The hilarious crew at Front Porch Improv are bringing together a variety of comic acts from around the country for their annual Savannah Comedy Fest on Jan. 24-26.
The three-day festival boasts a strong lineup of improv, sketch comedy, stand-up, and music that is guaranteed to make you laugh, howl, giggle, chortle and even, quite possibly, guffaw.
One of the many highlights of this year’s fest is Mark Kendall’s critically acclaimed one-man-show, “The Magic Negro.” Kendall, who is a member of Dad’s Garage Theater Company in Atlanta, studied film at Northwestern University and then interned at Comedy Central as part of Chris Rock’s writer’s clinic for people of color. During the internship, Kendall got to learn the ropes of comedy writing from the staff of the "Daily Show" and the "Colbert Report." The edgy, politically charged writing Kendall developed at Comedy Central is on full display in “The Magic Negro.”
You may recognize the tired movie trope of the magic negro — the benevolent, sometimes supernaturally gifted black character that bestows wisdom on the white protagonist — from films like “The Green Mile” and “The Legend of Bagger Vance.” Kendall uses the trope to frame a series of sketches about the black experience.
“A big theme is are you able to see black people as individuals or is it tough for you to get past your own personal assumptions of what a black person is?” Kendall explains. “For example, I bring up a white audience member and I show them a series of pictures seeing if they can tell certain black people apart.” This bit was inspired by an infamous interview where a news anchor thought Samuel L. Jackson was Laurence Fishburne.
Other themes include white flight and white guilt, but Kendall’s goal isn’t necessarily to make the audience uncomfortable — it is a comedy show after all. “Hopefully, what comes through is, if you’re a white audience member and you’re like, ‘Ah man, this Magic Negro character makes me uncomfortable,’ well, hopefully you ask yourself ‘Why?’ because he’s a problematic character,” Kendall says. “And then, hopefully, maybe you’re asking yourself why you’re laughing at certain elements in the sketches. Are we laughing at the stereotypes or are we laughing at what I’m satirizing?”
Kendall will also appear at the festival in a two-person show with Alison Hastings called “U Up?” The series of sketches examines dating, sex and relationships in the digital age.
Another highlight of the festival is New York’s Lauren Hope Krass and her show, “Krass Act.” Krass got her start in Charleston, S.C., with Theater 99 where her infectious personality and self-deprecating humor won over audiences. Along with stand-up and improv, Krass also created a musical (co-written by Front Porch’s John Brennan) called “Princess Charming.”
Based on her self-reflective style, it’s pretty obvious where her inspiration comes from. “Definitely, my ridiculous life and things that have happened to me,” says Krass. “My material is all autobiographical. I kind of cheat with my personality. Any of my friends or family would yell at me for saying this, but I definitely don’t consider myself to be a brilliant writer.
“I’m inspired by my dating life, and my life in North America, in this culture as a fat woman,” Krass continues. “My dad left me as a kid and I have funny material about that...I was raised by my grandparents and my mom, so I was surprisingly unscarred by that.”
“Krass Act” is sort of a greatest hits compilation featuring some songs from “Princess Charming.” “It’s like a funny cabaret,” says Krass. “It’s three songs, my best jokes, some funny stories, and an overarching theme of self-acceptance, self-love, and a little bit of embarrassing romance stories thrown in there.”
Fans of Flight of the Conchords and Tenacious D should check out Doppelganger, a musical act also from Theater 99. The musical duo of Lee Lewis and Jason Cooper perform as Clive Nielsen and Johnny Dregg, singer and guitarist of Doppelganger.
“We’re a mega supergroup that has been around for 26 platinum albums, five world tours, inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame,’”explains Cooper. “Now we’re doing a VH1 Storytellers tour, playing to our most rabid fans, The Doppelheads.”
The format of the show involves audience members shouting out the names of their favorite — imaginary — Doppelganger songs. The band then recounts in detail the story of the recording of the song, and then perform it. Some of their greatest hits include “Just the Tip” and “Nuns on the Run.”
It’s really quite a sight to see the duo conjure hilarious, fully form songs out of nowhere, especially since those in the audience will be the only people to ever hear it. There have been discussions about recording a live album, but, as their tagline says, “These songs are the first and last time you’ll hear them.”
Theater 99 is a wellspring of comic talent and its co-founder and manager, Brandy Sullivan, is no exception. Sullivan and her long-time improv partner, Jennifer Buddin, will appear at the festival as Hot Pants. The improv veterans talk to the audience at the beginning of the show and then jump right into a long-form skit.
“It’s accessible because there are references from what the audience gives us which makes for a good connection from the stage to audience,” says Sullivan. “Everyone is in on the fun...I love it because it is fresh and new every time.”
Sullivan quotes Theater 99 co-founder, Greg Tavares, when she explains what makes improv work. “You want to watch improv and you want to see the dance, you don’t want to see the steps,” Sullivan explains. “Sometimes, you go out there and you’re like, ‘Hey, we’re dancing!’”
With Theater 99 in Charleston, Dad’s Garage in Atlanta, and Front Porch Improv in Savannah, there is a stable network of comics in the region inspiring each other, and the Savannah Comedy Fest is a testament to the growing comedy community. “It’s like having cousins or siblings that live out of town,” says Sullivan.
Be sure to check out the full festival line-up on savannahcomedyfest.com.