WORDS BY PATRICK STRAIT
It’s crunch time for Bob Edwards.
Since 2011, Edwards has been the mastermind and lead organizer for the 10,000 Laughs Comedy Festival. The first year featured six days of shows, all held at Comedy Corner Underground (CCU), for a total combined audience of 71 people. This week, the festival will play host to 80 comics, performing across 37 different shows, for an expected audience of approximately 6,000 combined attendees.
“It’s like planning three different weddings all on the same day,” Edwards says.
From luminary headliners such Bobcat Goldthwait and Michael Ian Black, to local up-and-comers such as Pearl Rose and Tobi Shamu, the 10,000 Laughs Festival is as big, unique, creative, and—obviously—funny as any other major festival in the country.
But the success of 10,000 Laughs can’t be solely attributed to the shows taking place over three days in October. It’s a culmination of years of comics, clubs, and audiences banging the drum and letting the comedy world know that Minnesota isn’t a place you pass through on your way to one of the coasts; it’s a comedy A-town.
“Comics want to come here because they hear about our scene and want to see it for themselves,” Edwards explains. “In my own little way, I hope 10,000 Laughs contributes to that.”
Making the comedy sausage
While Edwards is the glue that holds the festival together, he doesn’t do it all on his own.
This year, comedians Courtney Baka, Chloe Radcliffe, and Grant Winkels were chosen to help tame the massive comedy juggernaut.
“We started the process like, um….probably later than we should have,” laughs Winkels. While it’s his first time helping organize the fest, his history with it runs deeper.
“I first performed at 10,000 Laughs back in 2019,” he recalls. “I was selected as a performer, and it felt like one of my first actual breaks and validations. Up until that point I was having trouble getting booked and just grinding a lot. Right after the festival, I got hired at CCU and that was a really important step for me.”
During his first year as a performer, Winkels went above and beyond to help out, putting together swag bags for performers, setting up rooms and generally finding ways to make the shows a success behind the scenes.
“Making yourself useful doesn’t go unnoticed,” he says.
Similarly, Baka first performed at the festival back in 2016, but cut her teeth as a producer in 2019 (the last year the festival took place).
“It’s been crazy to see how much bigger it gets every year,” she says. “To get to go from just watching what’s going on to being a part of putting it together is really cool.”
Part of that process is deciding who performs. While the producers collaborate on which national headliners to bring in, the more difficult decisions come from watching the festival submissions.
“There were over 300 submissions,” says Winkels. “Three hundred five-to-seven minute tapes. It showed me just how insanely difficult it is to get into a comedy festival right now. We only took one-tenth of the people who submitted.”
This year’s selections come from all corners of the country, Canada, and even Australia. There is also plenty of local talent getting their opportunity to shine, both as venue hosts and openers for some of the marquee names coming into town.
“Every show will have at least two local performers,” says Baka. “And then Grant and I are just going to do drop-ins whenever we aren’t fixing someone’s POS system or whatever.”
The key to keeping things fresh, Edwards says, is having people like Baka and Winkels who are connected to what’s happening in the comedy world overall.
“Bringing in newer, younger people constantly gives us the benefit of bringing new ideas,” he explains. “There are going to be newer, younger people who I’m not aware of, even when they start to move up a bit.”
One of those comics is Ashley Gavin, who is best known for her TikTok sketches and the extremely funny We’re Having Gay Sex podcast. Gavin’s first show at the Cedar sold out so fast that a second, earlier show was added to the lineup.
“By the time people read this article, there’s a good chance that show will be sold out too,” Edwards says. “I saw her on a different festival over the summer and was blown away by just how funny she was, how nice she was, and how she spends time talking with everyone and taking pictures after the show. Those are the people I want to have on the festival. And you need someone young enough [like Winkels and Baka] going through and finding these comics who people my age have never heard of.”
More than just a room
If you wanted to see a comedy show fifteen years ago, your options were fairly limited. Acme Comedy Company was leading the charge in the North Loop, and Knuckleheads at the Mall of America was bringing in a steady stream of national names that could draw in the casual passerby. Outside of that, you had a few smaller rooms and one-night venues, but overall, you had to go looking to find comedy.
When Edwards opened Comedy Corner Underground in 2008, he created a greater sense of what it meant for a show to be comic-produced.
“Our business model is that we want comics to come and work for us for two years and then go off and be a comic,” says Edwards. “We hire comics with the idea that they’ll learn those skills of how to produce a show, how to promote a show, how to do ticketing, how to get art made for it, and all that kind of stuff.”
Five years ago, Sisyphus Brewing owner (and former comic) Sam Harriman opened a comedy room inside the brewery, which quickly became another destination for audiences as well a place for comics looking for quality stage time.
These days, it’s not unusual for comics the likes of Geoffrey Asmus, Hannibal Burress, or Beth Stelling to set up shop in these Twin Cities-area clubs to try out new material before touring the country or record specials.
“The venues and the comedy rooms are one of the reasons comics want to come to Minnesota,” says Winkels. “They’re getting a good reputation on the coasts and I think it’s only going to grow.”
This year’s venues include CCU and Sisyphus, as well as larger theaters such as the Cedar, Parkway, and Southern Theater, as well as smaller DIY-style venues like Palmer’s Bar and Red Sea. The variety of locations gives the festival a different flavor, as the venues themselves can change the dynamics of the shows.
“Palmer’s is the only venue that I’m actually somewhat terrified of producing,” Edwards says. “It’s like a hallway-sized bar, but it’s pretty loud and pretty packed. We’ve got Chris Maddock hosting, who’s usually an ace at dealing with rowdy rooms from all the years he did the Death Comedy Jam. But Palmer’s is definitely the one venue where I’m like, all right, let’s see if this was a good idea or a bad idea.”
10,000 Laughs has grown every single year since its inception, in terms of comics, fans, and venues. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it took the festival down with it.
“We took two years off, you know, just because we felt like it,” Edwards laughs. “But before that we were basically doubling in size every year. We thought about coming back in 2021, but things were still just really insane and it felt like, ‘Let’s just give it another year for things to hopefully get back to normal.’”
Despite the COVID-imposed sabbatical, Baka says she never doubted for a moment that the festival would return.
“When comedy started coming back in full capacity, I assumed it was coming back,” she says. “Bob can’t just not do something. I knew he’d want it back in some capacity.”
No one would have blamed them if they would have decided to ease back into things for this first year after the hiatus. But Edwards wasn’t interested in keeping things small.
“There’s no such thing as too big or too much with me,” Edwards adds. “My wife definitely wishes I would have gotten into woodworking or some other sort of normal hobby.”
By the time the first shows start on Thursday, Baka, Edwards, and Winkels will already have poured countless hours of their own time into the event. And while Baka and Winkels will likely be able to squeeze in a few sets during the weekend, Edwards’ reward doesn’t come from money or the chance to get face time with A-list comics.
“I think the graphic designer I hire makes more money off of this festival than I do,” he says without a hint of sarcasm. “And in terms of the shows, I might get to watch 10 to 15 minutes of stand-up the entire weekend. I’ll probably get to see the emcee come onstage, look at my phone, and then head out to the next venue.”
The real payoff for him, Edwards says, happens in the moments before the show even begins.
“When you go into a room, and you’ve watched hundreds of hours of comedy to select the comics for this year. You’ve taken the time to arrange the shows, to match the energies of the performers. If you did your job right, that show is sold out and you can feel that energy in the room before anyone even walks out on stage. That feeling I get right before showtime, when you’re getting the comics ready and taking one last look to be sure the room is right and feeling that excitement. That feeling, man—that’s part of the reason I still do it.”
As for the future, Edwards says he really doesn’t know when or how the festival may change in the coming years, but he’s looking forward to being along for the ride.
“Every year I have the conversation of, ‘Should this be my last year?’” he laughs. “But I keep doing it because it’s what I really love. I fell in love with stand-up when I was 12 years old. I’m 37 now and that hasn’t changed yet. I guess you’ll have to ask me again in five years.”
Mary Mack is not a late-night person.
So it was something of a shock to her when she found out she would be headlining the Friday night 10:30 p.m. show of the 10,000 Laughs Festival.
“It’s a late one!” she exclaims. “I have a PBS crowd. They go to bed early. I feel like 8 p.m. is late for my crowd.”
Mack is a genuine Minnesota/Wisconsin comedy gem, who has been relentlessly touring and recording new material for years. But after last year, she needed a break.
“After COVID, I did shows every week for nine months except Christmas week,” she says. “And I realized that I’m too old to do that. I got so burnt out I’m just finally starting to feel normal after not doing that many shows over the summer.”
Now well-rested, Mack is excited to be a part of 10,000 Laughs and show off her hometown to her fellow comics.
“10,000 Laughs always brings a really fun mix of comics to town,” she says. “You get to see other comics you usually don’t get to work with, and that’s the funnest part – reconnecting with old comedy friends. It’s also great to have a festival in your hometown because you can show off your city to your comedy friends. It’s a way to get more comedians to come here and see more Minnesota comics, and that makes our reputation as a good comedy scene even better.”
While she’s excited to sleep in her own bed this weekend, Mack says she feels a little jealous of out-of-towners who aren’t plagued by the guilt of chores while they’re in town.
“You have distractions at home, right? The distractions at home make you feel like you can’t hang out as much as you want to,” she says. “If you’re in from out of town, you don’t have the guilt of mowing the lawn or walking the dog.”
Fortunately, the late-night showtime should give Mack plenty of time to get her chores done before getting on stage. But that doesn’t mean she has to be happy about it.
“I haven’t stayed up that late in forever,” she says. “How do I just do matinees? My dream is to only do matinees and brunch shows.”
Back in 2016, if you would have told Chloe Radcliffe she would be headlining the 10,000 Laughs Festival in 2022, she would have looked at you like an alien.
“It’s not that I wouldn’t have believed you,” she says. “It’s just that it wasn’t even something on my radar. The idea of that never would have even occurred to me.”
Friday night, Radcliffe returns home to Minnesota to headline her own show at Red Sea as a part of the festival that truly helped launch her comedy career.
“A piece of my heart is in the Comedy Corner Underground, and that club and the festival are intertwined,” she explains. “So I’ll always be a part of the festival because I’ll always be a part of that club.”
A lot has changed for Radcliffe since she was a full-time Minnesota comic. Back in 2020, she joined the writing staff of The Tonight Show, and in 2022 she debuted her first set on Comedy Central. But no matter how many successes she has in New York, Radcliffe says she still reps the Midwest above all.
“I have more hometown pride than ever,” Radcliffe says. “The more embedded I get in New York, the more I rep the Midwest. They grow in equal measures. I love New York and hope to live there for a really long time, but I still really dig into my Midwestern roots, who I am, and where I came from.”
Though Radcliffe’s show Friday is sure to be a highlight for a lot of festival goers, there is one fan who is more excited to see her perform more than ever.
“I usually have to bar my mom from coming to every single one of my shows,” she laughs. “I have to limit her a little. She’s my biggest fan. She’ll definitely be there in the front row, probably wearing a mask of my face.”
Four years ago, Ali Sultan found himself smack-dab in the middle of the lineup for the opening show of the 10,000 Laughs Festival. This year, he has the distinction of being the very first headliner.
Despite being one of the best and brightest performers in the Twin Cities over the past decade, it’s tough to call him a “local comic” anymore. That’s because this past year Sultan has headlined at clubs all over the US, performed in London, and been a part of the Dubai Comedy Festival. So when he speaks glowingly about 10,000 Laughs, his words carry weight.
“10,000 Laughs has the potential to be the best festival in the country,” he says. “We have one of the greatest fucking comedy crowds in the world here. That’s why so many people record albums and do big shows here every year; they know we have such great crowds.”
Sultan will headline the Thursday night show at Palmer’s Bar, which will include a stacked lineup of up-and-coming talent, hoping to follow in his shoes.
“The best part of being at the festival is the people you get to meet,” he continues. “I met two of the funniest people in the world at 10,000 Laughs. Usama Siddiquee (who is headlining two shows of his own during the fest) is someone I became great friends with. We still talk all the time. And then Sam Tallent, who is just absolutely incredible. So, yeah. You get to see comedians you haven’t seen before and see what’s out there.”
Sultan, who is the first Yemeni standup to ever perform on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, truly gets better every single time he comes back to Minnesota. These days, he’s splitting his time between here and New York, and chances are, someday soon, you won’t get the chance to see somewhere as intimate as Palmer’s.