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Back after a four-year hiatus, Brightest Young Things’ Bentzen Ball comedy festival is named after a Danish man named Ole Bentzen who laughed himself to death while watching A Fish Called Wanda. But when the event kicks off tonight at the Lincoln Theatre, featuring curator Tig Notaro along with Doug Benson, Wyatt Cenac, Heather Lawless, and others, not everyone will be as giddy as Mr. Bentzen. Some local comics are saying the festival left them out in the cold.
“Not to toot our own horn, but beep beep,” says comic Randolph Terrance, sitting outside a bar on U Street NW about a week ago. “Beep beep.”
Terrance and fellow jokester Andy Kline are among the many local comics who were not booked to perform at the four-day festival this weekend, and some of them are a bit miffed about it. So they’re doing their own event. Kline and Terrance have run a Saturday open mic at the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse for the last five and a half years, and this Saturday, while Bentzen Ball is in full swing at D.C. venues, the comics plan to host “The Best of the DMV Comedy Showcase” (alternate title: “Rejects of the Bentzen Ball”) at the Arlington comedy spot. To get on the bill, Kline says, the criteria is as follows: 1) You are funny, 2) you applied to get on the Bentzen Ball roster, and 3) you didn’t make the cut.
After Brightest Young Things announced Bentzen’s then-latest lineup on Sept. 10, some comics took to Twitter to criticize what they considered a lack of local talent.
Hey @byt great job putting together a DC comedy festival and only featuring 2 local comics. You’re really showcasing “all things good in DC”
— Pete Bladel (@PeteBladel) September 11, 2013
— Sara Armour (@SaraArmour) September 11, 2013
BYT had made an effort to recruit local comics, though—-about a week earlier, they’d posted an open call for YouTube clip submissions. The open call yielded 92 entries, according to BYT co-founder and publisher Svetlana Legetic. In the end, 19 locals were booked for the festival. Several of them were added recently as part of a cheap (or free, with purchase of another Bentzen ticket) locals-only “happy hour” show on Saturday at the Lincoln Theatre.
Nineteen seems like a pretty healthy number of locals. Yet Kline says the culture website and promoter still lacks a strong reputation among many area comics, who doubt its “on-the-ground” knowledge of D.C. comedy is equal to its understanding of, say, local music.
Legetic says she’s fully aware of the Brightest Young Things stereotype. “I understand that a lot of people think that we’re smug assholes who sit in an office and drink, like, Vodka Red Bulls and throw parties,” she says of the six-person full-time staff. But she says “I’m incredibly aware of people who are trying to make it. We in the publishing world are also trying to make it. All the support, all the exposure, all the everything, matters.”
The Bentzen Ball was curated by professional stand-up comic Notaro, who hooked up with BYT in 2008. At the time, Legetic says, Notaro felt that D.C. was a “really smart city that got a lot of jokes.” She teamed up with BYT to produce the first Bentzen Ball in 2009, and it became the group’s biggest event yet. “The idea was to do something over four days that’s like this magical comedy camp, where people small and big, in terms of fame, can hang out,” Legetic says.
Kline and Terrance performed at the 2009 festival. Since then, the local comedy scene has improved dramatically, they both agree. At the same time, Bentzen Ball has shrunk. There were 45 or 50 shows in 2009, which made it easy to accommodate lots of short sets from locals, Legetic says. But it also made the festival difficult to manage. This year, Bentzen Ball only booked 12 events. And critically, no one who played the 2009 festival was considered for this year’s lineup. That was Notaro’s decision, Legetic says, and BYT didn’t make that especially clear to local comedians who responded to the open call.
The 2013 shows are organized into categories, including stand-up, improv, and variety (musical acts like Garfunkel and Oates), and they have themes, like the “Handsome Men of Bentzen Ball,” featuring locals Michael Foody and Brandon Wardell. Legetic says after they pulled together all of the YouTube clips, Notaro sent BYT a list of around 30 people whom she thought would work best. That list was then whittled down to the final group based on their availability and how well they fit into a particular lineup.
(BYT staff member and stand-up comic Jenn Tisdale is one who made the cut, a fact that may rankle some applicants, Legetic says. “We had a conversation about whether we should put Jenn on it… But she works very hard and we think she’s very funny and Tig thinks she’s very funny, and in the end, that’s it. Are we going to punish someone?”)
The festival is funded almost entirely out of pocket by BYT; 10 percent of the funds come from sponsorships. It’s a gamble, but it might pay off: As of Friday, they had already sold more tickets—-3,000—-than they sold in 2009. But the process still feels very hectic and thrown together. Marc Maron, John Hodgman, and Eugene Mirman were all confirmed but had to drop out, Legetic says. They lost venues like the Hamilton, Sixth and I, Penn Social, Studio Theatre, Woolly Mammoth, and Black Cat, because they couldn’t keep holds without a concrete lineup. “It was like, ‘We’re getting Amy Schumer! We’re getting John Hodgman! Tig just texted Louis C.K.!’ Then, ‘This is not happening, that’s not happening. Zach Galifianakis is having a baby, Adam Scott’s, like, child is having a birthday that weekend.”
Kline acknowledges that the local comics bummed about getting turned down may just need to develop a thicker skin. After all, it’s comedy, where consistent and brutal rejection is normal, and can even fuel great material. “When I was younger, I’d probably have had my feelings hurt, too,” he says. “Once you’ve been through that process where you know that you should have gotten that thing but you didn’t get it for reasons other than just purely who’s the better comic, you sort of laugh it off.” Kline says that a D.C. comedy festival doesn’t necessarily need to be hyperlocal, either. “I mean, Asheville, N.C., has a comedy festival. It’s not so they can showcase the local scene. It’s so other people can come to Asheville.”
But the planned Bentzen Ball Rejects show—-which Kline and Terrance are still finalizing—-serves a distinct purpose, Kline says. They “wanted to point out that there are always people who get left out of these things, and let’s shine a light on them. Because quite often the locals are just as good as a lot of the people who got on or came in from out of town. They just don’t have the credits or the visibility.” For Saturday’s Bentzen Ball rejects show, they’ve confirmed appearances from David Tveite, Matty Litwack, Reggie Melbrough, Tyler Richardson, Chelsea Shorte, Chris Milner, Randy Syphax, Nate Johnson, Becca Steinhoff, and Ryan Schutt.
Are there any comedy festivals that get it right? Kline and Terrance both mention Just for Laughs, the mammoth showcase held every summer in Montreal since 1983. But even that one has its critics. “You can get into Montreal and it’s this big industry gang bang, and if you don’t get attention from Montreal, you’ll be like, ‘Fuck Montreal, it wasn’t that good,'” says Kline. Case in point: Comic Doug Stanhope‘s answer to the Montreal festival, “Just for Spite.”
While Legetic says she hasn’t received any direct complaints about Bentzen’s selection process, she acknowledges that some people are unhappy. But she hopes that if this revival of the Bentzen Ball is successful, it could get bigger and open up more opportunities for locals. “If this succeeds and this four days doesn’t kill us, bankrupt us, destroy our faith in humanity,” she says, “we’ll be there next year.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery