2020 has to be one of the worst years for live comedy. The coronavirus is, among other things, preventing live audiences from feeding a comedian's innate need to be the center of attention.
Some annual showcases, such as the Dallas and Fort Worth Comedy Festivals, had to postpone or outright cancel their plans, while some venues like the Dallas Comedy House closed their doors for good.
The Plano Comedy Festival has no such plans. The festival will still roll out four days of shows Oct. 1-4, except the entire festival is going online.
The virtual gathering will offer comedians and improv and sketch troupes. Some of this year's headliners include comedians such as Conan — writer Laurie Kilmartin; Steve Hofstetter; Karith Foster; Kurt Braunholer; Mary E. Kennedy, who plays New Fiona on Showtime's Shameless; and YouTube star Roxxy Haze. This year's festival will be among the first to feature workshops for comedians to craft and hone their material and performances.
"The Fort Worth Comedy Festival was the same week of the outbreak, and the Dallas Comedy Festival was within two weeks," says comedian Wes Corwin, who founded and built the Plano comedy festival in 2018. "It's a shame to see comedy festivals having to shut down."
Corwin says he and his team started to notice a rise in digital presence for comedians as the pandemic forced people indoors, so they decided the festival should follow the trend.
"Cameo started getting real big and people started getting things like birthday messages from Elijah Wood," Corwin says. "We thought how much would it cost for someone to get someone to talk for a certain period of time."
Corwin also credits Hofstetter's Nowhere Comedy Club concept, which lets comedians perform to massive crowds in a digital environment, with inspiring them to push forward with their own festival.
"We had seen Steve Hofstetter at the Nowhere Comedy Club and thought this is interesting," Corwin says. "So in about early June was when we started talking about what a virtual festival would look like."
Festival staff have run some test open-mic shows using the Zoom teleconferencing app, and Corwin says he's "very pleased to report that comedy on Zoom is funny."
"Thankfully, we had a lot of foresight," he says. "It's a lucky thing that it's an annual event rather than a club, so we have so much time to plan."
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Corwin says the Zoom platform can audiences closer to the action without disturbing the performer.
"One thing that sold me on Zoom is the idea that every single person watching a Zoom show is like watching a live show in the front row," he says. "You can see their expressions and things you'd miss if you were sitting in the back. You can get the entire A-list front row experience for every single person."
Corwin says he's confident the festival will go off without a hitch, but then again, it's 2020.
"It's one of those things when you plan out a festival," he says. "We've done it for two years and you worry something horrible might go wrong and it doesn't. So maybe I'm due."