Sometimes, you have to laugh to keep from crying.
Those looking for a reprieve from the hard realities of the world are in luck, as the Boston Comedy Festival is being held this week at locations throughout Somerville and the area. The festival unites familiar and emerging comics doing their professional and semi-professional best to find the funny in what is, to many, a trying time.
The celebration of comedy, organized and founded by local funnyman Jim McCue, features acts like Eugene Mirman, Lenny Clarke, “Daily Show” correspondent Ronny Chieng and Barry Crimmins -— fresh off a Louis C.K.-backed comedy special. Patty Ross and John Ratzenberger will be honored as Comedian of the Year and for a Lifetime Achievement Award, respectively, and a contest will see 96 talented comics competing in a comedy tournament for a top prize of $10,000.
We spoke with McCue about the week’s slate, when he thinks comedy matters most and what makes Boston a unique scene for comedy.
Do you think there are times when comedy is more essential, or plays a different role in people’s conversations?
It’s always the jester -- the fool is the only one who can speak truth to power, sometimes. You can make fun of the king, in front of the castle, and sometimes not to the benefit of the fool. We live in interesting times and I think that comedians need to be able to say things; everybody has their own buttons. What’s offensive to me is not offensive to you is not offensive to somebody else. It’s the only art form that’s created onstage in front of people, and sometimes a joke isn’t finished the first time you do it.
Given the national tenor, have you noticed audiences being particularly primed to laugh recently?
So we have Barry Crimmins coming on Saturday, and he’s an activist and a humorist. Louis C.K. recently produced a special with him -- if you want to have this discussion, that show is where to have it. We have another guy named Emo Phillips who’s simply one of the best joke-writers in the world, genius. I think there’s a lot of people that just feel like “Look, we’ve been through a lot, we just want to escape from it,” and we’ve got a lot. We have a “No Politics” show this year, so if you want to go and just laugh — everybody so desperately needs to laugh. That’s the role of comedy, to say, “The world isn’t a perfect place, what we need to do, as a people, as a country, as a world is go, ‘We can laugh about it, put our shoes on, and try and fix it tomorrow.’”
What do you think of the contestants for this year’s comedy competition?
Me. Myself, as a comedian, I gotta tell you, it’s threatening to me. Because I’m like, “Oh my god, I’ve got to write more. They keep coming in waves, please stop!” The producer part of me is very proud, because we’ve found great acts right before they hit. A lot of people that we’ve had at the festival, I was down at the Comedy Cellar in New York, and they’re in the lineup! They’re in the mix, they’re on “Conan,” so this is cool. We get to see them five minutes before they take that next step. A lot of them are getting their agents, getting their managers out of Boston. We have a great product, we’re putting them in a very competitive situation and they’ve already been vetted, and passed a couple hundred shows to get here. So now you’ve got the cream of the crop boxing it out to get into the Somerville Theatre, which we pack every year.
Boston has a long and storied comedy tradition, what do you think makes it a unique place for onstage humor?
I’ve always said, oddly enough, it’s the audiences. The competitive nature of Boston people— you have Harvard professors and MIT students and Tufts and then you have working class people, and they just don’t tolerate not funny. The guys older than me, they just had no tolerance for not doing your own acts of not being funny. If you want that stage time, it’s valuable property here. It’s an amazing place to do comedy.
The festival plays on through Nov. 19, at The Rockwell, Once Somerville, ImprovBoston, Great Scott, the Somerville Center for Arts at the Armory and the Somerville Theatre. See bostoncomedyfest.com for more details.