.Santa Cruz Comedy Festival Returns With a Pandemic Twist

A year ago, says veteran stand-up comedian Laurie Kilmartin, standing on a makeshift stage in a parking lot cracking one-liners to a bunch of parked cars “would have been considered a hell gig. Now, every comic I know is like, ‘Please, let me do this, please.’”

Welcome to the bonkers, upside-down world of professional comedy circa 2020, where the once-simple job of delivering jokes has become absurdly complicated, thanks to a pandemic with no end in sight.

The seventh annual Santa Cruz Comedy Festival will take place on the weekend of Oct. 3 and 4, which itself is a kind of moral victory. But don’t expect this year’s festival to look or feel anything like the previous six.

“We would normally have 12 venues all through downtown,” says comic DNA, the festival’s director and the impresario at DNA’s Comedy Lab on River Street. “We would do free shows at the MAH (Museum of Art and History), Bookshop Santa Cruz, 99 Bottles.”

Most of those venues are closed, either permanently like 99 Bottles or temporarily —including the Comedy Lab, which has been presenting online shows to keep the bills paid.

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So, what’s a comedy festival to do?

This year’s festival will take place in an outdoor parking lot—behind the Saturn Café between Front Street and Pacific Avenue, just south of Laurel Street. And the audience will be seated in parked cars, listening to the show on their FM radios.

Yep, we’re talking drive-in comedy.

This unique brand of comedy is now a thing nationwide, as comics and comedy presenters scramble to find a format that will allow them to do what Covid-19 has largely denied to them: make audiences laugh, live.

“It’s very weird,” says DNA. “It’s a combination of that Disney movie Cars, where our cars become our personalities, and Christine, the Stephen King story where the cars are haunted.”

Here’s how it works: Tickets will be sold per vehicle, which means a Miata with a single driver and a Dodge cargo van with a dozen people in it will pay the same $60, with $10 of each ticket to be donated to the Ben Lomond Volunteer Fire Department. The show will be transmitted via a low-power broadcast transmitter, allowing fans to hear it through their FM radio.

The festival will present four shows over two days at 4pm and 7:30pm Saturday and Sunday. On stage will be at least seven professional comedians including Bay Area-born comedian and writer Laurie Kilmartin, a finalist on NBC’s Last Comic Standing and a staff writer for several late-night TV shows. Other comedians on the slate include Merril Davis, Jason Burke, Butch Escobar, Dave Ross, Alexandria Love, and Kevin Camia.

Kilmartin is well known for her willingness to wring laughs from what many people might consider tragic subjects. She has written a book on grief titled Dead People Suck: A Guide for Survivors of the Newly Departed, based on the death of her father. And she made headlines in the summer following the death of her mother from Covid-19. On Twitter, Kilmartin chronicled her mother’s struggles with compassion, fury, and lots of humor: “My sister and I are both heartbroken,” she said in one tweet, “that Mom’s last words to us were complaints about the nursing home and not about our appearance.”

Kilmartin says the reaction to her take on her mother’s death was universally positive. “My version of talking about it is to make jokes about it.”

Covid-19 hasn’t changed Kilmartin’s approach to comedy. “The pandemic hasn’t changed anyone’s sense of humor,” she says. “People are still themselves. I know a lot of people are watching Friends for the first time in years, as comfort comedy. But if you liked dark humor before, you still like it now, and if you didn’t, you hate it.”

Kilmartin grew up in Walnut Creek and has been to Santa Cruz countless times over the years. She comes to town with deep empathy from what locals have experienced with the recent CZU Lightning Complex fire. She also has lots of experience in facing down tragedy through comedy. For example, she was among the comedians who performed at a show produced by DNA near Paradise after the devastating 2018 Camp Fire.

“It felt like doing shows in New York right after 9/11,” she says. “Some people were laughing, but most people just looked like they were in shock. Anything that looks normal after you’ve lost a house, or lost friends, or after you’ve been literally driving through fire, you want to just feel like some part of your life is the same. I don’t know if they were huge fans of comedy, or huge fans of me. But they were fans of connecting with each other and trying to do something they would have done before the fire.”

Seventh Annual Santa Cruz Comedy Festival:

  • Oct. 3 and 4, two drive-in shows each day at 4pm and 7:30pm
  • 201 Front St., Santa Cruz
  • $60 per carload ($10 donated to Ben Lomond Volunteer Fire Department)
  • Learn more at dnascomedylab.com.


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