“It doesn’t take a village, it takes close,” is how Lisa Wattier describes the effort to organize the Great American Comedy Festival each year.
Wattier, executive director of the 13th festival from Thursday to Saturday June 16-18 at the Johnny Carson Theater in Norfolk, said the ‘to do list’ for the three-day event is almost endless and dozens are needed volunteers to stage the festival.
The festival has been presented by Nucor Steel Nebraska, Nucor Cold Finish Nebraska, Nucor Detailing Center and Vulcraft Nebraska for several years. Dozens of Norfolk area businesses are also providing financial support to organize the three-day event.
“Without these sponsors, we don’t have a festival,” Wattier said. “We absolutely couldn’t do it without them. I hope they know how much they are appreciated.
The 2022 Great American Comedy Festival includes the Family Comedy Magic Show on Thursday, the Comedy Showcase on Friday with headliner David Koechner and four other comics, and the Festival Gala on Saturday night with headliners The Smothers Brothers and four more stand-ups. Friday night entertainment includes the Sparklight Adults Only, Late Night Show at 10.30pm at The Stables in Norfolk.
“The responsibilities of our planning committee are many and we use many volunteers from the community to present the festival,” she said.
After a two-year COVID break, planning for the 2022 festival began early last winter. One of the main challenges is finding headliners for the Comedy Showcase and Festival Gala. The committee is working with a talent agency in Omaha to find these headliners. Magician Ben Seidman, who performed on the Comedy Magic Show here in 2018 and 2019, helps find magicians for the magic show.
This year’s lineup of magicians includes Matt Marcy, Alexander Boyce and Andrew Goldenhersh.
Then the work turns to finding four other actors for the Comedy Showcase and the Festival Gala.
“This year, we had great help from our Friday and Saturday night host, Pat Janssen,” said Austen Hagood, chairman of the comedy festival board. “He has worked in the entertainment industry and knows a lot about the entertainment business.”
Janssen is from Nebraska and has appeared in several commercials and television shows. He also appeared on an album cover and music video for Grammy-nominated indie band Glass Animals.
He was named New England’s Best Bar Comedian by Jack Daniels.
Janssen helped book comedians Cat Alvarado, Sophie Buddle, Chris Lewis and Glen Tickle for the Friday night festivities and Emmy Blotnick, Eric Owusu, Taylor Williamson and Adam Yenser for the festival gala.
Once all performers are secured, other aspects of festival planning continue. A Great American Comedy Festival committee member works with a local travel agency to book flights to and from Omaha and provide ground transportation from Omaha to Norfolk.
“Because Norfolk does not have a major airport, we strive to accommodate and accommodate all customer needs and wishes,” Hagood said. “This includes transportation from Omaha airport and volunteer driver services for all activities in Norfolk.”
“The arrival schedule to pick up all the performers at Omaha airport over four days is mind-boggling,” Wattier said. “The magicians arrive on Wednesdays and some Gala entertainers only arrive on Saturdays. There are many volunteer trips back and forth to Eppley Airfield.
A chartered mini-bus brings most back to Omaha airport on Sundays.
“A lot of our airport drivers have really great rides to Norfolk with their comedians/passengers,” Wattier said. “For example, three live doves will travel with one of the magicians this year. The driver of magicians and doves hopes that the birds will travel well.
Hagood said many drivers and comedians stay friends for years. “We have comedians from past festivals keeping in touch with their Norfolk friends,” he said.
The festival committee also schedules special activities to entertain its guests in Norfolk. This year, a Runza luncheon is planned at the Elkhorn Valley Museum so that the actors can enjoy the Johnny Carson exhibition there.
“And, of course, a visit to the downtown Johnny Carson mural and his childhood home on 13th Street is a must. Festival owner and director Jim McKenzie makes many trips to the house over the course of four days to show Johnny’s house,” Hagood added.
“We keep magicians and comedians busy while they’re in Norfolk,” Wattier said. “They are all so grateful and having so much fun in northeast Nebraska. In all the years that I have worked on the festival, I can honestly say that we have only had one difficult and unhappy comedian.
A comedian who appeared at the 2014 festival, Michael Somerville, was asked when departing Norfolk if he had had a good comedy festival experience. “Oh, if only every weekend I’m on the road could be as fun as this weekend.”
Many comedians include their participation in the Great American Comedy Festival in their website biography.
Other committee members and volunteers are needed for fundraising, marketing/publicity, stage and technical crews, program design, ticket sales and scanners, venue furniture/food green for entertainers and picnic food for magicians and comedians.
: The list goes on and on,” said Wattier.
The Great American Comedy Festival opened in 2008 to honor the legacy of Norfolk’s favorite son, Johnny Carson, who hosted NBC’s “Late Night Show Starring Johnny Carson” for 30 years.
The Great American Comedy Festival is also made possible with the support of the Nebraska Arts Council and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment.