There's no shortage of festivals geared toward funny throughout the year. Montréal has Just For Laughs, San Francisco and Chicago each have a Sketchfest, and New York City has, well, New York Comedy Festival. And while Austin's SXSW and Los Angeles' RiotLA are only a road trip away, Arizona's corner of the Southwest is still a desert when it comes to large-scale comedy shows. Until now.
The Bird City Comedy Festival debuts throughout downtown Phoenix this weekend, taking over half a dozen venues from large theaters to small clubs, and bringing together 60 stand-up comics and seven improv troupes for 33 shows, workshops, and live recordings.
Bird City is the brainchild of Genevieve Rice, local stand-up comedian and host of "Thank You for Being a Podcast," a Golden Girls-inspired web series. Rice has been dreaming of a Valley-based comedy festival for years and decided last fall that instead of waiting for it to happen, she would make it happen with the help of some fellow comedians and fans of funny.
Rice says she was inspired by some of the smaller festivals she'd attended, like RiotLA, Beast Village Comedy Festival in Des Moines, and Scruffy City Comedy Festival in Knoxville, that allow both up-and-coming comics and established names to perform with and next to each other. The goal was to emulate that with a Southwestern twist, and create a festival that she'd not only want to go to, but want to perform at.
For a debut show, the line-up is pretty extensive, drawing heavily from the local talent pool with a healthy mix of national acts both known and unknown. Notable names include Emily Heller ("Baby Geniuses" podcast), Beth Stelling (Jimmy Kimmel Live), and Dana Gould (The Simpsons), along with Ron Babcock and Ryan McKee. Though both are now based in LA, they got their start in Phoenix with a monthly variety show, "Modern Proposal," at the Paper Heart, which helped jump-start the city's comedy scene. The duo will reprise that show at Bird City. Stand-up comic and improv actor Chris Trew of The New Movement Theatre in Austin and New Orleans will perform across the weekend, and hosts a workshop called "Improv for Standups" on Saturday.
The three-day setlist also includes live recordings of two podcasts: Rice's own "Thank You for Being a Podcast" and "How Have You Not Seen This?" in which comedian Dustin Meadows introduces fellow funny people to his favorite films they've never seen before.
So maybe you prefer improv over stand-up, or would rather be able to say "I saw them when" instead of packing into what's popular. Whatever you're into, there's room for all kinds of laughs this weekend.
"Essentially, we brought in a delightful variety of talented performers from all over the country," Rice says. "It's impossible to go wrong."
Dates and Times: The first annual Bird City Comedy Festival runs from Friday, April 8, through Sunday, April 10. Shows take over more than half a dozen venues throughout downtown Phoenix with various start times, but expect things to begin at 6 p.m. at Space 55 and Renaissance Phoenix Downtown; 6:30 p.m. at Lawn Gnome Publishing; and late night at 10:30 p.m. at Phoenix Center for the Arts during that first night. Things resume with an improvised umbrella walking tour at noon on Saturday, April 9, while shows and workshops are available from 1:30 p.m. through early evening. Shows end around midnight, except "Sorry, Please Continue," a panel storytelling show in the wee hours of Sunday, April 10. The final day of the festival starts with a live podcast taping at 1:30 p.m. and ending with headliner performances that start at 9 p.m. at The Pressroom and 10:30 p.m. at Phoenix Center for the Arts.
With multiple venues and a lot going on, there's no harm in consulting the schedule and choosing your own personal highlights, à la a jam-packed music weekend.
Venues: Six venues throughout the downtown area are participating, often with each running back-to-back events. Phoenix Center for the Arts, off Third and Moreland streets, hosts most of the late night action. Lawn Gnome Publishing, 905 North Fifth Street near Roosevelt Row, will be home to the festival's free open mic nights, "Little Bird Showcase," while nearby Space 55, 636 East Pierce Street, is the place to be for improv showcases and workshops. Looking for headliners? You'll find them at Last Exit Live, 717 South Central Avenue, on Saturday night and The Pressroom, 441 West Madison Street, on Sunday night. Renaissance Downtown Phoenix rounds things out, offering the most diverse and busy schedule that's stand-up heavy throughout all three days.
Ticket Prices: A three-day pass will get you into everything and sets you back $50. Daily passes are available at $15 for Friday or $25 each for Saturday and Sunday.
Age Limits: Passes are limited to those 18 and over, who can attend shows at Space 55, Lawn Gnome Publishing, and Phoenix Center for the Arts, including the festival installment of "Literally the Worst Show Ever." Stand-up at the Renaissance is also 18 and over. Expect shows at bars (Last Exit Live and The Pressroom) to be 21 and over only. No drink minimums listed.
Getting There: With the exception of Renaissance, most of the venues are a decent walk away from light rail stops at Central Avenue and Roosevelt Street and Central Avenue and Washington Street / First Avenue and Jefferson Street. One-way tickets run $2 per person, while an all-day Valley Metro pass costs $4. If you're planning to leave your car and hop on the rail, there are several park-and-ride lots along the light rail in central Phoenix, including 19th and Montebello avenues, Seventh Avenue and Camelback Road, and Central Avenue and Camelback Road.
For outlier venues in south downtown, taking a cab or a ride, like Uber or Lyft, may be the best way to make it from one set to another when there's little time to spare. Plan accordingly, and be on the lookout for surge pricing.
Weather: Temps are expected to be in the mid- to low-70s at night, making walking a breeze, though isolated showers are a possibility on both Friday and Sunday.
Parking: There are free lots near Phoenix Center for the Arts and limited unmetered street parking around Lawn Gnome Publishing and Space 55 — and they fill up fast. Elsewhere downtown, chances are you'll end up stuck at a meter (downside: they run until 10 p.m. — even on Sundays; upside: they now take credit cards and change) or paying for parking at the Renaissance garage. Lots run anywhere from $10 to $30 while meters are $1.50 per hour.
Must-Sees: Looking for headliners? The festival's big three names, Emily Heller, Beth Stelling, and Dana Gould are sure to be crowd-pleasers. Heller, host of the "Baby Geniuses" podcast and recognized for her appearances on Late Night with Seth Meyers and Conan, performs from 7:30 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, April 9, at the Renaissance. Stelling, of @midnight and Jimmy Kimmel Live fame, will do a set at Last Exit Live from 9 to 10:30 p.m. Gould, whose name you might recognize as a former Simpsons writer-producer-voice performer and from his appearance in The Aristocrats, helps close the festival with a stand-up show at 9 p.m. on Sunday, April 10, at The Pressroom.
One of the weekend's free events, and arguably one of the more creative, is the Blue Umbrella Walking Tour, which Rice, Bird City Comedy's founder, describes as "a fake historical tour of downtown Phoenix." The group meets in front of The Orpheum Theatre at noon on Saturday, and does an improv walk through the streets.
The event's closing set, "We Still Like You," pair storytelling and people doing terrible things in a way that's bound to elicit smiles — and some knowing nods. Performers share tales of moments gone wrong, while the crowd drinks to them and choruses, "We still like you!" Show at 10:30 p.m. at Phoenix Center for the Arts.
Food and Drinks: The Renaissance, Last Exit Live, and The Pressroom come fully stocked with full bars, while Phoenix Center for the Arts and Space 55 will offer a smaller selection of refreshments. Lawn Gnome Publishing is boozze free, but it's a stone's throw from popular beer and wine hub, Lost Leaf, and Jobot coffee shop.
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The Coronado, 2201 North Seventh Street, will be offering happy-hour prices all day to everyone with a festival pass.
Bring: A sense of humor.
Don't Bring: Kids. Hecklers.
Editor's note: This post has been updated from its original version.