| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Youtube RSS Feed


In it Together: LaughFest in Year Three

LaughFest began over three years ago with smiley face lawn signs dotting the entire metro area and all over social media. No one knew what they meant, but when it was finally revealed that Gilda's Club of Grand Rapids would be holding a 10-day festival of laughter in March, the community rallied around the cause. 

Now in its third year, LaughFest is gaining a lot more recognition in both the general public and the media, according to Gilda's President and CEO, Leann Arkema. "In year one, it was brand new, so we were trying to educate," she says. "And last year, people were kind of getting into the rhythm. It feels like everything has gone on warp speed this year." 

Arkema says that prior to LaughFest's inception, event organizers had envisioned it as a win/win for everyone involved. Not only would the festival showcase Grand Rapids, but downtown businesses and venues would see a positive economic impact, local comedians would be exposed to greater opportunities, it would provide the community with something fun to do in March, and above all, Gilda's would be able to help support more people. In year three, Arkema believes the festival is achieving these goals. Between direct and indirect spending, LaughFest generates a total of $2 million in additional spending downtown. 

Arkema has also noticed it's easier to talk to major sponsors, talent, and those outside of the community this year, as LaughFest has has become something Grand Rapids is known for and national acts are mentioning their appearances on television and social media. Arkema recalls Jim Gaffigan telling her last year that LaughFest had created a buzz in New York.

Increased volunteerism and positive press that's on message are two other components that let Arkema and her team know it's working. 

"The reality for us is that it's not only (a successful festival), but it goes back to the talent and the community really starting to make the connection between laughter and our message about emotional health," Arkema says. "it's not just a festival of comedy, but a festival of laughter." 

Funny Business, a family-owned booking agency of nearly three decades specializing in comics, variety acts, theatrical shows, and "everything under the sun," is heavily involved in securing talent for LaughFest. Jamison Yoder, VP of Funny Business, says the office just moved downtown from Cascade to 100 Grandville SW in July, and part of the reason for their move was LaughFest, as well as being closer to Dr. Grin's, the comedy club inside The BOB. In addition to booking Dr. Grin's, Funny Business books talent at multiple clubs throughout the country. They keep a close eye on talent, attend other festivals throughout the year, and review talent submissions. 

"There is definitely a lot about buzz about (LaughFest) in the industry," Yoder says. "Comics love to talk about comedy, and if there's a good room or a good festival that takes care of the talent, that word gets out quickly."

Yoder says LaughFest is actually a larger festival than Chicago's comedy festival. While the largest is in Montreal, LaughFest is unique in that it serves a nonprofit. The festival also maintains a commitment to local talent. 

"LaughFest is very particular about using (local acts) as openers for shows. It's a nice credit for the resume, and if they get to hang out with the act, it's a good networking potential as well."

Yoder says the best way for new comics to gain experience is to perform at the local open mics. "Grand Rapids is a good city as an incubator," Yoder says. "The demand for seeing comedy here has grown over the last few years, and there's more of a scene here than before LaughFest. There's increased visibility and a lot more people wanting to start out in comedy here as well."

An average Sunday night at the Landing Lounge inside the Riverfront Hotel is a packed house for Sunday Night Funnies, a weekly open mic hosted by comic Brian B. The weekly event is so popular that our first attempt to cover it was a complete failure, as the venue was at capacity before the show even began. 

Adam Van Kuik, who refers to himself as a comedy regular, occasional performer, and the "guy who always sits in the front row," thinks LaughFest has encouraged locals who have an interest in comedy to come out and give stand-up a shot. "And then (these comics) can populate other open mics, and talk to other comics," he says, "thus fostering a local scene that extends far beyond LaughFest's 10 days."

Local comic Sean Dailey is relatively new to the local standup scene, but will be competing in the semi-finals of the 'Funniest Person in Grand Rapids' competition March 27. He is one of those comics who was inspired by LaughFest to finally "take the plunge" and explore his interest in performing stand-up.

"LaughFest offers a lot of opportunities for local comics to perform in front of different crowds than the usual open mics. We do this year round, but during these two weeks, West Michigan gets a chance to see inside the local comedy scene that they might not have known existed," he says. 

Comic Adam Degi and winner of 2009's 'Funniest Person in Grand Rapids' competition says this year's LaughFest is personal. Degi's father recently passed away from cancer. When it comes to Degi's many performances this year, he says, "The laughs are for him." 

Which, of course, is the entire point and why, according to Arkema, everyone in the community needs to be in this together. 

"All of us at some point along the way are going to experience cancer or grief," she says. "We are trying to mirror in LaughFest the same emotionally healthy concept that we employ at Gilda's for our families. We have to gather around each other in community and create a situation where we can all journey through the tough stuff. I know it's a stretch, but that's why we started out saying that (LaughFest) can benefit the whole community." 

J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media. She will be hosting the 10:30 p.m. Garfunkel and Oates Show at The Pyramid Scheme (38 Commerce SW) on Friday, March 8. 
Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts