THE FIRST year Front Porch Improv set out to host a comedy festival, they hit a big bump in the road: their venue pulled out last minute.
“So we ended up at McDonough’s,” remembers co-artistic director John Brennan. “Thankfully, they saved our ass in the karaoke bar, but you know that karaokers take karaoke very seriously. I can’t tell you how many times people were like, ‘Is karaoke still happening tonight?’ That was year one.”
Now, it’s year four, and Front Porch Improv has come a long way from that year in the karaoke bar.
The group just last week celebrated the opening of their very own theater space on Victory Drive, and this year’s Savannah Comedy Fest will be the first in their new digs.
It’s been a long road for Front Porch Improv’s dreams of having a theater space to be realized, but the road leads to a very important development for Savannah’s comedy scene.
“It’s so good for the comedy community,” explains Henry Riggs, comedian and production manager of the festival. “It’s introducing Savannah as a dot on the map in the comedy world, because as you build this festival, people are like, ‘Oh, they have a festival. Savannah is a town that’s doing a comedy thing.’”
Riggs stepped in to help with the festival because, as Brennan shares, it simply wouldn’t have happened without him.
“This year, because of the wonderful stress of being a small business owner with Bri [Halverson, co-artistic director] and our spouses [Daniel Gilbert and Dolly Gray Brennan], and us opening up the improv theatre, we weren’t going to do the comedy festival this year,” says Brennan.
Riggs produces a sketch team with his wife and is a frequent comedy festival attendee, so Brennan and Halverson let him take the reins while they focused on making the theatre come to life.
“Each festival has a different flavor, different style,” explains Riggs. “Specifically, the one I went to that inspired me to pitch them on this was Pittsburgh. It was this real low-key gathering of artists who just loved comedy and improv and were together sharing it.”
The Savannah Comedy Fest is important because it exposes comedy lovers to different styles and forms of comedy that they might not be able to see here. As Brennan explains, every city has a unique style of comedy influenced by the people who comprise the scene. Chicago, for instance, has a lot of black-box theatres, so the style is more theatrical, whereas New York City has so many writers that the style includes lots of compelling characters.
“Now we’re Savannah style,” says Brennan. “It’s so early we don’t know what that is! We do try and make it theatrical—we have our short form show, we have made our Improv for Morons show, and we’re like, this is a party.”
At this year’s festival, 11 cities will be represented in a diverse lineup of talented groups, ranging from improv to sketch to stand-up.
“One of the things we love about these kinds of comedy festivals is it doesn’t have to be the big name,” says Brennan. “We actually want to celebrate the groups and the shows. When I was in New York, I wasn’t going to see Seinfeld; we were going to the 11 p.m. shows at [Upright Citizens Brigade], going to IO in Chicago. That’s what we want to showcase, and we have to have a festival to get them here.”
“That’s the fun of it,” adds Riggs. “You’re taking a chance on a relatively unknown in the hopes that what they’re doing is cool, then, ‘Oh, hey, they’re on SNL now.’”
There’s a good chance you’ll see the next big name at the Savannah Comedy Fest. Acts to watch will certainly be HammerToad from Los Angeles; Murder, She Joked from Nashville; and Sweater Puppies from Atlanta, who count Archer’s Amber Nash among their members.
But above all, the festival is just a good time for fellow comedians to be inspired by each other.
“Festivals have that sense of community,” adds Riggs. “People who are looking to dig deeper into the art form can get some questions answered that they have. Savannah is a smaller market, so who knows if people are looking to expand and move to a larger city to pursue a career. That’s a great conduit to say, ‘Hey, talk to this person about the institutions or the schools that are in larger cities.’ It’s just this great inspiring time.”