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March 20, 2015

Five Dollar Comedy Week joins audience, performers

A three-step process to putting on a festival

The Arts Comedy
Comedy Tanya Giang, Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Kate Banford and Aaron Nevins, founders of Five Dollar Comedy Week festival.

“Tired of being insecure about your coolness? Get a cool passport from Five Dollar Comedy Week.” 

That’s Aaron Nevins talking, co-founder of the cheapest (and only!) independent comedy festival in Philly, which will run March 23-29 at the Plays & Players Theater in Rittenhouse. Nevins, who also hosts Hang On variety show, teamed up with comedian Kate Banford for the second run of the biannual laugh fest. 

Five Dollar Comedy Week is an independent, locally produced alternative comedy festival. It features 33 never-before-staged, variety-style comedy shows like fake workshops and interactive skits hosted by Philly comedians. Tickets are $5 each, or $25 for a festival pass. While none of the shows have yet sold out, last year's attendance climbed to 1,000 with only a few months advance planning.  

Being cheap and independent gives the festival's comics license to reach the height of creativity, rather than thinking about the bottom line. And creativity comes down to a good audience. The goal is not to make money, but rather, to bring out an audience that doesn't mind getting in on the action.

Everyone, even the audience, is involved in realizing a ludicrous-sounding theme or concept. You can take them completely seriously: they’re dead-set on being funny. 

But how do they do it? Their patented three-step process, below. 

Surprise yourself

Banford and Nevins aren’t sure what to expect from this year’s festival. 

It's premised on doing something different, allowing loose show structures to hold an often surreal idea together. The result is an experimental free fall in which creativity emerges naturally, unpretentiously and across a wide range of comedic disciplines, including storytelling, improv, standup and sketch.

The show will likely evolve as it began. Five Dollar Comedy Week started in August 2014 by accident. In the search for a venue to host a fake show called Motivational Speakers, Nevins and Banford ended up nabbing the now-defunct Shubin Theatre for a standard week's rate of $500. Two months later, a 30-show week-long festival was set up. This year, the pair got twice the number of submissions from comics in Philly and New York. Experimentation grows from the unlikeliest of sources. 

Take a real show, add comics, repeat

The festival's shows take real premises and invert them. They often use reality shows as an entry point for consensual absurdity. 

"Fake shows include 'The Plant' and which is a takeoff of the reality show ‘The Mole,’” Nevins said.

And there is 'Let’s Talk to Children,' of which Nevins said: “It’s taking it a couple steps beyond ‘Kids Say the Darndest Things’… We’re trying to get their feelings about why we’re here on earth and their thoughts about the universe.” 

It’s an easy way to make something funny, and it falls in line with the producers’ rules for only pitching shows that haven't been done before. “This thing can’t become set in its ways because it’s new every time,” Nevins said. 

Work hard to have as much fun as humanly possible

Working really hard to create your own fantasy universe means your hard work will finally be appreciated by the most important audience, yourself. 

Try enrolling in a faux-instructional workshop (“It’s almost like being a kid again,” Banford said) like 'Unlocking Your Superpower' or the more ambitious 'Donut Tasting' course, and join in a fully unaccredited educational process. Mingling guarantees a cross-breed of genuinely weird talent between pedestrians and performers — and live, human interaction guarantees you’re not alone. 

Last year, Philly artist Andrew Jeffrey Wright did a show called “Here Comes the Show” where comics heckled the audience to perform for about an hour; Nevins describes it as “one of the most magical things I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Magic is one way to describe the alchemy of improvised comedy. At its heart, it's cool. And all coolness is, is being present to something unfolding beyond your ordinary experience. It’s taking the risk to stay in the moment — admirable when alone, amazing in numbers. You're in on the in-joke. Lean in closer. 

"Somehow when everything comes together, it’s like a leather jacket and a cigarette," Banford said. 

Five Dollar Comedy Week

Monday, March 23-Sunday, March 29
4 p.m.-12 a.m. | $5
1714 Delancey Place
(215) 735-0630