New York Comedy Festival Plays Politics in Election Year

The New York Comedy Festival made its debut just days after the 2004 presidential election. That pattern has always held — founder Caroline Hirsch says she was sensitive to the idea of politicizing the festival — but this year, not surprisingly, is different.

“There’s a lot more to talk about so we decided to do it before the election,” Hirsch says. The festival runs Nov. 1-6, ending just 48 hours before E-Day.

That decision, made last winter, shaped which comedians got invited, says Louis Faranda, the executive talent producer who oversees booking for Carolines on Broadway and the festival.

“One of the first things I did was go after Bill Maher,” Faranda says, about the host of HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher.” Typically the festival switches its lineup each year, but both Maher and “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah performed last year. “I knew these would be the shows to see,” Faranda says.

By the spring it was clear that Donald Trump “was not going away,” Faranda says, so “the logical thing to do” was to add more political comics for the secondary shows: Hannibal Buress, the New Negroes, Hari Kondabolu, Hasan Minhaj, James Adomian.

Additional shows include Charlie Pickering’s “Explain America to Me,” a free show called “Laugh the Vote” at the Brooklyn Museum, and Dave Smith’s “Before You Vote.” The festival is fair and balanced: libertarian Smith is a Fox News regular.

“We’re enlightening people through laughter,” Faranda says, though he takes pains to point out that that “this is not a political festival; we want comedians who make fun of everything.”

Bob Woodruff believes even the megastars like Jon Stewart performing at the Stand Up for Heroes benefit will comment, too, despite the non-partisan nature of supporting the veterans. “The veterans don’t care,” he says. “They just want these guys to be funny.”

Hirsch says they were careful to balance the ticket with such non-political comics as Tig Notaro, but Faranda believes these particular candidates and this self-satirizing election season will prove simply irresistible. “Every single show will have something to say about the campaign.”

Patton Oswalt isn’t so sure, saying the amount of Trump material he does changes from day to day. “As a comedian, you just cannot plan,” he says, adding that he can’t even say whether he’ll be adapting to the audience response at his festival performance. “Every show is different.”

Anthony Atamanuik, who has been performing as Trump since last year and who will appear at the festival in “Trump Dump: The Last Rally,” says audience burnout has been a concern since mid-August. “Everyone has Trump fatigue, including me,” he says. “I can’t stand being him anymore.”

Still, by being in character he will stand out at the festival. And, he adds, “I have to keep lifting the rock up to show who he is until the very end. This performance will bring all my points to a conclusion. It will put a punctuation point on everything.”

Atamanuik feels his job this time is more than that of a mere comedian or truth teller. “My audience mostly agrees with me, so my responsibility is not just to say this, but to point out their culpability if they don’t take action,” he says. “If they vote then it was a success.”

Maher adds that while Hillary Clinton may make a fine president she is “an awful candidate” and that complacency is her biggest enemy — “nothing is in the bag.” His standup act comes complete not only with barbed jokes but also a reminder that audience members hold the nation’s future in their hands.

Maher traditionally prefers a more varied comic palette and has never devoted this much time to a single person or topic. Still, he dismisses the Trump fatigue notion. “The hunger to hear him lambasted is just insatiable,” says Maher. “Everyone is going to be revved up right until Election Day.”

Maher is rewriting material constantly as Trump stumbles from one controversy to another.

He points out that in January he did a “Real Time” parody set in the future making fun of Trump’s foul mouth, “but Trump zoomed right past that and now ‘pussy’ is on the front page of the New York Times. He is hard to keep up with.”

While getting laughs are at the heart of everything Maher says, he also feels he has a larger purpose as a comic with a unique platform in this election. He believes it’s crucial to keep hammering away at Trump because “we’ve seen it before, where you think the monster is dead and then his hand comes up out of the ground. I don’t put anything past this stupid country.”

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