March 3, 2024

Funny in February

An all-new comedy festival returns to Traverse City next month
By Jillian Manning | Jan. 7, 2023

Here are five words you’ve probably never heard before:

“I cannot wait for February.”

But so says comedian Mike Geeter, one of the guiding forces behind the 2023 Traverse City Comedy Fest, which comes to stages in downtown TC Feb. 2-4. Geeter and business partner Ann Duke (also a comic) have been working with city officials to plan a refreshed version of the winter event.

From 2010 to 2015, the Traverse City Comedy Arts Festival brought nationally-known comedians to the area. The festival was the cousin of the Traverse City Film Festival and also largely directed by Michael Moore. In 2016, the event was canceled for a variety of reasons—inability to book talent, lack of venue space, and concerns about the bottom line—and it never returned, leaving a gaping hole in the midwinter calendar.

“While there’s no shortage of exciting events in downtown Traverse City in the summer, the winter is traditionally a bit slower,” says Jean Derenzy, CEO of the Downtown Development Authority. “We’re always looking to give our downtown businesses a boost, and bringing comedy back to Traverse City in the winter is a great way to support our restaurants and merchants in the off-season while giving local residents a great reason to get out of the house and see some top-notch entertainers from across the country.”

The Roster

Once the wheels started turning, a new version of a comedy festival was born. Geeter and Duke were brought on board for their booking expertise and extensive connections within the state and beyond. Both have also performed at TC venues like Studio Anatomy and the Old Town Playhouse, so they’re familiar with the Up North vibe.

Geeter—who describes his comedic style by saying, “I’m like the group TLC: crazy, sexy, cool…with dad bod”—has been in the business for over 10 years, first in his native Pontiac and now near East Lansing. Duke is newer to the game, dedicating the last four years to stand-up in her corner of southeastern Michigan. When asked about her persona on stage, she replies, “I am that middle-aged woman—slightly irreverent, a little cynical—looking much better than other women her age. You know, your mom’s sexy best friend.”

Sounds like sex appeal is on the roster, as are another 40-some comics, many from Michigan or with Mitten State ties. According to Geeter, the selection group was “very meticulous about who we brought in. There is an extremely rich and deep well of talent.”

Some of the folks performing have national television experience as comics or as actors. Others are big names in the Midwest comedy scene. Duke adds that the lineup is diverse in every sense of the word: in age, gender, race and ethnicity (Duke says roughly 50 percent of the roster is BIPOC, or Black Indigenous People of Color), and even in content. “We’ve got super squeaky clean comics, and then we’ve got dirty as you can imagine comics,” she says.

As far as headliners go, Duke calls Tom Papa, host of the Sirius XM show Come to Papa, “a hot ticket,” while the hidden gem is ISMO, aka Finnish comedian Ismo Leikola, who has appeared on shows like Last Call with Carson Daly, Conan, and The Late Late Show with James Corden. (No subtitles needed: ISMO has also worked with Merriam-Webster on a digital comedy series roasting the English language.)

Who else is on Duke and Geeter’s can’t-miss list? Brad Wenzel, Mike Stanley, Roni Shanell, Josh Adams, and Adrianne Chalepah are a handful of other names they drop in our conversation. Duke also calls out the Eyes Up Here Show (all women) and the Clean and Dirty Shows that appeal to different comedic tastes.

The Local Touch

Some Traverse Citians are on the roster too, like Good on Paper Improv, Tilt Think Improv, Josh Paul, and Matt Zerilli, to name just a few.

Zerilli is the co-host of the USS Comedy Open Mic, where local comics test their material on Tuesday nights at Union Street Station in downtown TC. He’s been doing stand-up since 2015 after taking classes with the aforementioned Good on Paper and has since toured all over the Midwest. Zerilli classifies his brand of comedy as “absurdist observational,” and tells Northern Express that he’s always been a humor fan, tracking comedic acts in his youth the way other kids tracked baseball player stats.

He says he’s thrilled about the revival of the festival, the national and regional talent headed our way, and the changes that have been made.

“One of the rubs with the festival previously was that they didn’t involve a lot of the local [comedy] scene,” he explains. “We kind of felt a little left out, I think, in the last iteration of the festival, and Mike and Ann really stepped up and made sure that all the local voices were represented. We get to participate in a lot of the events and host a lot of things, and there’s a local showcase that they are putting on with some of the best in northern Michigan, which we’re really excited to be hosting.” (He’s referring to the Kamikaze Comedy Show on Feb. 2.)

Outside of the local contingent, Zerilli is most looking forward to seeing Maria Bamford, who he says, “in my opinion, is one of the greatest of all time.” But really, it’s the whole atmosphere that appeals.

“It’s kind of like a party for us,” Zerilli says of the festival. “Other comedians get together, and you have a chance to [connect] because comedy can be kind of a solitary thing. … It’s always cool just to get a chance to check in with everybody, hear new material, to see what everybody’s been working on.”

For attendees, Zerilli thinks the experience is just as great. “There’s some of the best comedians you’ve never heard of that you’re going to see at these shows,” he contends. “It really is a magical experience when everybody can get together and kind of forget about the outside world and spend an hour and a half just, you know, laughing at the absurdity of it all. So I really encourage you to take a risk—get the babysitter, come out, and give it a shot.”

The Experience

If your head is spinning as this list of fascinating performers gets longer, never fear—there is plenty of time to catch all of these and more at the five participating venues: City Opera House, TC Comedy Club, Hotel Indigo, Workshop Brewing, and Encore 201. The festival runs three days, with many comics offering multiple performances or appearing in other special events like roasts, comedy battles, and open mic nights.

“We want the crowd to interact with [comics] outside of these venues to get to know them,” Geeter says. “Because a lot of these shows are unique. A lot of these comedians are unique in what they do and where they perform.”

Duke seconds this. “We’re encouraging not just enthusiasts, but we’re encouraging other comics to come up. We’ve got some workshops planned and panel discussions,” she says.

She adds that comedians—much like Zerilli—are already looking forward to getting together with their funny friends, and that she’s anticipating between 1,000-1,500 people coming into town to watch or participate in the event on top of local attendees.

The bottom line? This version of the festival will be “completely different and separate from what it was before—a completely different iteration,” Geeter says.

Learn more and get tickets by heading to tccomedyfest.com.

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