The Iowa Comedy Festival: Joel Fry Interview
Interview by Nathan Timmel
Speaking with Joel Fry is like drinking a shot of 5-Hour Energy; his enthusiasm is infectious. Relentlessly positive, his upbeat attitude lets you believe the impossible is possible, even if that task is setting about creating a relevant Comedy Festival in Iowa.
Joel is a founding member of Cornstar Comedy, and the idea Des Moines could host a Comedy Festival first entered his brain three years ago. Since that moment, Joel has spent his time planning, planning, and planning some more.
This weekend, all his hard work will come to fruition as the first ever The Iowa Comedy Festival launches.
Rooftop Comedy is partnering with the festival to attempt to showcase quality comedy in the Midwest; Rooftop favorite and Iowa resident Nathan Timmel gave Joel a call to discuss everything under the sun festival related.
NT: A little background first; tell me about Cornstar Comedy.
JF: I’m the chief booking coordinator for Cornstar Comedy, and it’s an agency that works exclusively with Iowa comedians, booking shows in Iowa venues; bars, nightclubs, hotels or what have you. We want to create a better infrastructure for comedy here in Iowa. We primarily focus on small towns, because there’s usually nothing going on there. We become the biggest event of the night by default, and usually we get incredible crowds. These people aren’t likely to make it to a comedy club, so we bring a professional show to them. The audiences are loyal, they appreciate it, we get a ton of return business because of it, and I think that’s something that inspires local comics. They see the response, and think, “Hey, maybe comedy is something that’s viable here in Iowa if I work really hard.”
NT: Who dreamed up the idea of an Iowa Comedy Festival?
JF: The Iowa Comedy Festival as an idea probably started about three years ago with a friend of mine, Greg. At the time, we had a couple open mic shows in town, and some sketch groups, and an improv troop. All these shows were all on different nights, and different weeks. Greg wanted to combine all the entertainment Des Moines had to offer and do some shows at a local theater. Instead of different shows on different weeks, everything would be strung together over the course of one week.
NT: Is that legal, combining sketch comedy, improv and stand-up comedy?
JF: [Laughs] Well, that’s what happened next. About two years ago my friend Jared and I had a different idea of what creating a festival would entail; we wanted to have it showcase stand-up comedy. Jared and I used to run an open microphone, and it was a lot of fun, but it made me realize that in Iowa, stand-up comedy isn’t seen as a really viable form of mainstream entertainment. And I think that’s too bad. I think there are a fair amount of really funny comedians in Des Moines, and in Iowa in general, that just fly under the radar. So what we wanted to do was have a “crown jewel” event, sort of a coming out party for stand-up in our state.
NT: What’s the comic response been like?
JF: At first the festival was going to be a very small thing; two, three days, maybe bring in a big headliner. But then interest from around the Midwest just swelled and we started adding venues and showcases. People were contacting us from Chicago, Omaha, Minneapolis, Kansas City… suddenly we had a four-day event with seven shows at five venues and over fifty comedians involved. It’s turned into something that’s really fun to work on.
Nationwide, we’ve gotten a great response from the East Coast. A little from LA, but the East Coast has looked at this with great anticipation. We got our Rooftop page just a few days ago, and in just those few days it’s gone crazy, expanding our profile and creating a great amount of interest across the country.
NT: How did Rooftop get involved with the festival?
JF: Rooftop has been incredibly cool. Obviously Rooftop is very supportive of comedy, it’s basically an on line comedy club, and I initially contacted them. Jenn is my contact there, and she had so many ideas, and she saw so much more potential in this than I initially did. I mean, I was coming into this as a neophyte, [Joel adopts an over-excited, silly voice] “Hey! I got a couple of shows I want to put together and call a festival!” But she saw it and said, “We can do this, this, and this for you, and we can make this legitimate and get a lot of people exited in it,” and that’s been just great.
NT: Have you studied any other festivals to see where they went right or wrong?
JF: I’ve been kind of looking at the model Rooftop has used for the Aspen Comedy Festival, and I’ve been talking to people at Punchline Magazine and comedy.com, I’ve kind of just been picking their brains. They’re people that have been involved with comedy for years and years, and though they may not necessarily be putting together festivals, they know the business and I wanted to find out if this was something they thought was sustainable. Everyone has given me a lot of positive feedback, and they’ve given me some amazing tips and ideas on how to manage your own business. And that’s how I need to look at this: as a business. If that’s how I approach it, that’s the best way for this to be not the only Iowa Comedy Festival. I do want this to be a big, sexy event, but it’s a foundation year, and I want it to run for many, many years to come.
NT: You’re using Des Moines as a base; is that because it’s where you live, or because it’s the largest city in Iowa? I ask because Iowa City and Ames are college towns; any thought to putting it in either of them?
JF: Well, it’s a series of things. It is the largest city, it is the state capital, and outside of Iowa it’s probably the most known city we have. It’s also got a great central location for a half-dozen comedy scenes around the Midwest, all within driving distance. And, since Des Moines is the largest city, it offers the best sheer quantity of venues. We’ve had many venues jump on board and support the local comedy scene here.
NT: Yet I don’t see the only comedy club in Des Moines listed as a sponsor.
JF: The Funny Bone hasn’t really embraced the local scene, which is why the guys in the area have rallied around each other in the past few years and created their own network. The Funny Bone closed down for a little while [when they changed locations] in 2006, and they really didn’t have a consistent open mic or promote a Des Moines scene for a while before that, so the guys created their own open mics. They started booking each other in shows all around Des Moines, and then all around the state of Iowa. Now there are three open mics around the city, none of which are affiliated in any way with The Funny Bone, and even though The Bone is very aware of the comedy festival, they haven’t been very committal as far as wanting to be a part of this. Danny Franks at Penguins comedy club, on the other hand, jumped on board and will be putting an all-Iowa lineup on their stage the week of the festival, and I think that’s a huge step forward for Iowa comedy.
NT: Has the process been more or less of a hassle than you expected?
JF: Well, it’s a lot of work. [Laughs] Since its grown larger than I first anticipated, I’ve had to take on a lot more responsibilities and do more planning. I’ve had to talk to ticket distributors… I’ve been signing a lot of papers, that’s for sure. [Laughs] Contracts with venues, contracts with ticket mangers, contracts with performers and comedians… On top of that I have to wrangle up sponsors, maintain an online presence via Twitter, Facebook, our website, our newsletter… all of that goes together. I feel if we stay viral, that’s where we’re gonna get the most interest, when we stay in people’s collective consciousness.
After that comes the glad handling, the schmoozing, all of the stuff that goes on behind the scenes, getting people to outbid one another, that we can get the most money and then offer the customer the best product and the best comedy because we’ll have the funding for it. It’s definitely more business than I thought it would be, but it’s something I’ve grown to embrace, because I’ve learned so much; planning this has taught me so much.
NT: Jake Johansen is closing out the Festival; was it easy to approach him about being a part of everything?
[Note: Joel got very enthused with the mention of Jake Johansen; his speech sped up to near incoherent levels as he struggled to contain his happiness]
JF: I’ve wanted to work with Jake for a long time, but never had any means to, and when we decided to bring a big name headliner in to give this thing a face, he was the first guy that jumped to mind. We had a few other comics with and without Iowa ties we could have used, but he is the best Iowa based stand-up comic working today. I sent him a personal message, he forwarded it to his management, Paradigm Entertainment, who is just awesome; they’re the best management group I’ve ever worked with. They immediately got in touch with me, we got the ball rolling, they set a price; we said, “Sure.” It was actually a little less than I anticipated, which was great, they told me Jake actively wanted to be a part of this, that he was a fan and was actively interested in being involved and was pumped, and that really helped grease the wheels there, because they wanted to get a deal done, and obviously so did we, and it, it was just very smooth. All we did was sign a contract, give them a deposit, and now he’s coming to Iowa, and he’s gonna be the face of the Iowa Comedy Festival, and he’s gonna be closing the damn thing out.
NT: Comedy contests are notoriously subjective; crowd-pleasing material that you’ve heard before from other comics and seen on the Internet does very well. Are you doing anything to keep it a little more original or honest?
JF: The thing I’ve heard about comedy contests, and I love this quote: “In comedy contests there are three people who had a great time, and loved the event, and seven people who don’t think something as subjective as comedy should be judged by a panel.”
What we do, is in the preliminary rounds, we have an audience vote. Now, I hate, I hate with a passion audience votes, because I’ve been in contests like that before, and they suck. So what we did is: you have to pick three comics for the evening. If you’re there to see someone specific… [pauses] I think its great people are coming out to support their friends, and that comics are getting people in the door, but you can’t just vote for your friend. You have to pick three people, and if you pick two or one, your vote gets thrown out and you didn’t end up helping your friend at all. We did this last year and it worked out pretty darn well. The people that deserved to make it to the finals, made it to the finals.
For the finals, it is not an audience vote. We’re going to have a panel of five, and the panel will be all comedy professionals. We have Comedy Productions lined up, which is the largest comedy booking agency in the Midwest, and The Entertainment Group. We’ll have three other booking agents involved, and these are people are professionals who work with comedians all over the Midwest and they will know if anyone is hacking material. We’re going to have those people in there so that the true talent gets picked.
Visit the Iowa Comedy Festival website for complete schedule and ticket information.
Watch clips from ICF performers on our ICF events page.