever, yes,” he says during a pre-festival chat about the wealth of sketch comedy events and stand-up comic talks.

Just hit the festival’s By Genre “Comedy & Improv” tab, now until Oct. 3’s close, and the list of comic events is as long and luscious as it is diverse, daring — and, of course, hilarious, with a Fringe-y twist. This includes Sept. 22’s ‘Thank You, Places: An Improvised Musical’ and ‘Not Yet Rated: An Improvised Movie’ at Theatre Exile, to Sept. 27’s ‘Latinx 2044: A Hispanic Heritage Month Comedy Special’ with Philly’s Che Guerrero, to the ongoing Digital Fringe offering, ‘The Wasp’s Nest’ from Paper Doll Ensemble.

When it comes to Fringe comedy, it’s best to talk to Zach Blackwood, FringeArts’ Artistic Producer, and Crossroads Comedy Theater founder Mike Marbach.

For Marbach’s part, and that of Crossroads Comedy — an on-stage and digital home for comic shows and pop culture podcasts — events at Theatre Exile for Fringe are focused, with several comedy showcases clustered into single cellular ‘hubs.’

Crossroads Comedy Theater founder Mike Marbach.Erin Pitts

Is there a style of comedy — sketch, stand-up, lecture or instructional event – that Marbach looks toward in his curation for Fringe?

“The thing we have been doing are already more out there than your average comedy shows,” notes Marbach. “Some of our shows in 2021’s Fringe are events we’ve had for years such as ‘Study Hall: Comedy Inspired by Lectures.’ Crossroads’ shows are already Fringe-y when you consider our level of improvisation. This is what alternative comedy was built upon.”

FringeArt’s Blackwood sees “alternative comedy” everywhere he looks in Philadelphia – in the work of pop artist/Dadaist comedian Rose Luardo to Whit MacLaughlin’s eerily humorous Fringe Fest poem/lecture ‘707 Hazardous Moves.’

Responsible for FringeArts HQ’s Hand-to-Hand circus events as well as its Blue Heaven comedy festival, Blackwood was focused on 2021’s Fringe Fest’s live curated showcase schedule.

“For me the challenge of going live, this year, was that there’s been fatigue with an all-digital program,” he says. “Last year, the virtual realm was cool. And it is still exciting with so many new ways to contextualize work, digitally. But there’s no pre-show or after-care with virtual programming – you close your laptop when a show is over, and you’re suddenly alone. There’s no community, digitally, as there is with live performance. Once we mitigated risk, and safety, we knew a live festival was in order. Fringe shows demand openness and presence from people.”

The 25th anniversary of 2021’s Fringe also pushed Blackwood to make sure longtime fest veterans were as heard as new voices in contemporary performance artist, and that intimacy was as prevalent as was ‘big box’ events. “Also, there is the cool factor of the Fringe,” says Blackwood. “When you pride yourself on presenting the “next thing” or “what’s new,” you’re always pushing yourself.”

Looking toward keeping audiences safe without making its art safe, Blackwood credits Crossroads Comedy with keeping the flame burning for wild comic moments during Fringe that modulate between live on-stage, digital, stand-up, sketches podcasts and lectures. Blackwood also shouts out the circus-driven Only Bones event and Oct. 1-2’s ‘Healing+’ from immersive comic theater master (and famously one-time intern for Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon) Mike Lemme, as part of his 2021 tour of outré art festivals.

“There’s a lot of work in this festival that is extremely funny even when it might not seem like it should be, like with MacLaughlin discussing being shot and losing his mother,” states Blackwood. “It’s tough defining comedy and contemporary performance in Philly through FringeArts and Crossroads. Because it isn’t always about making you feel good.

“Comedy is a powerful way in which we often process trauma. And we’ve all lived through several weird, traumatic years at this point. We’re laughing because we have all been so unwell. So, it has been fantastic seeing Fringe comic artists crystalize that, and portray how we have overcome.”

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