When you’re trying to establish an annual festival in Santa Cruz, you have to take a hard look from year to year at what works and what doesn’t. Like how local comic and promoter DNA, who put together this week’s third annual Santa Cruz Comedy Festival, spent a lot of time mulling over the strengths and weaknesses of last year’s festival, thinking: what could be funnier? What venues worked best? What can I do to avoid being murdered by surfers?
In other words, there will not be a repeat of last year’s event in which he had comedians set up for two hours in front of Steamer Lane, providing snarky commentary on the action.
“We’re not going to heckle the surfers again,” DNA says. “We almost got our asses beat.”
Still, he says it with a bit of glee. This is why he and a network of more than 100 volunteers are presenting 75 comics at 10 venues over four nights, Oct. 13-16. He wants to try things that haven’t yet been done, and push everyone—especially himself—a bit out of their safety zones.
And there will definitely still be snarky commentary at this year’s festival, but it’ll be aimed at what’s probably a better target on Saturday night, when four comics will be at the Del Mar riffing Mystery Science Theater 3000-style on the midnight movie, which will be Roger Corman’s 1959 beatnik B-horror flick A Bucket of Blood.
For those not familiar with the “live riffing” phenomenon, it came about after the MST3000 crew had finished 10 seasons of mocking bad movies from start to finish on the show. In the mid-2000s, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett with RiffTrax Live!, and Joel Hodgson with Cinematic Titanic evolved their original format into providing real-time commentary over movies at live events. The SCCF’s version will feature four Bay Area comics, including Kaseem Bentley and trans comedian Natasha Muse.
“Everyone does that with their friends, but when you see four professionals doing it, it’s mind-blowing,” says DNA. “That’s when I love comedy—when it gets to the edgy, wild side.”
There are comedians from all levels of fame at the festival, which opens with a “New Faces” showcase at Blue Lagoon on Thursday that reflects how the SCCF draws on and promotes the local underground comedy scene.
“I’m really excited about the new crop of comedians,” he says. “Sometimes we have droughts, but there’s a huge new crew.” A show at 8 p.m. on Thursday at the Kuumbwa features comedy singer-songwriter Mishka Shubaly (“The Only One Drinking Tonight,” “Your Plus One at My Funeral”) and Portlandia’s Kristine Levine.
On Saturday at 8 p.m., Pure Pleasure is once again hosting an “All Ladies Line Up” (which sold out last year), this time featuring Marcella Arguello, who’s made a name for herself on Comedy Central’s @midnight, Natasha Muse, Virginia Jones and Nicole Calasich. Also on Saturday, at the Kuumbwa, is the festival’s “All Stars” headliner show (also a sell-out every year), that features comedians who have all been on television, been voted best comic in their city, or have met some other high-profile criteria.
Saturday night also features free shows at Streetlight Records, Metavinyl, the Poet and the Patriot, 99 Bottles and Rosie McCann’s. “I think comedy should be non-elitist,” says DNA. “That’s why at least half of the shows in the festival are free.”
The SCCF’s big finale on Sunday is a TV taping at the Rio for a comedy special from Santa Cruz native Ian Harris. This will be Harris’ second special, but his first filmed in Santa Cruz—the other was filmed in Los Angeles, where he has lived now for more than a decade—and he’s hoping to bring out a massive show of hometown support for it.
Like DNA and the SCCF, Harris is also fine-tuning his approach. Known for smart, sharp comedy that challenges popular beliefs ranging from religion to left-wing conspiracy theories, Harris found that his last special, Critical and Thinking, was considered a bit too “edgy” for some.
“What I call ‘edgy’ are thoughts and ideas,” says Harris. “I had one dick joke in 71 minutes—and that joke was about alternative medicine. I don’t do much of that, period.”
But after finding that “a lot of people were afraid to touch it,” he acknowledges that going so hard after sacred cows limited the appeal of Critical and Thinking, even though he considers it his best work in two decades of comedy.
“It can get a little bit dicey,” he says. “I think that hurt me a little bit more. This one is more mainstream, but it’s still skepticism-based.”
In considering how to balance those two approaches, he realized that as a result of focusing his comedy mission over two decades, he had abandoned some elements that he actually enjoyed, and had won acclaim for, like his impressions. So he’s closing the show with a barrage of impressions—everyone from Robert De Niro to Gary Busey to Terrence Howard to more than a dozen more. And he even found a way to make it fit into his brand of comedy rather than just seeming tacked on to the set: he wraps it in a premise that satirizes climate-change denial.
For Harris, it’s a big deal that he’s able to do this in Santa Cruz—it’s not only the first special by a native comedian taped here, but as far as anyone can remember, the first special to be taped here that will actually air. Harris is donating all the proceeds from the show to charity.
“I’m really stoked that I’m able to do it in Santa Cruz,” he says. “I love that I’m from here. I love this place. I want to represent Santa Cruz well.”
The Santa Cruz Comedy Festival runs Thursday, Oct. 13 through Sunday, Oct. 16. More info is at standupsantacruz.com.