Northern Michigan Events: A Guide to the Traverse City Comedy Festival

Last year, Traverse City Film Festival Founder Michael Moore teamed up with comedian Jeff Garlin to host the first-ever Traverse City Comedy Arts Festival. I had the fun task of working on the blog for that festival, interviewing guests and reporting on various Traverse City Comedy Festival events. Aside from some hazy late nights, and some potentially bad life decisions brought on by too little sleep and too much influence from amoral comedians, the weekend was by and large a rousing success.
This year, as the Traverse City Comedy Festival gears up for round two February 10-13 in downtown Traverse City, residents and visitors alike are sifting through the lineup and making their decisions about which shows to see over the weekend. If you’re still undecided, here’s a quick handy guide—based on countless hours of research and a few too-personal interviews with performers—on this year’s guests and events.
Opening Night Party, City Opera House, Traverse City 
One thing’s true about Michael Moore: The man knows how to throw a party. There really isn’t a better opportunity to meet this year’s comedians all in one place, enjoy free drinks and food, and connect with fellow festivalgoers than the Opening Night Party. $25 may be an investment for some folks, but going for the entire party and making the most of your time to mingle, eat, drink and be merry should make the admission worth every penny.
Bob Saget
Don’t let “Full House” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos” fool you: Stand-up Bob Saget is not your aunt’s favorite TV star Bob Saget. If you’ve seen Bob on “Entourage” or “The Aristocrats,” or caught any of his recent comedy specials, you’ll know he specializes in a kind of hard R-rated comedy that could make a trucker blush. This show is already sold out, the first event of the Comedy Festival to do so, and I can’t wait to see how his routine goes down with a Traverse City audience. There will be laughs, to be sure, but probably more than a few gasps as well.
Joe DeRosa & Ted Alexandro
I’d only caught bits and pieces of Joe and Ted’s specials on Comedy Central previously, but in preparing to interview them for the Comedy Fest blog, I watched countless videos of them both online. What I saw, quite simply, blew me away. Joe has a great self-deprecating humor; his stories about his worst gigs ever – a teenager’s Bar Mitzvah and an Insane Clown Posse festival – brought tears (actual tears!) to my eyes. Ted, meanwhile, has the rare ability to talk about topical or controversial subjects – abortion, gay marriage, even Chilean miners – in a way that’s both hilarious and thought-provoking, completely bypassing the cheap laughs which plague so many other comedians and going straight for the intelligent kill. These two are my pick to be the surprise audience hit of the festival.
Caroline Rhea
Bringing some much-needed femme fatale funny (along with Aubrey Plaza) to the festival, “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” and “The Drew Carey Show” star Caroline Rhea will treat audiences to her smart and sophisticated humor during her two City Opera House performances. If you only know Caroline from TV – she also hosted “The Biggest Loser” – rest assured that 17 years of sold-out comedy shows don’t lie. Caroline’s a comedy goddess, and this weekend, she’ll show audiences exactly why.
Jeffrey Ross
If you’re a Comedy Central fan, you know Jeffrey Ross well. The “Roastmaster General” is a fixture on celebrity comedy roasts, which have included such recent targets as William Shatner, Pamela Anderson and even fellow festival performer Bob Saget. In our interview, Jeff said he was excited about the possibility of roasting Michael Moore and Traverse City during his show, and promised to bring some of the audience members on stage to “get the flavor of the neighborhood.” That’s a true badge of honor, considering Jeff says he “only roasts the ones I love.”
Patton Oswalt
Traverse City audiences are already familiar with Patton, who appeared at the 2009 TC Film Festival with his dark comedy “Big Fan.” You can tell a lot about a comedian by what other comics say about him, and there was no shortage of love for Patton from his fellow performers this year. Joe DeRosa called Patton “a huge influence” and a “generous friend and supporter,” and Ted Alexandro said “he’s a great example of a guy who’s daring and unafraid to show his colors.” Jeff Garlin, meanwhile, had this to say: “He’s the only man I will allow to apply lotion to my forearms.” So – there’s that.
Jeff Garlin’s Hootenanny with Brett Gelman and Aubrey Plaza
Jeff has endeared himself to Northern Michiganders from the moment he first opened his mouth at the 2006 TC Film Festival to make fun of the Great Wolf Lodge. That love affair was clearly mutual – Jeff began returning to Traverse City year after year, becoming a staple at the Traverse City Film Festival and then eventually joining forces with Michael to start the Comedy Fest last winter. The comedian can’t seem to stay away from Traverse City – a happy development for those of us who actually live here.
The “hootenanny” Jeff is hosting with “Parks and Recreation” star Aubrey Plaza and renowned comedian Brett Gelman is far and away the best deal of the festival. This is a lot of bang for your buck packed into 90 minutes. Plus, Jeff just recently announced that he’s invited Northwestern University improv group Mee-Ow to perform at the show. So now you really have no excuse not to go.
Michael Moore
When you saw that Michael Moore was performing a stand-up show at this year’s festival, you may have had the same reaction Jeff Garlin did (and I quote): “WTF???!” The truth is, Michael’s documentaries have been such massive commercial successes over the years in large part because of the trademark humor he brings to his films, and he’s earned more than a few laughs emceeing Traverse City Comedy Festival events. For his one-man show, Michael promises to “tell a lot of tales out of school and say a lot of things people are thinking but are afraid to say.” You have to give him credit – it’s worked well for him so far.
Parents – here’s your one (and unless you’re trying to emotionally scar your offspring, only) kid-friendly event of the festival. Non-parents – don’t let “kid-friendly” scare you away, as it usually does me. I caught some of ComedySportz’s show last year, and it was as genuinely hilarious and entertaining as any other show I saw at the festival. These are some majorly accomplished improvisers taking the stage, and children and adults alike will get a kick out of their talented (and refreshingly non-pandering) antics.
Late Night Combo Platters
OK, so when I called Jeff’s hootennany the best deal of the festival earlier, I lied just a smidge. This is the best deal of the festival, because you can’t get better than free. A version of a show Jeff hosts in L.A. called Jeff Garlin’s Combo Platter, this free midnight event at Horizon Books in downtown Traverse City, Friday and Saturday night, offers fun, unscripted and occasionally downright insane interactions between Jeff and a variety of festival guests. The festival’s motto this year is “Comedy is Dangerous,” which sounds suspiciously like a warning prompted by a legal department that attended a Combo Platter and realized in horror what goes on there. Regardless of whether you get tickets for anything else, it’s worth standing in line to be one of the lucky 200 or so who get to see these off-the-wall and memorable shows.
For complete details about the 2011 Traverse City Comedy Arts Festival, including tickets, schedules and comedian information, visit