Laughter is contagious, and with over 50 comedians ready to joke their way into the limelight, all of Wilmington is bound to catch the fever. Comics from across the country are headed for our city’s stages to join in the sixth annual Cape Fear Comedy Festival (CFCF). With headliners like Baron Vaughn and Sara Schaefer ready to get the laughs rolling, CFCF will commence on April 29 and continue through May 2.
There will be 28 shows spread between five downtown venues: Dead Crow Comedy Room, The Reel Café, City Stage, The Beam Room at Front Street Brewery, and Bourgie Nights. Unlike most comedy festivals, the CFCF doesn’t pit its performers against one another. Instead, it shakes off all the stress and pressure for a relaxed, family-like community of entertainers to share their voices.
“We wanted to do it differently,” Matt Ward, comedian and co-founder of CFCF, says. “The idea started back in 2009 and was spurred, really, by the success of Port City Top Comic (which wrapped up just the other week).”
Matt (and fellow co-founder Timmy Sherrill) envisioned the festival as a lively and entertaining way to bring laughter to Wilmington. More so, they wanted it to become a coastal meeting for comedians to network and advance their careers. There will be 62 comedians performing (10 of whom are from Wilmington) over four days.
“The comedy community in Wilmington is why the festival is so successful,” Ward says. “People everywhere know about the festival and are anxious to perform here. And the locals have always been there to support the festival and all its comedians.”
Actor and comedian Baron Vaughn will be performing at 8:15 p.m. on Friday and Saturday at City Stage (21 N Front St.) He played legal assistant Leonardo Prince in the USA Network show, “Fairly Legal.” Vaughn also will appear in the HBO series “Girls.” Plus, he will star in Netflix original “Grace and Frankie,” a show about never being too old to be confused or to fall apart. He plays the role of an adopted son from Uganda, named Nwabudike. It premieres next week on May 8.
“The show’s all about startin’ over, even when you’ve been around a time or two,” Vaughn explains. “I’ll be acting alongside greats like Martin Sheen, Jane Fonda and Sam Waterson. It’s going to be something special.”
Having been around a time or two himself, Vaughn combines it all in his performances, which he calls “kitchen-sink” comedy. Once he’s onstage, he talks race, gender and life in a spectrum of silliness. In the end, there’s nothing left but a lingering side pain from nonstop laughter. “My shows are silly,” Vaughn says. “Even if someone doesn’t think it’s funny, they’ll leave feeling something’s happened to them.”
Vaughn grew up watching greats like Richard Pryor, Steve Martin and Bill Cosby. He’s spent the majority of his career trying to define his comedy. It’s a struggle he believes every comedian faces.
“Being asked to describe my work is a tough one,” Vaughn confesses. “But I guess it’s important to think about. My goal really is to get into my audiences and itch that silly tickle bone. I’m willing to talk about anything to do that, even if the audiences aren’t.”
Vaughn, who has graced stages all over, will be performing in Wilmington for the first time ever at the CFCF. But he isn’t attending the festival merely for himself; Dulcé Sloan, a comedian coming up from Atlanta, has been on Vaughn’s radar for awhile now. Vaughn’s excited to see the up-and-coming talent take on a larger platform.
“I’ve watched Sloan grow in Atlanta for a few years,” Vaughn says. “She has a lot of talent and room to grow. I think Wilmington offers some great audiences though and it’s the perfect place to showcase her talent.”
Sara Schaefer also will bring her self-deprecating and vulnerable comedy back to Wilmington on Friday, May 1 and Saturday, May 2 at 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. She performed at the opening weekend for the Dead Crow Comedy Room last year. With two Emmys under her belt for writing as head blogger on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” Schaefer has ridden the comedic roller coaster of rejection and victory. She never intended to pursue comedy until after graduating college at William and Mary.
She moved to New York in 2001 with just a suitcase and a dream. After securing a day job as a financial analyst for a fraud law firm, Schaefer spent her nights seeking out comedy shows and attending improv classes. “I was terrified at first and it took me at least a year to get the guts to go onstage by myself,” Schaefer confesses. “But one tiny step after another, I made my way.”
As a kid, Schaefer used humor to deflect being teased at school and to get attention in her large family. At 9 she was inspired by sketch comedy, like “SNL” and “Monty Python,” as well as listened to her brother’s Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor tapes whenever she could. The most challenging times for her as a comedian came from self-doubt and the urge to absorb all the rejection and negativity that comes with the territory.
“There’s no set path and no easy formula to make it happen,” Schaefer tells. “So a lot of the time you feel like you’re just fumbling around in the dark.”
With Schaefer, the person onstage is the same person in real life. “I wouldn’t describe what I do as shocking or offensive,” she says. “[That is] unless you find a woman talking openly about her life as shocking and offensive, in which case, please, go away.”
A Virginia native, Schaefer spent her summers in North Carolina and fell in love with the region and its people. The two states are by far her favorite regions to perform.
“The local comedy scene in Wilmington is a really strong and supportive community,” Schaefer says. “I always get so happy when I get to come back and perform here. You guys just get me.”
With the recent release of her first stand-up album, “Chrysalis,” fans can expect to hear a healthy mix of new and old material from Schaefer at CFCF. She will be performing exclusively at the Dead Crow Comedy Room.
“I hope anyone who is coming to see me for a second time will notice how hard I’ve worked over the past year,” she says.
Festival passes are $25 and give atendees unrestricted access to all shows except for Sara Schaefer’s ($15). Pass-holders will get a $5 discount on tickets. Passes consist of rubber wristbands.
“We wanted something easily removable that could be passed around with friends,” Ward says. “We actually encourage people to buy just one pass to share, so they can see exactly what they want to see without paying a ton. It gives you complete freedom. Plus, the bands glow in the dark; it doesn’t get better than that.”
Folks can check out CFCF Twitter page for pop-up free shows. They will be announced just minutes before they begin. They fill up quick, so keep an eye on their posts.
Cape Fear Comedy Festival
Wed., April 29 – Sat., May 2
Various venues across downtown ILM
Festival Passes: $25 (good for all performances but Sara Schaefer’s)