Laughter is the best medicine: LaughFest offers wide array of performances, venues in 9th year

Designed by a nonprofit that provides cancer and grief support programs for adults and children, LaughFest, containing over 100 events each year and attracting talent from across the country, has been a mainstay in comedy and comical performances for almost a decade.
Let’s face it. This winter has been a doozy. With dangerously low temps, record high snowfalls, hundreds of thousands of power outages, and enough snow days to drive most parents crazy, we can all be glad that March — the month that contains the first day of spring — is finally here. And here in Michigan, for the past nine years, March contains plenty of medicine, in the form of laughter.

This week debuts the ninth annual LaughFest, a festival created by Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, “the nation’s first-ever community-wide festival of laughter.” Designed by a nonprofit that provides cancer and grief support programs for adults and children, the festival, containing over 100 events each year and attracting talent from across the country, has been a mainstay in comedy and comical performances for almost a decade.

“People need to get out and do something fun after Michigan winter,” says Director of Strategic Initiatives & LaughFest Joanne Roehm. And at LaughFest, “The lineup of events is always different and is changing and evolving,” she adds. In her talent acquisition, Roehm seeks fresh, diverse performances that appeal to a wide variety of audience members. And this diversity spans racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines, as well as age and taste.

Joanne Roehm“We have everything from kids stuff…all the way through the raunchy dirty comedy and everything in between,” says Roehm.

For kids, the festival has Kids Joke Time, student showcases, and Family Improv. LaughFest has also partnered with local hip hop dance school 61Syx Teknique Street Dance Academy to host a Kids Rock Hip Hop Dance Party at the BOB on Saturday, March 9.

One such performer that falls into the festival’s “RATED R…REALLY” category is HBO’s “Insecure” regular Amanda Seales, who performs on Saturday, March 9 at Fountain Street Church. If her bio is just a taste of Seales’ epic performance, her audience is in for a treat:

Amanda Seales“Along with performing stand up across the globe, and touring colleges doing comedic lectures on everything from sexism and diversity, relationships to black popular culture, this former MTV VJ with a master’s in African American studies from Columbia University…A Jedi Khaleesi with a patronus that’s a Black Panther with wings, Amanda Seales continues to keep audiences laughing, thinking, and living in their truth!”

“This is a really great opportunity to see her,” says Roehm, who adds that Seales is only the second African American woman ever to have her own comedy special on HBO.

Roehm also wants festival-goers to know about the variety of performances they have at their fingertips this year. “It’s not all standup comedy,” she says, noting long-time actor Ed Asner’s comedy-stage play, “A Man and His Prostate,” performing at the Wealthy Theatre on Sunday, March 10. Best known for his roles on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the Good Wife, and Men at Work, Asner will star as an “old codger” in a show based on writer “Ed Weinberger’s true life experience while vacationing in Italy and being rushed to a hospital for prostate cancer surgery.”

Asner’s performance at the Wealthy Theatre showcases another element of the festival’s diversity — the hosting of performances at neighborhood locations across the city. In addition to this Baxter mainstay, Laughfest performances will take place at Creston Brewery, the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives (GRAAMA), LINC, and Dog Story Theater, among others.

The festival has also partnered with the brand new The Comedy Project at 540 Leonard NW, the only venue in Grand Rapids whose sole focus is on the art of comedy. This fresh location, covered in Rapid Growth in November, also serves as performance school, with teachers dispensing wisdom in improvisation, comedy acting, and comedy writing.

And the best part of this wide and varied festival? The majority of the events are absolutely FREE. And this is because, says Roehm, the festival is designed to open the door for a respite from illness, for talking about tough topics in a safe environment, and yes, to laugh, when you need it most. “If we could get people to laugh, we could get them to listen,” says Roehm.

And with 150-200 events and 35k-50k people in attendance each year, Gilda’s Club is able to secure funding for 15 to 20 percent of their annual operating budget from LaughFest, keeping services at the nonprofit entirely free of charge for patients and families. “We want to remove as many barriers as possible for people to walk through those doors and receive support if they need it,” says Roehm.

Though it may seem that illness and laughter aren’t bedfellows, Roehm and the staff at Gilda’s Club attempt to convince you of the opposite each year as they open the door for real talk, clean fun, and honest conversations with each performance. “[The performances] allow opportunity for conversation in an accessible way about these tough things that we’re all going to navigate in our lives,” says Roehm. “It isn’t a comedy festival, it’s a festival of laughter.”

So get ready to laugh.
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