The Coolest Kids in School: The Surprising Influence of the National College Comedy Festival

Before becoming an executive producer for 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, David Miner was just a Skidmore sophomore who loved comedy. In 1988, Miner’s life was changed when he saw improvisational theater in his hometown of New York City.

“It blew my mind,” he said, “So the next fall I decided to start a group like that.” The Ad-Liberal Artists (“I clearly had trouble coming up with a name,”) are now one of the oldest college comedy groups still performing.

After about a year with the “Ad-Libs,” Miner was already planning a festival. The Internet was in its infancy, so he had to cold call different colleges in an attempt to find more groups. He had no idea if any others existed. At age 19, he was seriously ambitious and uniquely idealistic; he wanted to create an environment where comedy was academic, a show that entertained an audience, and enough profit for the festival to exist the following year. From that, the National College Comedy Festival (or ComFest, or NCCF, or a bunch of other names) was born. Twenty-two years later, with the festival still thriving and thousands of comedians having adorned his stage, it’s fair to say he succeeded.

I heard about the festival my first day in receSs, the college comedy group at The George Washington University.

“Skidmore isn’t a competition,” a senior told me in 2006, “But receSs always wins.” The stories were hyperbolic. The stage was a place where legends were made. In the fifteen-year history of our group at the festival, receSs had been booed off the stage, received standing ovations and had been banned from the Skidmore College campus. I heard about the past successes of the group in the 90s and the recent glory of TJ Miller’s receSs in the early 2000s.

In 2003 and 2005, Brandon Gardner attended the festival with Binghamton’s Pappy Parker Players, before returning this year as a professional performer with the UCB Touring Company. One year, he was watching an all-college game of improv Freeze Tag, when TJ Miller, now host of Comedy Central’s Mash Up and star of Cloverfield, entered the venue, walked down from the audience and started the next scene. “He was wearing a hat and a winter coat and was in almost all of the next scenes. I remember being in awe of his confidence,” Gardner reflected, “Now he’s sorta famous.”

“I had sex with a girl that night,” TJ Miller explained, “And then I had a two year relationship with her. All because I crushed so hard in that freeze.”

“This is the real thing I’ll say about Skidmore,” Miller continued. “It was the place where the best groups in the country came. receSs was the reason I am the comedian I am today but Skidmore was the magnifying glass. I learned my style. [Cornell’s] Skits-o-phrenics were a well-timed machine but we were a tornado. Individually, we were funnier, but way less disciplined.” Lack of discipline didn’t mean performances were underdeveloped. “We did whatever we wanted at GW. Not at Skidmore. At Skidmore, we learned how to showcase.”

ReceSs alumni and The Wire actor Ptolemy Slocum remembered, “It was less important that our group stayed together than that we do the best possible show. One of our members dropped out because he didn’t think the Skidmore set was funny enough. He thought he could force the group to perform his ideas, but we just trained a kid outside of the group to take his place.”

In 2009, the Sunday before my final ComFest, I remember having a three-hour long debate with receSs over whether or not we wanted to perform a naked basketball sketch. It was a silly idea, but the argument was intense. There was no time for joking when it came to NCCF. For two cold nights in February, the future of comedy is in one room and they are all sizing each other up. You have to do your best work. ComFest isn’t a competition, but there are winners and there are losers.

Chris Himes, web producer at SNL, remembers, “It was the Oscars.”

* * *

It’s 9pm on Friday and a bunch of white kids in matching maroon shirts romp about the stage. Cornell’s Whistling Shrimp performed at the first ComFest and they’re performing now. The stage of the JKB Theater is shaped like home plate; it’s rubbery and black and surrounded on three sides by stadium seating. All four hundred seats are filled and many attendees are sitting in the aisles or standing in the back.

Despite the crowd, the laughter is segregated. The Skidmore students are seated stage right and they show support through belly laughs and screams. They have an affinity towards puns, funny characters and racism. Stage left reacts to strong game moves and supportive choices: they are the college comedians.

“Oh you’re looking for a phone?” Mark Vigeant, the leader of the Whistling Shrimp, yells from the stage. “Okay, whatchu wanna do is…” Before he finishes his sentence, the stage-left audience explodes with cheers and applause. It’s not so much laughter as it is approval and praise. Out of context, the line isn’t funny, but it is a beautifully timed callback.

“The college comedians cheer at strong moves,” Bleak! Comedy’s sole female, Peggy O’Leary explains. “They love great callbacks and when things wrap up. They are celebrating the fact that the theory of ‘truth in comedy’ is real. It works. The comedians are validated for believing in it.”

On stage, Vigeant can do no wrong. He’s goofy enough for the non-performers while being selfless and smart enough for the performers. When the set ends, the audience erupts. A few people stand. Since graduating college, it’s my first reminder of the famed Skidmore Standing Ovation. In 2006, a powerful Standing Ovation for NYU’s Hammerkatz made way for their alumni group Derrick Comedy (Donald Glover, DC Pierson, Dominic Dierkes) to return as professionals in 2007. In 2009, Bleak! brought the audience to their feet and earned a professional spot in 2010. It might not be causal, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

“We received a Standing Ovation our first year,” Derrick Comedy’s Pierson told me, “And I’ll never feel more famous than that. It felt really, really good to have your peers co-sign on what you think is funny.”

O’Leary elaborated. “When we got a Standing O, it was the first time Bleak! realized we could be a professional group: it’s approval from comedy nerds who won’t let you get away with jokes. It means so much when the comedians stand up first.”

A few hours after The Whistling Shrimp, Bleak! performs their first of two sets that weekend. It’s well executed but the response is far from deafening. At the end, nobody in the audience stands.

In the green room, something’s missing. The post-show high isn’t there. The group won’t admit they’re disappointed, but I can see it on their faces. I hear the phrase “I thought that went well” about fifteen times. The room peters out to silence.

Then, with a wavering confidence, Bleak! member Mike Antonucci says to no one, “Tomorrow, we get our Ovation.”

With renewed hope, the young professionals cheer.

* * *

That night, the after-party is loud and crowded. I look around and I’m reminded of what David Angelo, a writer for Jimmy Fallon, explained a few weeks prior. “There was a vague feeling” when he attended ComFest, “that because this was a festival in upstate New York, it was a comedy Woodstock. And I’m talking Woodstock ’99.” He’s right. The party is certainly a place where alcohol is consumed liberally and being a weirdo is encouraged. From what alumni were willing to tell me about their time partying, I learn of bleach being poured all over couches, human shit being thrown out of second floor windows and lots and lots of sex. This weekend, a drunken performer takes off his clothes and rides a Razor scooter in the ten-degree night. Two college comedians fuck in a bathroom while others watch through a window. I am constantly asked not to use names.

I spot Mark Vigeant, with a huge smile, giving a stranger a high-five. Bleak! and I begin to refer to him as The King of Skidmore. At most colleges, doing improv or sketch comedy is socially isolating. It’s not something that you do to become popular. You do it because you love it. But for two nights in Saratoga, the comedians are the most popular kids at Skidmore.

“You go there and it’s a merit system,” DC Pierson told me. “A person’s worth is how great or cool their performance was.” Pierson explained that his first year at Skidmore, a large sweaty performer brought down the house. Later that night, at the after-party, he saw that same guy, sweaty and shirtless, making out with a hot festival coordinator.

“That is amazing!” Pierson beamed. “That can only happen at Skidmore!”

* * *

On Saturday morning, nobody showers.

Starting at 11am, a universally reviled time, the college groups have one professional workshop. Some groups get matched up with Bleak!, others with another sketch group, Harvard Sailing Team, and the rest with the UCB Touring Company.

“Going to Skidmore was one of the first times I saw comedy as professional and important. It had a very convention-like atmosphere,” People’s Improv Theater improviser Steve Siddell told me. “I think it was the 97-98 festival when the original UCB taught the workshops.” This was a year before the original UCB, Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser and Ian Roberts, opened the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and it’s touring company. “I remember sitting in some shitty modern architecture room at 11am, listening to Matt Besser drone on in that nasal voice about beat 1a, 1b, 1c.” It was only three years later that the UCB’s Amy Poehler joined the cast of Saturday Night Live.

In a similar modern architecture classroom, Bleak!’s workshop feels like a religious retreat. It’s a group gathering where everyone is reminded that there are like-minded people in the world, that loving comedy is not embarrassing. The room is filled with people who take laughter seriously. The workshop attempts to be inspirational in lieu of instructional. As a social function, it seems to welcome the college performers to the club of comedy. You’re one of us.

“Wait,” a Yale student asks cautiously, “you mainly do comedy?” There is nothing patronizing in his tone. He’s amazed. His question seems to really be asking, “Are you allowed to just do comedy? Will anyone get mad at you!?”

Bleak!’s Lotan understands the subtext and fields the question. “Somebody’s gotta be serious about this shit.” He smiles, “It’s our job.” Lotan does not bring up his trouble paying rent.

As the comedians talk shop, so do the producers. Sitting on the floor of a gray, uninspired auditorium, I meet the people who make it all possible. Julie Dietz, the festival’s co-producer, is remarkably calm. Cara Body and Jane Clausen, the 2008 and 2009 producers respectively, are rifling through a box of festival keepsakes and old programs. Brody smiles. “ComFest is, without a doubt, the greatest thing that has ever happened to me.” She’s nostalgic for thankless paperwork and bureaucratic maneuvering.

None of them are comedians, yet they sacrifice their entire senior year to make comedy happen. Brody used to have recurring nightmares about the festival, waking up right before the performers attacked her for being unprepared. “The comedians who do this festival love it,” Brody explains. “You do it for them. They don’t usually get things like this.” Dietz chimes in, “You have to do it. The festival not happening is not a choice: people are counting on you to get it done.”

David Miner told me that the festival “cemented how satisfying it was to both nurture talent and to produce, which is exactly what I do today.” Just as many of the comedians I spoke with cite the festival as the place they understood comedy as legitimate, the producers often discover something similar about the business of comedy. Clausen became Bleak!’s manager in 2009 after seeing them at ComFest. Brody now works with Miner at 3Arts in L.A. “He’s still a celebrity in my head,” she blushes. “I still get a little nervous when I see him in the office.”

For all of their hard work, they don’t get to share in much of the weekend’s fun. It seems unfair. “To be honest, I didn’t get it until yesterday,” Dietz explained, “When I saw how excited the Ad-Libs got when Bleak! walked into the room, that’s when I knew it was all worth it.”

Clausen adds, “It’s everybody’s most anticipated weekend at Skidmore.”

Just to clarify, we’re still talking about college improv.

* * *

A few hours later, Bleak!’s rehearsing again. For about three hours before the performance, there is intensity in everything they do. Nothing tangible is on the line tonight, but it feels like they’re prepping for a fight. They want to prove themselves again, and they’re giving it the best they have. Bleak!’s performing “Stomach Town,” their half-hour sketch show that’s currently running at the UCB Theatre in New York.

“In New York,” Peggy O’Leary explained, “it’s all cynical and it feels like it’s impossible to succeed, but ComFest is all college kids. There’s this hopefulness and eagerness. Like, ‘We can all do this! Look at how successful we can all be!’” Bleak! member Paul Briganti adds, “the future of comedy is here. You don’t know where [everyone] will be in ten years.”

Derrick Comedy’s DC Pierson told me that Skidmore was where he first met his future comedy friends Jess Lane, Jon Golbe and Jon Gabrus, who are all current UCB Theatre performers. Brandon Gardner told me he also remembers meeting Jon Gabrus, Derrick Comedy and Fran Gillespe, who he now performs with on UCB Touring Company. Ptolemy Slocum remembers seeing Tara Copeland, Jason Mantzoukas and Jessica St. Clair, comedians with credits including She’s Out of My League, Parks and Recreation, and The Other Guys among others. The festival becomes a first look at your professional peers. “I can’t believe every agency and network doesn’t have scouts there,” Cara Brody had told me earlier in the day, “It’s outrageous!”

After a few minor crises, the moment arrives. With the future of comedy looking on, Bleak! walks onto the stage for a second time. I had seen them do the show four times before, but never with the type of focus they have tonight. Every line is a response to the one before. They fully commit to every motivation. And the audience response feels different. The laughs are massive. Almost every line gets a pop. The energy is contagious. After a five-minute choreographed chase scene, Stomach Town ends and Bleak!’s performance at the 2011 ComFest is complete. The audience explodes. The crowd is on their feet. Their Standing Ovation is almost a minute long and the moments following feel post-coital.

At the after-party, the college performers shower Bleak! with praise. For one night it seems appropriate to call them celebrities. I overhear one college kid tell Mike Antonucci that Stomach Town is unlike any sketch performance he’s ever seen. Another whines, “I could never do that.” I ask Mike to describe the Standing Ovation.

He smiles nervously, embarrassed by his excitement, and replies “the comedians stood first.”

The after-party — well, the after-after-party — does not end until six in the morning.

* * *

I spoke with Mark Vigeant, King of Skidmore, a few days after the festival. He told me how terrible his group was the first year he performed, and that he’d spent his entire college career working towards what they had done on Friday. “People stopped me on the streets of Saratoga,” he beamed. “And Bleak! was awesome. They gave me a hug and even tweeted about our show. To receive praise and compliments from them is supremely gratifying. I was honored.” It became clear that connecting with the comedians he respected was the best part of ComFest for Vigeant.

Bleak! knows the feeling. “I remember in 2009,” Yoni Lotan explains, “when Donald Glover and Dom Dierkes remembered my name. Or when DC Pierson wrote a blog about us. It felt incredible.”

DC Pierson felt the same a few years earlier. “When the people you really looked up to, Chris Gethard [from The Other Guys] or Eli Newell [from Delocated] or Brian Husky [from Superbad], told you that you did really well, that was the coolest thing in the world.” Derrick Comedy felt that connection and passed it on to Bleak!. Bleak! felt it and passed it on to Mark Vigeant. I’d wager that in five years, Mark Vigeant will pass it on to someone else.

The National College Comedy Festival breaks down the wall between fan and friend. Professionals and students become peers. It is understanding for the first time that you are not just some loser who plays pretend on Friday nights. It is understanding that your idols, the ones you respect and look up to, also used to believe they were just losers who played pretend on Friday nights. It is understanding that there are other people in this world who love what you love. It is understanding that a career in comedy is not only possible, but worth everything you have to give it.

“I’ve given up a lot for comedy,” Bleak!’s Drew Kaufman explained, “And ComFest gives you hope that you are on the path to somewhere.”

Twenty-two ago, long before David Miner could have imagined producing 30 Rock or Parks and Recreation, he produced a festival with the faint hope of meeting his comedy peers and being challenged by them. Today, it’s improbable that Bleak! could exist in it’s current form with out David Miner, a man they’ve never met. “Skidmore was the place where I realized I had the four people I wanted to perform with forever,” Peggy O’Leary told me, “there was no turning back.”

Sensing a philosophical tone in the car ride home, I ask Bleak! to tell me what ComFest means in a single sentence.

Immediately, Mike Antonucci yells “Getting drunk and fucking. You can quote me on that!” There’s a brief pause as I jot it down.

“Wait. Please don’t,” he adds. “That’s not what it’s about at all.”

Travis Helwig is a member of the NYC comedy group Mike Duffy and has written for MTV News and LandlineTV.

The Coolest Kids in School: The Surprising Influence […]