Oak City Comedy Festival
Various times and venues, downtown Raleigh
Even though she’s moved back to New York City since the time when she lived in Raleigh, Shari Díaz hasn’t forgotten the years she spent as part of the Raleigh comedy scene, and it definitely hasn’t forgotten her.
“It’s the strongest comedy scene in North Carolina,” she says by phone while en route back to the Triangle to produce her festival’s second-annual outing. “I would say it’s the next Atlanta.”
Díaz, along with longtime North Carolina comedy staple and Goodnights Comedy Club regular Matt White, is doing everything she can to raise the area’s comedy profile with the Oak City Comedy Festival. Over the course of five days this week, the festival will feature more than one hundred performers in multiple club and theater venues in Raleigh, including Neptunes, Imurj, Proof Five Points, Kings, and others. Headliners include the Lucas brothers (22 Jump Street and numerous TV and podcast appearances), Tonight Show writer Jourdain Fisher, Gina Brillon (Kevin Can Wait, The Conners), and Durham’s own Lauren Faber (Last Comic Standing). There are dozens more local and national comedians performing as well; Diaz says they were chosen from about three hundred applicants.
Díaz’s biggest goals for the festival are to provide a platform for local comedians who might not know how to get into other comedy festivals across the country and to provide a spotlight for diversity in the local comedy scene. The festival quickly made an impact in an area where something like it was much needed. Local comedian Sam Mazany, who is performing at Goodnights, Kings, and The Outpost in the festival this year, says he was “blown away” by last year’s debut.
“Events like Oak City do a lot to shine a light on the really talented folks that are from the local area, while also bringing upcoming talent from across the country to meet and showcase their talent,” Mazany says. “It’s nice when these festivals bring in talent from the ‘A-list’ cities, like New York and Los Angeles, and the local talent can hold their own.”
Díaz and White came up with the idea for the festival while Díaz was a student in White’s comedy class at Goodnights, which led to them putting together the local showcase Boogie Down South Productions. White, who has produced multiple comedy festivals in the past, wanted to build one from the ground up in Raleigh, where he’s lived for several years.
“My whole comedy background, I had to create my own stage time, so I’m used to this,” he says. The Oak City Comedy Festival is helping to fill the gap left by the closing of DSI Comedy Theater and its NC Comedy Arts Festival, which both folded in 2017 amid accusations of sexual harassment and a toxic environment. White, who worked as a performer and improviser in that festival, does not feel that DSI’s closing has had as much impact on the area’s stand-up comedy scene, Oak City’s purview, as it did on the improv scene.
“The gap I intend to fill is the distance between two styles of comedy,” White says. “I started improv first, and it has made a huge difference in my stand-up. I would like to see more crossover shows and more overall support for each other. With the NC Comedy Arts Festival gone, it allows for something new and different to take its place, and we plan to be new and different each year of the festival.”
White says the first Oak City Comedy Festival was “better than I ever thought it could be,” drawing about one thousand attendees to twenty-three shows over five days. This year increases the number of venues, shows, and comedians participating. White says Raleigh’s current phase of growth makes it a unique environment for comedy right now.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for stage time here,” he says. “There’s a lot more shows going on than people know about. Some of the venues are not huge, but you don’t need a hundred people to have a show.”
So, while the festival will be a win for local comics and comedy fans even if not every show sells out or transforms careers, Díaz is eager to make it an industry flashpoint, and thinks it could be, with nothing else like it in the area to serve a vibrant, jam-packed comedy scene.
“We need more agents, more directors, to see this talent,” she says, and it’s already paying off for her. “When I got back to New York, I kept getting booked there because of connections I made at last year’s festival.”
Support independent journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.