Todd Barry will headline the festival on November 11 at the Ready Room.
Comedy takes place in St. Louis on a nightly basis. It's not just at the four clubs that feature jokes as the spine of their programming, but at nightspots, coffeehouses and other random venues all through the region. On a given night, there’re multiple sketch shows, improv showcases, variety shows, and the old-standby, the “sign up at the bar” open mic. And while touring comics can frequently turn out large audiences, shows built around local talent can often suffer from small turnouts.
There’s no single, silver bullet that would bring out crowds to local shows, but an attempt is taking place this month to rally attention to the local scene: the Flyover Comedy Festival. Taking place in the Grove this weekend, November 9 to 11, the three-night, five-stage fest brings together all the disciplines (sketch, improv, stand-up, variety) under one banner.
Zach Gzehoviak and Kris M. Wernowsky (the latter a former contributor to the Riverfront Times
) are the co-founders of Flyover Fest, which they hope will become an annual event on the St. Louis comedy calendar — understandable, considering they and a local committee have sunk a ton of time and energy into shaping the first year’s programming.
Gzehoviak, who serves as the board chair of Flyover, notes that the concept’s been floating around for years, and “there’d been some false starts with different neighborhoods and ideas. A group would get together and it’d only go so far."
But this time was different, Gzehoviak says. He points to the Improv Shop's recent move to the Grove as the catalyst.
"I went through their training program myself, and was friends with the owners," he says. "Once we started having conversations with those guys, it seemed he Grove would be the perfect neighborhood."
With a location secured, the team got to work assembling a lineup, collecting submissions from comics and improvisers from around the country. Roughly 200 responded to the call.
"We narrowed it down to sixteen out-of-town comics and booked some headliners through connections from other comedy festivals and those who’ve come through St. Louis before," Gzehoviak says. "And then we worked with the Ready Room to book Todd Barry.”
Juggling venues and available dates wasn’t so much the exception as the rule for this debut year, in which 62 performances are booked. The Ready Room’s sign-on as a venue came by a bit of inadvertent humor, as the club booked the proto black metal band Mayhem right in the middle of the projected schedule just as the Flyover Festival was coming into being. But the owners were on board.
“As a first-year festival, you’re working on a lot of different aspects. We wanted the venues to be close together and we booked one, main headliner the first year, instead of having headliners to compete too much," Gzehoviak says. "It wasn’t realistic to pull off headliners at different venues. Given the needs for different events, we’re having shows at Gezellig, Urban Chestnut and open mics at the Handlebar, as well.”
Angela Smith, a St. Louis-based standup, says she “was a late addition to the festival board/production crew.” Along the way, she picked up some performance dates, as well, performing stand-up in character as Mary Todd Lincoln on History Shmistory at the Improv Shop on November 9 and hosting for Emily Galati on November 10 at Gezellig. She'll also be hanging around the open mics at Handlebar.
She hopes that the festival "will shine a big, fat spotlight on what St. Louis Comedy has already been doing for years," she says.
"Calling the fest ‘Flyover’ pokes fun at the fact that we're not New York or LA, but we've got a strong comedy scene and a lot to offer here," Smith explains. "Almost any night of the week, you have your pick of multiple stand-up, sketch and improv shows happening around St. Louis. Now we get to squeeze some of our best work into three days and share that time with some of the nation's best up-and-coming comics. Also, I think we're all in agreement that St. Louis could use a good laugh right now."
Smith says that getting folks out to the shows is, obviously, the biggest goal. She acknowledges that it can be tough to get people to come out to see comedy shows with smaller names on the bill — but insists that the level of talent on offer here is on par with the best.
“This isn't Branson. A lot of these comics have been on Conan
," she explains. "They've written for TV shows. They're out there opening for the big names you have heard of. And they'll be the next big names you know."
Asked about what’s impressed her of late, from any corner of the local scene, Smith says, “I continue to be impressed by how much we experiment within the STL comedy scene. Aaron Sawyer's doing really cool things over at Heavy Anchor with a new variety show called Boondoggle. Brandon Judd has a very unique concept in his Live Comedy DVD show; he actually delivers director commentary as comics do their sets. It's great. Fatal Bus Accident continues to get good press. History Shmistory just did a show in London. Bottom of the World is crushing it. I could go on and on and unless you've been to these shows, you don't know what I'm talking about — which is why you should go to these.”
Gzehoviak agrees with Smith on all counts.
“We want to see people who’ve typically not gone to shows,” he says. “That’s one of the beauties of a festival, so many shows are going on a over a particular weekend and so many people are in from out of town, with their own draws. Hopefully the festival itself will be a draw, and we want people who normally don’t come out for local comedy to know this is the weekend to it.
"I also hope it stirs some interest in people being on the lookout, realizing all the talent that’s here," he adds. "We want to put St. Louis on the map, as a city with an underground scene that’s charging into the future.”
Info on individual tickets, weekend passes and venues can be found at flyovercomedyfest.com