Curtain Critic: Bird City Comedy Festival swoops into downtown Phoenix

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The second annual Bird City Comedy Festival runs Thursday through Sunday, with standup, improv and storytelling performances. (Courtesy of J. Gonzo Designs)
The second annual Bird City Comedy Festival runs Thursday through Sunday, with standup, improv and storytelling performances. (Courtesy of J. Gonzo Designs)

Dozens of comedians are flocking to downtown Phoenix this weekend for the second annual Bird City Comedy Festival.

The alt-comedy festival, which runs from Thursday through Sunday, incorporates local venues — such as Space 55, Valley Bar and the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel — and features standup comedians, improv and sketch groups and storytellers.

Genevieve Rice, the festival’s founder, said it offers unique opportunities for both local and national performers.

“We’ve got about 25-30 stand-ups that are local, we’ve got about 10 sketch and improv groups and 10 local storytellers,” Rice said. “We try to offer a lot of stage time for performers, which…for festivals that’s kind of a concern; usually if you have a two- or three-day festival you might get one or two spots at most. We try to offer our performers a spot each night, if not more.”

The event also features comedians from all over the country. Headliners include Ben Berkley of “The Onion,” Brent Weinbach, a recipient of the Andy Kaufman Award for innovation in stand-up comedy, Greg Behrendt, who co-authored the New York Times bestseller “He’s Just Not That into You,” and Aparna Nancherla, who has appeared on “Inside Amy Schumer” and written for “Late Night with Seth Myers.”

Nancherla said she was excited about performing in Phoenix, especially since she hadn’t been to the city. She said she planned to include “a little bit of everything” in her routine; “a lot of personal experience that’s tied to what’s happening in a bigger sense.”

In December, Nancherla wrote a column for The Village Voice about how comedians should address politics in the aftermath of the election and controversy surrounding the new administration. She described her style of stand-up as somewhat existentialist, with “observational and day-to-day stuff,” as well as “silly and absurdist stuff,” but said she’s recently begun addressing politics more frequently.

“It’s just like being politically active for someone who hasn’t been so much,” Nancherla said. “I think right now, I think one of the hard things is it feels like a difficult time to know what you want to say…what do you want to do with your creativity, what kind of methods do you want to put out there.”

Andy Steinberg is a regular performer at Stand Up Live, a comedy club in downtown Phoenix’s CityScape on the corner of First Avenue and Jefferson Street, and at Tempe Improv, located at Rural Road and University Drive in Tempe.

“I’m not a big festival comedian, but it’s a local festival, and I really appreciate the amount of work that Genevieve Rice has put into producing this festival, so I wanted to be part of it in some way,” he said. “We have a really great (comedy) scene right now (in Phoenix).”

Steinberg, who just got back from playing shows in New York and Rhode Island, said comedians today face the danger of becoming too politically correct.

“You can’t be politically correct, and I feel like a lot of comics are censoring themselves so that they don’t have backlash,” Steinberg said. “We are critics of what’s taking place in the world, we can’t be censored. The closest thing to a comic during the times of monarchies was the jester and the poor jester was the only one who could make fun of the king, and if we take that ability away from comics I don’t think we will truly look at ourselves in the mirror correctly.”

Four-day and one-day festival passes are available online, and tickets to individual shows can also be purchased online or at the door. A pass allows attendees to attend shows at all venues for the entire day or entire festival. Rice said the shows at The Newton, Space 55 and The Renaissance Hotel are open to attendees of all ages.

Rice said the success and scale of the festival can be seen as a sign of Phoenix’s emerging comedy scene.

“It’s a big scene and I feel like we should have that national recognition, and a festival really helps with that,” Rice said. “We’re just kind of the wild, wild west for arts right now …You can’t really see that so much in bigger cities like L.A. and New York. It’s much harder to build, you know, to build something new there.”

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