North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival
Feb. 4-27
Various venues

It’s hard to believe, but we’re about to experience the 10th annual comedy festival hosted by Carrboro’s Dirty South Improv. But according to DSI founder Zach Ward, it flies under the radar. “When I tell people we’re celebrating our 10th anniversary, they’re like, ‘When did you do the other ones?’”

Ward started Carrboro’s DSI Comedy Festival in 2001 with Beth Melewski. Over the past decade, it’s grown from 27 attendees to an event that attracts hundreds of performers, including appearances from top writers and performers in alternative comedy. This year’s festival continues the rebranding from last year as the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival, an event that includes not just improvisation but sketch comedy, stand-up and film. Over the course of four weekends in February, attendees will get a chance to see some rising comedy stars and learn what it takes to make it in the world of comedy themselves.

“We realized improvisation is a fantastic live medium, but for our performers and artists to take this thing they’ve grown and nurtured professionally to the next level they needed to transition into writing, or into material that they could perform again and again for an audience or use to grow into writing for shows like The Colbert Report or Saturday Night Live,” says Ward, who calls this year’s festival “a place to showcase everything that you can do.”

The festival opens this weekend with three nights of sketch comedy troupes. Next weekend brings a series of performances from comedians throughout the country, highlighted by The Late Show with David Letterman house comic and talent coordinator Eddie Brill as part of the 9 p.m. performance on Saturday, Feb. 13.

The following weekend goes back to the festival’s roots of improvisation, featuring five stages and more than 80 improvisational groups, including festival favorites Jill Bernard, Beatbox, Death by Roo Roo and Aphasia. For its final weekend, the festival introduces a new component, Film and Video, which will screen at the Varsity on Franklin. These films feature “a who’s who of the last five years of alternative comedy,” Ward says.

The film lineup includes Americatown, a recent effort by Wilmington’s comic duo Superkiiids (the Indy‘s David Fellerath hailed Americatown as “sometimes sublime, sometimes slapstick, sometimes puzzling but never dull”). Also featured: film festival favorites Mystery Team and Blackballed: The Bobby Dukes Story, along with Visioneers with North Carolina native and superstar Zach Galifianakis, and the Canadian documentary Laughology. A documentary about the science of laughter, Laughology will include a live appearance by Doug Collins, a man featured in the film as having the most contagious laugh in the world.

Ward says that through the workshops at the festival, he hopes to give DSI the same credibility as a training ground for young comedians and writers as such celebrated incubators as Second City and Upright Citizens Brigade. Already, DSI has become a popular drop-in place for comedians featured on late-night TV, with a performance last fall featuring a sold-out crowd. “I want us to be in the next decade,” Ward says, “what Cat’s Cradle has been and still is for music.”

Ward says that the festival is in part about teaching these young comedians to pursue the “business side” of comedy, which has become increasingly prominent in the last decade of MySpace, Facebook and YouTube. “Now comedians can build thousands of followers online from people who’ve never seen them live,” Ward says. “We want to explore how they can put themselves out there and what kind of material they can do. For the general public, it’s just a bunch of comedy shows, and we’re going to make you laugh every single night.”

Ward believes that the Triangle represents a unique hub for comedy, citing such clubs as Goodnight’s and the occasional comedy shows at Cat’s Cradle. “North Carolina is one place where comedians who have been here before make a point to come back to,” Ward says. “People who have done this before have moved on to other stuff, and they want to return here to showcase their work.”

His goal for this year is simple: “I want to have more fun next year than I have this year. That’s my goal every yearboth for myself and for the audience.”

The North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival opens Thursday, Feb. 4 and runs for four weekends. Tickets for this weekend’s sketch comedy events are $10. For more information, visit

Correction (Feb. 4, 2010): The festival opens this weekend with three nights of sketch, not improv, comedy troupes.