Hypothermia and Hysterics: A February Weekend in Traverse City

by Brandon James Anderson

In 2010, filmmaker and Flint-area native Michael Moore and actor/comedian Jeff Garlin founded the Traverse City Winter Comedy Arts Festival. A wintertime compliment to Moore’s annual Traverse City Film Festival, the Winter Comedy Fest has grown every year (apart from an off-year in 2012) bringing a number of currently headlining stand-ups and comedy legends to Northern Michigan. 

My first experience with the annual weekend was during the festival’s second year. Bracing the typical snowstorm that comes with driving to northern Michigan in the middle of February, my friend and I made it in time for a 10:30 p.m. show that featured Garlin emceeing as an improve troupe, Parks and Rec‘s Aubrey Plaza, and Brett Gelman performed.

It was the latter, a barely known comedian, who stole the show by telling a series of relatively tame, PG jokes that went over well with the middle-aged crowd. For his last bit he announced he’d be reading a short story he personally penned. Entitled “iBrain,” the story seemed like a science fiction-y take on modern society’s addiction to technology — that is until Gelman steadily turned the story into nonsensical vulgar erotica that left most of the crowd aghast. Tears of laughter streaming down my face, I nearly fell out of my seat.

Immediately, I was hooked.

The next day I met Patton Oswald at Horizon Books, half a block away from the State Theatre, which serves as the festival’s primary venue. Hoping for an extended hug, I was miffed when the fourth male lead of King of Queens refused to shake my hand because of a cold he was battling. At the time I appreciated his thoughtfulness though, in hindsight, I feel he big-timed me.

The State Theatre, host of the Traverse City Film Festival, also serves as the primary venue for the Winter Comedy and Arts Festival.

The State Theatre, host of the Traverse City Film Festival, also serves as the primary venue for the Winter Comedy and Arts Festival. (Photo credit: Tony Vuckovich)

Such instances are par for the course when it comes to the Winter Comedy Festival as the number of shows throughout the weekend and intimacy of the venues and downtown Traverse itself provides comedy-goers with the chance to see a wide array of stand up comedians performing on stage and hanging out in between gigs.

This year’s festival took place last weekend and was really no exception. The line-up featured household names such as Rosie O’Donnell and Sinbad along with a myriad of comedians who performed throughout the festival’s three days.

With Sinbad performing marquee shows both Friday and Saturday night, I was expecting to see some of the festival’s other comedians in the crowd and I was not disappointed as a few rows up and across the aisle, I spotted legendary actor/comedian/occasional sitcom dad Fred Willard. Happy to be seated so close to Ed Harkin from Anchorman, I quickly remembered that Willard has a colorful history with public theaters. (I won’t bother linking to it, but you can google “Fred Willard TMZ” if your memory needs jogging.)

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Fred Willard, bravely showing up in a public theater, enjoys Sinbad’s headlining act last Friday in Traverse City.

My friends and I spotted Willard throughout the weekend, both at the shows we attended and along Front Street. Walking directly past him on Saturday, I decided to let the 74-year-old enjoy his day in peace instead of shouting “They’re going to put Corningstone on!”

One of the shows I was most looking forward the most was the one co-headlined by SNL alum Tim Meadows and Kids in the Hall alum Dave Meadows. While both men were funny, I found myself walking out of the City Opera House mildly depressed since both comedians’ acts predominately consisted of providing vivid and sordid detail about their lives as 40-something divorcees and none of the sketch comedy the two were known for in the ’90’s.

With each passing year the festival has grown, adding more events and activities for families and the general public. Last year’s sledding hill and Ferris wheel returned on Front Street alongside a zip line (because, #YOLO) and a cleverly named “Polar Vortex” tent featuring food and beverage from countries competing in the Olympics.

All in all, the weekend was eventful, relaxing, and fun — even if that fun was amid -10 wind chills. Really, it’s what I’ve come to expect out of this annual event. And if the festival keeps bringing in B and C-list former sitcom starts at $25 and $30 a pop, I’ll back next year for another winter weekend in a summertime paradise.

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