Hudson River Funny: The 1st Annual Jersey City Comedy Festival

cropped-cropped-jccf_banner2My wife and I moved from New York City to New Jersey in 2010. She had a job lined up there and I was working on my hilarious writings that’ll one day actually make me some money. As we got settled in, it dawned on me that I had no idea what the comedy scene was like in Northern New Jersey. All of my comic friends and contacts were back in the city and if I wanted to avoid paying that God-awful, ever increasing $12 in tunnel tolls, I’d better get to know the locals.

So I hopped from open mic to open mic for a year or two and one scene I kept hearing about in particular was the scene in Jersey City. Not only was there a thriving comedy scene happening there, but a strong art community as well. So when I caught wind of the 1st annual Jersey City Comedy Festival taking place in April, I pounced on it with the quickness and went to see what all the fuss was about.

The Jersey City Comedy Festival was the brainchild of local comedian/illustrator Craig Mahoney, a native of Hazlet, New Jersey who’s been doing stand-up for 5 years in the tri-state area. He came up with the idea for the festival with fellow comedian and Kearny, New Jersey native, Matthew Kelly. I was fortunate enough to interview them together and find out more about the origins of this first ever festival. “It was six months ago after one of the open mics I run in Jersey City,” said Mahoney. “Matt and I were at a bar, talking about all the different shows that happen around here.” Mahoney runs a weekly open mic and two shows a month with Kelly. Local comics Rich Kiamco, Darryl Hill and Joe D’Allegro also run monthly shows.

“Hoboken has a comedy festival and there are other comedy festivals all throughout the garden state. Jersey City is the second largest city in New Jersey, so why don’t we have a comedy festival? Jersey City deserved to have its own comedy festival and I wanted to put it together,” Kelly explained. “This town really comes together for its art and music festivals. They did a comedy show at the 4th Street Art & Music Festival. The community supports comedy and so many genres of the arts.”

THE WHOLE SCENE

jccf4The art scene in Jersey City is one that has always been active and extremely supportive of its local artists. In the past, the art scene has been limited to comedy shows, craft fairs and gallery openings, but soon musical venues will be brought in, which will be a huge benefit to the public. “Because of this weird cabaret law, Jersey City has had this thriving art scene in the last few years,” said Mahoney. “But not a large live entertainment scene because different bars and restaurants are saying that they need different permits, but that’s starting to change.”

Kelly went on to say, “In Jersey City Heights, they just passed a law where they’ll be able to have live music. The Riverview Neighborhood Association which handles the Heights has been doing so much to move things forward, along with a lot of the local artists. Why not comedy? I have a lot of friends who love to come out to Jersey City because it’s a different feel and you can be the first to do something out here. You’re the new thing! Instead of riding someone’s coattails, you can just put your foot through the door.”

HOW DID IT HAPPEN?

The festival was an amazing mix of all things comedy in various venues throughout Jersey City. Comics/Podcasters Liam McEneaney, Brian Frange and Charles Gould held live recordings of “Tell Your Friends” and “Unbelievable Podcast” at local bars (Trolley Car Bar & Grill, 9th & Coles Tavern). There were live performances by New York sketch & improv groups National Scandal, Jerkface, Bridge & Tunnel and Fart Train at gastro pubs (The Brightside Tavern, HopsScotch).

Various forms of artwork were displayed at comedy-themed art shows at the Trolley Car Bar & Grill as well as the Boca Grande Mexican cantina. But the main bulk of the festival was made up of stand-up comedy from the New York/New Jersey area. Shows that had local comedians performing in coffee houses (Steam Café), bar & restaurants (The Lamp Post, Dorrian’s, GP’s Hamilton Park) and even gelato cafes (Gia Gelato & Café). It also had more established comedians such as Todd Barry, Nikki Glaser, Dan Soder, Mike Lawrence, Kyle Grooms and Myq Kaplan performing in local art spaces like The Distillery Gallery and Art House Productions.

jccf3“I didn’t want to have a New York night and a New Jersey night,” said Mahoney. “I wanted it to be a mix of new local guys that deserved to be on and more accomplished comics. The Reese’s peanut butter cup of comedy!  I didn’t want any show to be one type of comedy show, but I did want to bring a certain sensibility that was common amongst the comics.” Kelly went on to say, “I was amazed by the talent and the diversity of the comics on this bill. In 10 years from now, people are gonna say I was at that festival and I saw THAT GUY! Some of the comics are huge names and some of them are on their way up. They’re buddies, they’re friends. They’re comics I’ve done mics with and they’re just on the cusp of something great. Audiences have loved them and realized their talent. We worked cautiously optimistic and now we are very, very happy.”

Mahoney continues, “All of the venues have been happy. All of the audiences have been great, but to me the most important thing is that every comic has enjoyed it. So many comedy festivals are exploiting comics, especially young comics. You have to pay to get into the festival. You have to pay to travel. We actually want to PAY as many comics to do the festival as we can.”

FOR THE FANS

The Jersey City Comedy Festival was one of the few festivals that didn’t charge a submission fee and had no “bringer” shows or contests. Mahoney continues, “The most important thing is that the comic enjoyed themselves and had a good time. If it was a good experience for the comic, chances are it was a great experience for the audience. Almost every comic that performed is a personal friend of mine. In New York and New Jersey we’re all friends. It’s a family. It’s a fraternity. It’s a brotherhood. If they had a good time, then the festival’s a success.”

JCCF2Mahoney then went on to talk about his experience with the Jersey Shore Comedy Festival he put together in September 2011. “It was smaller and less successful. In February of that year, I got it in my head that the Jersey Shore should have a big comedy festival. As far as I’m concerned it was a failure, but I learned a lot. That fest really helped pave the way and taught me a lot of lessons on putting this fest together and producing shows in New York and Jersey City. Without the Jersey Shore Comedy Festival, this wouldn’t exist.”

Every show I was able to attend at the festival told me that this was no repeat of the Jersey Shore fest. The comics were on their game and the audiences were receptive. No incidents, no awkward moments, just everyone plain ol’ having a good time and enjoying comedy. The festival has been so successful that Mahoney and Kelly have said that there will definitely be another one next year. “I would love to get bigger talent like Doug Benson, Marc Maron and Louis C.K. I’d like to show Duck Soup and other old comedies at the Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theater. I’d want to do some shows at a movie theater where all the comics who do internet videos could come together and we could have a 2 hour mini film festival. Animation, Vine videos, sketches. I think that’d be cool. Hell, I want the Liberty Science Center! I want Liberty Island! It’s Jersey, baby!”

WHAT I OBSERVED

JCCF1As the festival was winding down, I was able to reflect on all the amazing shows I’d seen and all the great comics I’ve met. One of the many reasons that I loved the fest so much was the fact that there was an intimate vibe about it where you could approach the comics after each show, which is something Mahoney takes great pride in. “I do like the fact that it’s a personal handmade thing. It was very personal and it was very small. I’m not sure if I want it to get too big. I do want it to get to a point where we get national recognition. I’d like it to get to a point where people fly in to do this, but local comics can still get their due.” Kelly explained, “You want it to grow bigger, but bigger in the right way. You want the other comics to mingle and be able to approach each other.” Mahoney stated that no matter how big the festival gets, he will never do bringer shows or contests and will always have new and local talent represented. “I always want it to respect and reward comics and never exploit them. Those are things that, as long as I’m involved with it, will always stay constant. I refuse to waiver on that.”

As the interview was drawing to a close, I had gotten a great sense of the kinds of guys Matthew Kelly and Craig Mahoney were. Two local comics who genuinely love comedy and wanted to share it with a city they love that I was starting to get a strong affinity for as well. “This is a celebration of comedy,” said Mahoney. “This isn’t a production company, a producer or a club trying to make money. This is a guy who grew up loving comedy who’s lucky enough to perform it in front of audiences in a city he loves and saying I want to show off this art form and all these great talented people. In the end, that’s really what this is all about.”

Also, I just realized that I neglected to shout out the websites and twitter handles for the festival and it’s founders. Please find that information below. Thanks!

JCCF: www.jccomedyfestival.com/ @JCComedyFest

Craig Mahoney: www.craigmahoney.com/ @Craigmahoney

Matthew Kelly: @Mattetuffstix