When laughter comes to the rescue: Santa Cruz Comedy Festival set to relieve late-summer anxiety
Kicking off Saturday outdoors at Laurel Park, the festival is the brainchild of comedian DNA of DNA’s Comedy Lab and the latest iteration of the “evolve or perish” approach he’s been riding since even before the COVID-19 pandemic threw a giant wrench into everything.
Laughter might not be the most natural response to a world unraveling, but it could be the best prescription for the sake of mental health. And in that case, the Santa Cruz Comedy Festival is arriving right on time.
For the next three consecutive weekends at the outdoor Laurel Park, adjacent to the London Nelson Community Center in downtown Santa Cruz, headlining stand-up comics will entertain (or, you could say, intellectually medicate) crowds eager for a laugh or two. The festival kicks off Saturday with comic Kellen Erskine (“Costco is great when you just need chips and a Jacuzzi.”) and a cavalcade of other funny people.
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This midsummer har-har-athon comes by way of the comic known as DNA, who for more than a decade has labored as the Johnny Appleseed of live comedy in Santa Cruz County. This year’s festival is being billed as the “eighth annual,” which is technically true, but it’s the first of its kind
Last summer, DNA and his comedian friends fashioned a live comedy show in the teeth of the pandemic with comics performing before a bunch of parked cars with people listening in from their FM radios.
In the years before that, DNA’s ambition was essentially to turn the entire downtown commercial district into one giant rotating comedy club. Over the course of one weekend, battalions of comics would descend upon Santa Cruz and perform on traditional stages and decidedly non-traditional ones, such as the adult toy store Pure Pleasure.
“I always looked at the floor when I was (doing comedy) there,” said DNA. “I never raised my eyes. So, I don’t know what was happening in there. What I did though, was I booked about 95% female comics in there, with some random guy every once in a while.”
That version of the Santa Cruz Comedy Festival also operated as a kind of game show/Olympic trial for stand-up comics, as they faced the daunting task of hitting their mark at a number of gigs.
“I devised a system ,” he said, “where comics literally had to run from 99 Bottles to Rosie McCann’s to The Poet & The Patriot, dropping a set at each place, with no time left to spare. It was chaotic. And controlled chaos is so exciting.”
Of course, in 2021, those venues — 99 Bottles, Rosie’s, The Poet — are all gone, victims of the economic fallout from COVID-19. Also gone is what DNA was building up to with all those comedy festivals and regular comedy shows throughout the calendar year.
It was less than three years ago when DNA’s Comedy Lab first opened on Front Street in the former Riverfront Twin cinema. DNA had about a year of programming at the club before the March 2020 pandemic shutdown closed the Lab — at first temporarily.
“It was our one-year anniversary,” he said. “I had just gotten a new chef. We just got a new panini press. We did 288 performances our first year. And I was just turning the corner to the point where I could maybe get a paycheck. Then, it all went sideways.”
Eventually, the club closed for good. But in the early days of the shutdown, it was about survival and keeping the Lab in the game.
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“My wife saw how depressed I was,” said DNA of those first days. “And she was like, ‘You gotta get online and start doing something.’ So, we started doing online shows within one week after closing. And I believe we were the first comedy club in America to do that.”
The response to the online shows in the pandemic’s early weeks was promising. “It was great early on. We did about 150 shows on Zoom, and you know I had major headliners, a lot of them going through the same thing as me and you,” he said. “They had their whole lives ripped away from them. Their whole life was comedy and performing for people in clubs, and now they’re staring at a screen in their underwear. I was trying to reintegrate people into performing, but in a situation that was still untenable.”
But attention eventually began to lag. So, as all good comics do, DNA improvised.
“It became obvious to me that in comedy, it was either evolve or perish, you had to mutate or disappear. And that led to us doing comedy for cars in parking lots. Anything was on the table.”
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DNA’s Comedy Lab is no longer a physical space or downtown destination, but it lives on as a concept and an online hub of activity. DNA still hosts the Sloth Storytelling Show, streaming on Facebook each Thursday night, and sponsors regular live-comedy shows at Greater Purpose Brewing Company in Live Oak. (Greater Purpose will also host the Comedy Festival’s “afterparty” on Saturday night, when the family-friendly vibe of the outdoors Laurel Park show will take a more mature turn.)
“I personally am still reintegrating into society,” said DNA, “feeling quite awkward for being locked up for a year and a half, and I’m still getting used to it. It’s neat to be in social situations again. I mean, it’s great to go to the movies. But the movies are very passive. Comedy shows are kinetic. It’s real. It’s not a hologram. What’s happening is happening.”