NORFOLK - When the stage lights go up Thursday evening for the first performance of the Great American Comedy Festival, it will culminate many months of work by the festival Board of Directors and planning committee.
The Comedy Magic Show kicks off the 12th annual festival Thursday and will be followed by the Comedy Showcase Friday with Dave Coulier as headliner. Paul Reiser headlines Saturday’s Festival Gala. Shows are at 7 p.m. at the Johnny Carson Theatre.
The festival is presented by Nucor Steel Nebraska, Nucor Cold Finish Nebraska, Nucor Detailing Center, and Vulcraft Nebraska.
There is also The Cable ONE Late Night Show Friday at 10:30 at Divots.
After a six-week hiatus after every festival, the Great American Comedy Festival Board of Directors and committee reconvene in August for its corporate annual meeting to seat 9-15 members on the Board of Directors. Currently, 12 people serve on the Board. The planning committee usually has about 25 members, including the Board members.
Not long after the corporate Board meeting, the Board and committee members select the sub-committees they would like serve on and the work begins on the next festival.
Sub-committees include budget, marketing and social media, fundraising, booking, printing, ticketing, travel, lodging, host families, legal, production, late night show, theatre green room, talent entertainment, and lobby. Other sub-committees are printing, production, ticketing, travel, lodging, host families, and legal.
“Everyone on every sub-committee has a vital role to play,” said Executive Director Lisa Wattier. “It truly does take a village to put this thing together every year,” she said.
The booking sub-committee immediately goes to work investigating possible magicians or comedians for the next festival.
Wattier notes the festival costs many tens of thousands of dollars to produce every year and the success of the fundraising sub-committee determines the caliber of entertainment at the next festival. “Our festival sponsors are very generous,” she said. “We couldn’t do this without them. We rarely are turned down in our request for financial support from past sponsors.”
All talent for the festival are provided transportation from Omaha by committee members and back to Omaha on a chartered bus or personal vehicles. Their lodging in Norfolk is also provided. “Because Norfolk is a distance from the airport, we try to make up for the inconvenience of a two-hour drive,” she continued. “Some really don’t like that drive, but once they get here, they have such a good time, they don’t care.”
Past comedians have been treated to a picnic/hayrack ride at the Bruce and Connie Zimmerman farm near Battle Creek, tour of the Johnny Carson exhibit at the Elkhorn Valley Museum, tour and picnic at the Johnny Carson home, a photo op at the Johnny Carson mural in downtown Norfolk, and a Runza feed to introduce them to Nebraska’s own Runzas.
“The life of a comedian is really a fairly isolated life,” Wattier said. “They travel from one city to another, usually alone, to perform. They spend time alone in their hotel rooms, take a taxi or Uber alone to their gig site, then perhaps eat or have a beverage alone after their show.
“We try to fill their hours here with fun,” Wattier said. “That is why so many want to return.
“We have learned over the years, however, not to schedule too many things in the early morning. Because they work at night, comedians aren’t early risers,” Wattier laughed.
The comedians also enjoy the great camaraderie that develops with their industry peers during the festival.
Wattier notes that once the comedians get to the Johnny Carson Theatre, they are welcomed with a back-stage green room comfortably furnished with furniture borrowed from local retailers. “We even try to meet their dietary needs in the green room,” Wattier said.
“All these different facets of the festival require many people,” Wattier said. “The work gets done every year. And the vast majority of our Board of Directors and planning committee members are ready to do it all over again next year after the festival ends and a brief hiatus.
“The audience enjoyment is also a great incentive to do it again,” she said. “We love to hear that laughter and know we have done our job when we hear it.”
She also noted that that the response of the magicians and comedians about their Norfolk experience is another great incentive. “They are all so appreciative of their great experience in Norfolk,” Wattier said.
Phil Palisoul, winner of the 2013 festival who returned for the 10th anniversary, fondly remembers his Norfolk experiences. “I will always remember my time at the Great American Comedy Festival as fun and funny.
“The day at the farm, touring Johnny Carson’s boyhood home, getting to know other comedians are just part of my warm memories of the festival,” he said. “The festival shows and the final night at the Johnny Carson Theatre where we shared the stage with titans of the comedy industry were great, well attended and received.
“I’ve done many ‘contests’ and many festivals. None come close in teamed professional and personal impact to my heart as the one held in Norfolk, Nebraska,” he said. “My experiences in Norfolk will forever be cherished. I hope to come back for another helping of the hospitality... and the laughs.”
When asked if he enjoyed his experience in Norfolk, 2014 competition runner-up Michael Somerville said, “It has been great, more than great. If only all my weekends of work could be as much fun as this has been.”
Joanie Fagan competed in the 2016 Great American Comedy Festival, the last year the festival was in a competition format. “One of my most memorable and treasured comedy career experiences was the Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk. From the minute I arrived to the Sunday morning trip back to the airport, I knew I was part of something special.
“To be surrounded by so much talent, in a town where a comedy legend grew up, with people who are kind and down to earth, was wonderful. We all felt so welcome.
“It was a magical, uplifting time,” Fagan concluded.
The 12th Annual Great American Comedy Festival is also made possible with the support of the Nebraska Arts Council and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment.
For tickets and information, visit greatamericancomedyfestival.com Tickets will also be available at the door.