Quick Take:

The Santa Cruz Comedy Festival returns to Santa Cruz from Wednesday through Saturday. The festival struggled through pandemic closures but is getting back to its ambitious origins in full force this week, with 40 acts performing across 10 different venues.

Perhaps it’s fitting for Santa Cruz, but the graph line of popularity for the annual Santa Cruz Comedy Festival has more resembled a roller coaster than a steady climb upward in its 10-year history. You can chalk that up to a certain worldwide pandemic that, for a couple of years, suddenly rendered gathering in intimate venues and laughing into a severe health risk.

But thanks almost entirely to the ferocious, unflagging, make-’em-laugh spirit of the stand-up comedian known as DNA, the Comedy Festival is back to its pre-pandemic size and vitality.

Up to 40 stand-up comics will parachute into Santa Cruz this week for a blitzkrieg of banter and buffoonery in 10 different venues, including a barbershop, a coffeehouse and a record store. Several of the shows are free.

This year is a return to the kind of barely controlled chaos of the festival’s early years. In the festival’s first year in 2014, DNA lured almost 50 comedians to town to play in many different venues, including those like The Poet & The Patriot and 99 Bottles of Beer that don’t even exist anymore — thanks a lot, COVID.

Yet, even during the most dismal days of the pandemic, DNA found a way to keep this festival alive (despite the fact that the pandemic put the kibosh on the DNA’s Comedy Lab only a year after it opened). In 2020, he designed a show in which comedians stood on a box in a parking lot while quarantining audience members sat in their cars, listening in on their FM radios and “applauding” by flashing their headlights. The festival made slow strides out from that low point — programming performances in the relatively safe outdoors at Laurel Park — and now, here it is in 2023, looking a lot like 2014 again.

Santa Cruz comedy impresario DNA.
Santa Cruz comedy impresario DNA. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

“In 2021 and ’22, I was very tentative,” said DNA. “I mean, I don’t know if other people were like this, but I kept thinking, ‘Why plan anything? It could all be taken away. Is reality still happening? Are we moving forward?’”

That tentative thinking is now, thankfully, in the past. “I would say this is our biggest year,” he said. “It’s an indicator species, you know, like the spotted owl. Either that it’s endangered and is not going to survive into next year, or it will be an indicator that Santa Cruz does indeed want this kind of thing to happen.”

The festival is devoted to nothing more than variety. Sure, there will be plenty of comedians telling funny stories on stage. But there will be other wrinkles too, like “Talkies,” a variety show that could include tons of improvisation as well as character comedy and even PowerPoint presentations.

The festival is also turning various businesses into makeshift comedy clubs, including Streetlight Records, Woodhouse Blending & Brewing, 11th Hour Coffee and Get Faded Barbershop. The Kuumbwa Jazz Center is the site for a special look back at 10 years of the festival Saturday with 10 headlining comics, including popular draw Louis Katz (it remains to be seen how his joke about tofu — “It’s like Jell-O with tuberculosis” — will play in Santa Cruz).

Well-known Bay Area comic Moshe Kasher performing
Well-known Bay Area comic Moshe Kasher is set to perform at the Santa Cruz Comedy Festival’s signature event Friday at the Rio. Credit: Via Ali Goldstein

Katz also shares the stage with headliners Moshe Kasher and Marcella Arguello at Friday night’s signature show at the Rio Theatre. The festival begins Wednesday at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing with comic Eddie Pepitone.

Through it all, DNA is attempting to expose Santa Cruz to different styles of comedy and different ways to mine humor from certain situations. One example is “Art Critique,” where comedians act as art critics, part of a “mini-festival” at Woodhouse Blending and Brewing on Saturday.

“It’s set up like an art gallery with easels and paintings,” said DNA. “And then comedians come out and critique the art. So I say, it’s highbrow meets lowbrow. And then at the end, they auction off all the art, and it’s unlike anything you’ve seen.”

The Santa Cruz Comedy Festival takes place in several venues around Santa Cruz on Wednesday through Saturday.

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Wallace reports and writes not only across his familiar areas of deep interest — including arts, entertainment and culture — but also is chronicling for Lookout the challenges the people of Santa Cruz...