Wednesday, February 15–Sunday, February 26
Various venues, Chapel Hill

The seventeenth NC Comedy Arts Festival, which brings a wide variety of events to DSI Comedy Theater, The ArtsCenter, and Local 506 over the next twelve days, has a simple slogan: “Because you need to laugh again.” Lord knows that’s true these days, when life has a level of absurdity that almost defies parody. The annual gathering of improv, sketch, and stand-up acts has grown into a Southeastern destination for independent comedy since its inception, offering shows for fans and workshops for industry hopefuls and pros. This year includes the usual raft of marquee names (Emo Philips, Aparna Nancherla), up-and-comers, and wild cards. Here are a few of our tops picks that might otherwise slide under your radar.

AIL Podcast: Keisha Zollar & Andrew Kimler (Saturday, Feb. 18, 7:30 p.m., The ArtsCenter, $20)

You might have seen Keisha Zollar at the NC Comedy Arts Festival beforealongside Sasheer Zamata, who is now a regular on Saturday Night Live. You also might recognize her from her season-two appearance on Orange Is the New Black or her recurring role on HBO’s Divorce, with Sarah Jessica Parker. But outside of her acting career, she’s built a formidable reputation for her hilariously direct, blunt comedy.

In 2014, she raised more than five thousand dollars on Kickstarter for the roundtable video “An Uncomfortable Conversation About Race;” more recently, she started AIL Podcast with her husband, Andrew Kimler. In it, they discuss the issues that come with an interracial marriage, along with anything else they and their comedian friends want to talk about. Catch this live show while it’s still relatively newas fans of such podcasts as Criminal and Welcome to Night Vale can attest, live shows for breakout podcasts tend to sell out fast.

Appearing in tandem with Mark Kendall’s one-man show The Magic Negro and Other Blackness, which is about the representation of black men in the media, this show should give fans something to talk as well as laugh about.

The Josh & Tamra Show (Friday, Feb. 24, 7:30 p.m., The ArtsCenter, $20)

Puppets meet improv courtesy of a crazed duo perfect for fans of Avenue Q. Tamra Malaga and the Jim Henson Workshop-trained Josh Cohen have been doing puppet comedy for as long as NCCAF has existed, creating rapid-fire characters and situations with a good bit of felt thrown in. Not for kids, but great fun for the wickedly childish at heart, the show is ticketed with performances by Boston improv group Actual Garbage People and (Eric + Holly) of Los Angeles.

LimboLand (Saturday, Feb. 25, 9 p.m., The ArtsCenter, $20)

Improv players are all over the festival, and improvised music can be heard at any jazz club. But what happens when the two spontaneous forms combine? T.J. Mannix, a former resident of Apex and Raleigh, takes on the challenge in LimboLand, his one-man show with music director Mike Descoteaux. They’ve previously collaborated on the off-Broadway show Blank: The Musical, where they took text suggestions from the audience to suggest song titles, subject matter, and even choreography.

“We’ve never done this show together before, so I have no idea how this is going to go,” Mannix recently told the INDY. Past versions of LimboLand with other music directors have gotten elaborate. “I end up singing duets and trios and quartets with myself, running back and forth from chair to chair,” Mannix says. “Last year at the festival, I think I wound up playing a family of four who were all singing together.”

A former Upright Citizens Brigade student trained by Amy Poehler, Mannix has toured with Second City and is now a veteran improv teacher himself. But coming up with a suggestion-based musical on the fly remains a unique challenge. “You basically have to develop these characters and remember their point of view and maintain their physicality while coming up with lyrics and remembering the plot,” Mannix explains. In other words, amateur improvisers: don’t try this at home. LimboLand is ticketed with shows by Messing with a Friend and the NCCAF Improv All-Stars.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Hijinks and Highlights.”