Comedy festival takes Iowa City


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Tom Garland is an alumni of the University of Iowa and former DI staffer, graduating with a degree in Journalism. He has toured nationally with the likes of Steve-O, Bam Margera and Tom Green. Garland headlined the original Green Gravel comedy festival and has appeared on various TV and radio programs. When in Iowa City, he can be found hosting "Tom Garland's Catacombs of Comedy" at the Yacht Club every Monday night at 10 p.m. "Catacombs of Comedy," which Garland co-founded, specializes in nurturing new talent and hosting surprise performances by touring professional comedians. Listen below to hear a little bit about why Garland keeps coming back to Iowa City.

Lasers lighting the dark, Adult Swim cartoons coming to life, sweaty flesh heaving in carnal mimicry — the second Green Gravel Comedy Festival has it all, and then some.

Encompassing 15 comedy events over Friday and Saturday, the festival offers a selection of locally and nationally recognized comedians. Events are priced in day, weekend packages, and individually.

Tom Garland, a local comedian, MC, and cofounder of the weekly Catacombs of Comedy open mike at the Yacht Club, 13 S. Linn St., said the festival is the ideal place to showcase the burgeoning Iowa comedy scene.

“Green Gravel is going to make [Iowa City] a spot in which [comedians] want to start stopping at … that’s what the scene’s been doing the last couple years, saying, ‘Hey, if you’re going from Minneapolis to Chicago, why aren’t you stopping in Iowa City?’ ” Garland said.

The first festival was held in Toledo, Iowa, at the end of March 2014. It was the brainchild of Iowa-born comedian Lee Keeler, who now works professionally as a producer, writer, and video artist based in Los Angeles.

“Green Gravel is a result of Lee using his network out in California. He’s from Iowa and wanted to bring something back [to Iowa],” festival Vice President Matthew Mesaros said.

Though successful, Mesaros said, the location of last year’s festival felt limited.

“The first [festival] was great,” Garland said. “Comedy is great in small towns, but a whole weekend of comedy is tough in a small market. But [in Iowa City], there’s a lot of foot traffic, and not only does it have the college kids, it can appeal to all the different demographics of Iowa City, all the different draws.” 

Iowa City also boasts a variety of quality venues, all within walking distance from each other, he said. Support for the festival from venues was initially hard to gather, which surprised festival coordinator Sarah Cho. 

“Gaining local support for the festival was hard because there is so much going on in this city … [but] after this weekend, more people will know about it,” she said.

Venues include the Mill, Gabe’s, Public Space One, FilmScene, George’s, High Ground, Deadwood, and Riverside Theater.

The variety of acts, including improvisation and standup, ensures that everyone can find an event in which to laugh.

“It’s something different that you’re not used to seeing, more experimental and courageous, acts you’d normally only find in the underground [comedy] scenes of bigger cities,” Cho said.

Festival headliner Eddie Pepitone’s Los Angeles-based standup serves as a tent pole for the event and is one of the more famous additions to the festival.

Fellow LA comic Ian Abramson will present his act, “7 Minutes in Purgatory.” Participating comedians stand in a separate room with noise-canceling headphones and speak into a video camera, forcing them to perform their routines without any visual or auditory cues from the audience.

“The Laser Comedy Show” is the wildly imaginative improvisational work of Chicago comic Chris Fair. He uses lasers to compose a story on the spot based on crowd-source suggestions.

Cho said she is excited by the heavy improvisational presence at this year’s festival. Her local improv group, the Janice Ian Experience, will perform with Iowa City-based group Paperback Rhinos.

“We’re doing something different; we’re trying to think of a way both [improv groups] can play games together, collaborating on something that hasn’t been seen before,” she said.

Comedy Central’s Adult Swim will perform alongside Garland and Chris Trew’s “Air Sex World Championship.”

“A lot of thought went into the Adult Swim show … they’re going to show clips … tons of original material,” Garland said. “Those guys don’t perform on live stages, either. They’re very selective about where they play.” 

The “Air Sex” act is exactly what it sounds like — a deliciously smutty reimagining of the classic “air guitar" gag. Trew tours the country regularly with this Fleshlight-sponsored act.

Trew will also teach a two-day improv workshop during the festival open to people interested in trying their hand at the craft.

“The variety of shows Green Gravel is offering is insane,” said local comedian Megan Gogerty.
Regional acts will make up approximately half of the performers. Chosen from 70 submissions, these performers represent the growing Iowa comedy scene, Mesaros said.

“It is hard to get that LA connection while still living here in Iowa … it doesn’t happen very often where someone just reaches out and helps you out …” Garland said. “Most of the stuff as comics, we have to scratch and claw for. It’s really cool when some guy like this wants to come back and do something in his home state.” 

He has produced and performed comedy in Iowa, and Iowa City especially, for the past five years. As the co-creator of the Catacombs of Comedy series, he still regularly hosts the open mike, held every Monday evening.

Green Gravel consulted Garland to get a feel for what comedy acts might play well in Iowa City, though he recused himself from the selection of local comics because of his personal involvement, he said.

Comedy has become increasingly relevant not only in Iowa City but across the state, Garland said.

“I’ve seen a lot of open mikes pop up here even in the last year,” he said. “I’ve really seen it grow here … to go from four comedians in the whole city to two comedy festivals with major headliners … is really cool.” 

The abundance of opportunities to perform across the city and the increasing participation of women locally is exciting, Gogerty said.

Gogerty is a locally-based playwright, monologist, and comedian who performs regularly in Iowa City. She is slated to appear prior to Eddie Pepitone in the headlining showcase.

“The best time to be a comedian in Iowa City is 2015,” she said.

Part of the advantage of the Iowa City comedy market is the freshness and friendliness it offers newcomers to the craft. There is no competition with huge, entrenched name-brand comics for stage time, Garland said.

“This festival is about stage opportunity,” he said. “Iowa City, if you ask me, is really the hub of the [Iowa’s] comedy … this is the scene where comics really develop.”

Not only do comedians get a stage, they also benefit from working alongside seasoned comedians; picking up invaluable tips and tricks of the trade. Garland is particularly excited to work with Trews again.

“I like working with people I think I can learn from … [comedy] is a very tough business to create your niche in,” Garland said.

With so many comedians in one place, a riotous camaraderie develops between the performers and also with “hardcore” members of the audience, Gogerty said.

“It’s kind of like summer camp for comedians, we get to meet and share our stuff…[sometimes] comedy can feel really isolating,” she said.

Keeler, who does a lot of work with the Comedy Central stage in LA, said his California connections are largely responsible for getting many big-name acts such as Adult Swim and Pepitone to sign up for Green Gravel.

“It’s a huge step forward for Iowa City’s comedy scene and for the whole state,” Garland said. “The more shows that pop up, the more the market is going to expand.” 

Mesaros said the festival will, hopefully, serve as a platform for Iowa comedians to share their bits with a wider national audience.

“We’re hoping to broaden some horizons; long-term, we want to fly some people out to California and get them on the Comedy Central stage,” he said.

He said the festival wants to make Iowa City its new permanent home.

“Green Gravel is the Mission Creek of comedy,” Mesaros said, referring to the popular Iowa City Mission Creek music and arts festival, held in April. “The whole aim is to celebrate Iowa comedy … we want to do it again and again.”

Getting people to come to comedy shows can be hard in a city with such strong nightlife, Garland said. With this in mind, he helped Green Gravel design a comedy festival worthy of Iowa City.

“I’m all about the chaos,” he said. “Everybody’s been to the average, two-drink minimum comedy room that tells you, ‘Hey, you guys sit down and shut the hell up.’ That’s not this town. This town is wild.” 

Green Gravel Comedy Festival
When: Friday and Saturday
Where: Throughout Iowa City
Admission: Tickets for Friday’s events (“Shovel”), $22; tickets for Saturday’s events (“Pickaxe”), $45; tickets for both days (“Dynamite”), $60; Christ Trew's Improv Workshop, $35
For a full schedule of events, visit http://greengravelcomedyfest.com/events/

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