Wilmington is no stranger to comedy. Our downtown comedy haven, Dead Crow, has entertained the community since its opening in 2014 (but, really, it set its roots as Nutt St. Comedy Room five years prior). From such blossomed the Cape Fear Comedy Festival, which returns over the weekend for its ninth year across six venues that will feature 65 performers.
“It’s four days of really fun entertainment where [audiences] can support their favorite venues,” Timmy Sherrill, owner of Dead Crow and co-founder of the festival, describes.
Sherrill collaborated with his friend Matt Ward to create the festival in 2009 and put together an event that allowed everyone’s participation, including younger comedians. Sherrill and Ward managed to invite 65 comedians, both locals and out-of-towners, to perform on one of several Wilmington stages—some even did multiple sets.
“If you’re here all four days,” Sherrill explains, “we’ll find you a stage to perform on each day you’re here. Most festivals you get one show, one day, and that’s it.”
With such a large number of comedians occupying Wilmington’s venues over the weekend, there also is room for meeting new comics and creating friendships. “It’s a good place to network,” Sherrill notes of the comedians who visit from all across the country. “They meet each other and become friends and then help each other out when they go to their cities.”
One is local comedian Drew Harrison, who performs at different venues each day during the weekend’s festival. Harrison grew up a big fan of stand-up and decided to try his own hand at it in December 2011. Now, he performs regularly as part of Wilmington’s local comedy scene. 2018 is Harrison’s third year performing at the festival.
“It’s like our Super Bowl,” he tells. “Wilmington comedy gets to be on display for a week, and we get to show comedians from all over the country what it’s like to do comedy and make people laugh in beautiful Wilmington.”
Cape Fear Comedy Festival manages to grow each year. Six venues now provide stages for the festival: Dead Crow, Waterline Brewing Company, Dram + Morsel, Bourgie Nights, Reel Cafe and Bombers Bev. Co. And all of them are needed, as the festival receives more than 400 submissions annually.
“If you’re curious about how comedy is growing or how it’s evolving,” Sherrill emphasizes, “these people showing up are speaking on behalf of their cities and states. You can see what the wave of comedy is there.”
A panel reviews each submission video sent in prior to the festival, without regard for how long the comedians have performed. The aim is to include comics with a natural talent, whether they have performed on “Conan” or just started doing stand-up last week. Comedians from all walks of life receive invitations to tell their stories.
Mary Jane French, a trans comedian based in Richmond, Virginia, knows the importance of representation in events like the Cape Fear Comedy Festival. It’s what allows her to spread her love of comedy with others where she might not otherwise be able to.
French always enjoyed performing and would often do so in her high school’s theatre program. When her beloved theatre teacher left the school and a less-than-great one replaced her, though, French needed to find a different outlet for expressing herself. She turned to open-mic nights at a venue one county over from her hometown to get her fix. Despite the 30-minute commute each way, she found her passion.
“From a young age,” French remembers, “[comedy] was kind of how I learned to interact with the world and how to process various emotions I was having when I was younger. I’ve been doing stand-up longer than almost anything else in my life, so it’s hard to imagine a version of my life where it’s not a huge part of it.”
French explores topics of gender, sexuality and being a trans woman in her set. She hopes, through her performances, more people become aware of such issues and feel more comfortable talking about them.
“The whole premise of my act is convincing cis people I exist,” French indicated. “So it’s nice to be able to do that outside of Richmond and in other areas. I think it is really useful for introducing people to ideas they are otherwise uncomfortable with, and making it something that’s more palatable to them. Maybe if they have no experience with a trans person ever and they see my act, they’ll have a positive association with it, as opposed to fearmongering.”
The festival provides more than a means of education, though. Harrison sees comedy as a way of dealing with everyday problems and learning how to cope.
“Everywhere you turn in real life,” Harrison argues, “there’s just stress and sad news and terrible stories. It’s nice to escape. We need entertainment to take our minds off all the crap that’s going on.”
Cape Fear Comedy Festival runs May 2-5 featuring 65 comics and 25 showcases throughout the weekend. For the first time in its history, all the festival shows are free, excluding Dead Crow’s usual Friday and Saturday night showcases. The laughs don’t end there, however.
“Come check out shows,” Harrison encourages, “but after the festival, make sure to check out live comedy. Wilmington’s a great scene and we’ve got a lot of independent shows happening all over town. Check out live comedy any chance you can get.”