Minnesota’s little comedy festival-that-could is all grown up

The stairs leading to the Comedy Corner Underground stage, below the Corner Bar on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis, Minnesota // Photo via The Comedy Corner Underground Facebook

The stairs leading to the Comedy Corner Underground stage, below the Corner Bar on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis, Minnesota // Photo via The Comedy Corner Underground Facebook

Back in 2011, Minneapolis comedy vets Bob Edwards and Andy Erikson decided to showcase the thriving Minneapolis comedy scene with a small but mighty festival with about 15 comedians in the basement of the Corner Bar.

Seven years later, The 10,000 Laughs Festival has grown into a four-day festival with nearly 60 performers, including some of the biggest national acts in comedy.

“There’s no handbook for running a festival,” Edwards says while neck-deep in final preparations for this year’s event. “This year we’re expecting about 2,500 attendees, plus we’re doing a bunch of new venues, and some of the comedians we’ve managed to get are insane.”

Some of those acts include stars like Rory Scovel, Rhea Butcher, and Taylor Tomlinson. In a full-circle moment, it also includes Andy Erikson, who has become a major name in comedy with TV shows and headlining tours to her credit. However, that’s not to say the festival has lost its local charm. “I’d say it’s still about 25 percent local talent,” Edwards says. “Not to mention we have five local comedians who are also producers, which helps to give the festival unique voices and styles.”

Some of this year’s local voices include established and up-and-comers like Ahmed Khalaf, Pierre Douglas, and Courtney Baka. Another comedian is Shelly Paul, who is also one of the producers. Paul has been around the 10,000 Laughs Festival since 2014, and has been a producer for the past three.  “When I first heard about it, I didn’t even know what a comedy festival was,” she recalls. “But it seemed like a big enough deal that I didn’t want to miss it, so I attended one of the shows.”

The following year she was invited to perform and was able to see the work it took to make the festival a success. The next year she was asked to be a producer, and she’s been involved in the planning and execution ever since. “The festival has always strived to showcase the best of what the Twin Cities has to offer, but in the past few years the number of people applying from all over the country has gone way up,” she says of her first-hand experience with the festival’s growth. “Not just in terms of the number, but also the level of talent. It’s really cool to see the interest in 10,000 Laughs reach talent in other states.”

Part of the reason for its growth and evolution is Edwards and company’s ability to take chances and try new things. “Some of the our most popular shows are ones that are kind of unique and different,” Edwards explains. “Like this year we’ve got our ‘Sober/Not Sober’ show, where comedians perform, then go get messed up, then come back and try to perform again. We also have a new show this year [‘Panic!’, taking place on Friday night at midnight] where the two hosts will provide prompts during the comedians’ sets. So they might make someone elaborate on a premise, or improv something in the middle. Just anything to keep things unexpected.”

Other shows in past years have incorporated puppets, music, and even breakfast foods. And while some shows, like the ‘Sober/Not Sober’ concept, have been huge hits, there have also been a fair number of misses along the way. “One of the first years we did a show with Mark Mallman at Comedy Corner Underground that was probably one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen,” recalls Edwards. “And it was performed for an audience of me, another producer, and like three audience members. That was when I realized that I had no idea how to properly promote a show with a musical element.”

This year’s event will include 18 unique shows packed with different themes and performers stretching across six different venues, including the fest’s original home (and Edwards’ headquarters), Comedy Corner Underground.

Various performers from the 2017 10,000 Laughs Comedy Festival // Photos courtesy the 10,000 Laughs Comedy Festival

While seeing performers from all over the country take the stage in local venues all over town is great, Paul says one of the biggest points of pride about the event for her is the visibility our comedy scene gets from people who may not have realized what they were missing.

“I’ve heard from so many comics, ‘I’ve never been to Minneapolis before this, but I love it here! I can’t wait to come back!’ and I think getting the opportunity to showcase not only the comedy community here, but just how beautiful the city itself is, makes this all seem worth it.”

As for what the future of the festival holds, Edwards isn’t really sure how much bigger and better things can get. But he intends to find out.

“I start working on the next year of the festival right after we wrap up the last show,” he says. “All of us involved in this have such an obscene work ethic and love of comedy that it keeps us motivated. After 15-plus years in comedy, I just now really feel comfortable with all of the aspects of booking, marketing, and making this festival a success. It’s so ingrained in me that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully remove myself.”

The 10,000 Laughs Festival runs from October 17–20. Visit 10000laughs.com for details.