• Laughfest comedians speak out about healing through comedy

    You may or may not have noticed that we here at Laughspin have been pushing the upcoming Gilda’s Laughfest in Grand Rapids, Michigan pretty hard. I’m not about to try to convince you that we’ve been unbiased in our editorial coverage, our Tweets and our Facebook links; we’re biased. We love Laughfest.

    I was lucky enough to attend the inaugural fest for a few days last year; I was also honored to be one of the industry judges in their national stand-up comedy competition, wherein the winner — Michael Kosta — was awarded a cool $10,000. I’ll be there again this year serving in the same capacity. And let me tell you– these people did not operate as if this were their first comedy festival. Before I arrived there but after they announced that this thing would last 10 days, I was, to put it gently, a wee skeptical. Hey, smallish city of Grand Rapids: How about you test out the waters with a long weekend full of comedy shows? Nope. And as it turns out, they knew exactly what the hell they were doing, having landed performers like Bill Cosby, Betty White, Stephen Lynch, Mike Birbiglia and a host of other amazing comics.

    This year the fest boasts 266 events (159 are free) at more than 60 locations in Grand Rapids, as well as nearby towns Holland and Lowell, running from March 8 – 18. The likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Gaffigan, Rodney Carrington, Marc Maron, Martin Short, Mike Epps, Kathleen Madigan, Kevin Nealon, Bo Burnham, Anthony Jeselnik, Amy Schumer and more are set to perform.

    But beyond the stellar comedy programming — there’s also a ton of family-friendly events going down — is the reasons Gilda’s Laughfest launched in the first place. It was a way to raise money for Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, the largest of the 52 national affiliate locations; there they service more than 10,000 people each year their Grand Rapids and Lowell clubhouses. At these clubhouses and at the other national chapters, the services provided are invaluable: these are free cancer and grief support communities of and for children, adults, families and friends. Its comprehensive program includes education, structured sharing times, networking, lectures, workshops and social activities. In addition to supporting their work locally, Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids wants to promote the concept of laughter as a tool of health and one that helps people overcome mental and physical trials.

    And thus, my time in Western Michigan last year, wasn’t just spent checking out comedy. I was able to catch a tour of the Gilda’s facility. And that’s where Leann Arkema, the mostly soft-spoken and articulate CEO of Gilda’s in Grand Rapids, made me cry. To be precise, I was in Noogieland when the tears came. Noogieland is the castle-themed lower level play space geared toward Gilda’s littlest visitors. Leann was relating a story — and I hope I’m remembering it correctly — in which one young boy had somehow convinced himself that it was his fault his brother had cancer. The aforementioned Kosta, who was also on the tour, had to find me tissues. I’m weak.

    But I, of course, wasn’t the only one moved or otherwise simply loved the fest experience last year. I asked comedian Kathleen Madigan, who will return to perform at this year’s festival, what she thinks of the festival. “I love this festival,” Madigan told me. “The best festival in the world, for a while, was the Cat Laugh’s festival in Kilkenny, Ireland and I think all the comics that did it would agree that one of the biggest reasons was the configuration of the town. It was small, compact and easy to navigate on foot. This is why I love Grand Rapids. I can walk to see other comics, we can all meet up easily for drinks, which is probably my most important requirement, and the crowds are appreciative and great. Also, it’s seemingly not being booked based on comedy politics. It seems as if they’re actually just asking really funny people — known comics as well as unknown comics — which is refreshing, fair and fun.”

    I wanted to touch base with a handful of comedians who are set to perform at Laughfest next month in order to get their take on laughter and comedy as a means to physical and psychological healing. Here’s what they had to say:

    Laughter feels amazing, especially uncontrollable laughter when you are in a room full of other laughing people. It’s an amazing communal experience. Comedy can put things in perspective. It can make you see things in a different way. It disarms fear, anger, sadness, pain, panic loneliness and stress of all kinds. It’s magical and necessary. Laughter is healing because so many emotions are released through laughter. It’s the great equalizer. It is the releaser of soul toxins and when they are out of your being there is more room to heal almost anything.

    My dad has M.S., so I’ve seem him shit himself several times since I was 12 years old. We don’t cry in my family. We laugh. Without laughter we’d be lost. It keeps us connected.

    Gilda’s Club is very dear to me having lost my mother to ovarian cancer which is also what took the great Gilda Radner. You always hear laughter is the best medicine but to me a good laugh is momentary escapism from all pain and reality. I think that is why people enjoy stand-up or certain comedians. It’s as if a comedian is almost the perfect morphine drip for someone. It’s also why comedians enjoy the company of other comedians.

    The world is full of horrible things that will eventually get you and everything you care about. Laughter is a universal way to lift your head up and say: ‘Not today, you bastards.’

    I’m always amazed when I get e-mails from people who said they were sick and my CDs made them forget about being sick for awhile. I think as comics we tend to forget that laughter is really a great escape for people. I also know that no matter how crappy my day was and no matter how much I’d rather lay in bed and watch a crappy movie than go do a show, I always feel better after being on stage. Even if I didn’t feel like it, somehow comedy just makes things a little better.

    Jokes are more than funny, they are and expansive window into how the brain actually works and if laughter really is the best medicine then stand up comedians would be earning PhDs. That said, a smile can still be a pretty handy umbrella against a possible downpour of health problems as well.

    You can get more info about Laughfest and Gilda’s Club at laughfestgr.org.

    Dylan P. Gadino

    Dylan is the founder and editor emeritus of Laughspin.

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