Freret Street in Uptown New Orleans will become, from Wednesday to Jan. 18, a capital of comedy, a hub where local and regional talent get a shot at connecting with national and international industry insiders. And they’ll be putting on a great show in the process.
It’s the fifth New Orleans Comedy Arts Festival and Showcase, founded by New Orleans comedy maven Yvonne Landry. Held at her La Nuit Comedy Theater — “The only live theater in Uptown,” Landry likes to say — the festival is a hotbed for new and established talent. This year it features headliners Neil Hamburger, Nick Vatterot and Ashley Barnhill.
“People can expect just great standup comedy,” Landry said. “These are shows where you can come, relax, enjoy and laugh your head off.”
It’s en vogue to use words like “emerging” to describe areas of New Orleans like the arts and entertainment strip that is Freret Street between Jefferson and Napoleon avenues, but it might be more accurate to say Freret has already emerged.
“When La Nuit opened, we were all alone out here,” Landry said. “It was us and the abandoned gas station across the street. But now Dat Dog is where the gas station was, and dozens of restaurants and bars and shops are all around us within walking distance.”
The blossoming of Freret means that the festival has become more than just an event — it’s a comedy industry destination, with the top people in the industry enjoying both the festival events and new Freret Street as a whole.
“This is the one event in the region that allows talent from places like New Orleans or Austin and other cities to connect with top managers and agents without heading off to Los Angeles or New York,” Landry said.
The festival came about as a result of Landry’s efforts to help build up the New Orleans comedy scene. A dancer, she spent time in Chicago, where friends, whom Landry left constantly in laughter, told her she should join up with the legendary Second City. She took a class, fell in love with comedy, and spent 10 years in the Windy City.
“I came home to New Orleans and thought my comedy career was over,” Landry said. “Fortunately, it didn’t work out that way.”
She began teaching improv and connected with local comics, with whom she performed across the city. In 2003, she opened La Nuit. The festival followed a few years later, after the storm.
“We wanted to form something like Aspen’s comedy fest, but for New Orleans,” Landry said, referring to the former U.S.Comedy Arts Festival put on in that city by HBO. “What if we could make it a destination for the industry?”
As luck would have it, folks from Mosaic Media Group — which represents famous clients like Will Ferrell — gave Landry a call, asking what they might do to help the New Orleans recovery.
“I told them one thing they could do was come scout our new fest for local talent,” Landry said. “They did, and they discovered people immediately, like Nick Vatterot, one of our 2013 headliners. In 2007, he was an unknown. Now, he’s making his fortune.”
In 2013, Vatterot is being joined by Neil Hamburger — a character played by Gregg Turkington — an “anti-comic” who delivers one-line zingers that Landry describes as “unbelievably funny.” Fellow headliner Ashley Barnhill offers a brand of caustic, dark humor that, Landry said, people don’t expect from “a gorgeous girl.” About 30 comics from New Orleans and across the country will perform as well.
“Every comic is fun and the area is great to visit,” Landry said. “We’ve had hundreds of comics over the years, and just recently one of our veterans was on Conan. It’s crazy what happens. The festival’s all about networking.”