I had a chance to sit down with Becca Baruc ’15 and Adam Fisher-Cox ’15–co-producers for this year’s National College Comedy Festival and members of the Ad-Libs–to discuss the process for organizing the festival, their favorite ComFest moments, and what to expect from this year’s ComFest. They’re swell folks, and we had a great conversation, so check it out below. And be sure to get your tickets tomorrow at 10am in Case. Facebook event can be found here. And check out our write-up for this year’s professional groups here.
Tell me a little bit about your personal backgrounds in comedy. How did you guys got involved respectively, and how did that lead to you getting involved in ComFest?
Becca Baruc: I guess I could start back in grammar school, [Laughs] but I’ll start in high school instead. I just did improv a lot and become the president of the improv troupe. I never thought it was something I’d do in college, but then I got here and at the showcase I saw the Ad-Libs, became pretty enamored, auditioned, and got in. Ad-Libs has really been the rock of my time here at different points. It kind of kept me here when I was wondering whether I wanted to stay at Skidmore. And that’s how ComFest got introduced to me. Obviously performing in it, but the idea of co-producing it came from Ben Jurney [former ComFest co-producer]. I didn’t really think I could do it when I was first asked–I thought it was over my head–but I guess I grew into it and grew confident with it.
Adam Fisher-Cox: Well, you know, I’ve always liked to make people laugh. But in high school, finally being mature enough to watch and understand the humor of The Office, 30 Rock, and SNL, I realized that that was really interesting to me. I did some really amateur improv stuff in high school, and that felt like the only extracurriculur thing I really knew I wanted to go for in college. So I went for that my freshman year at Connecticut College, and then when I transferred here my sophomore year, I knew I wanted to keep that up. So The Ad-Libs were my only choice [Laughs], so I had to audition for them, and it’s been wonderful ever since. Ben asked me to assistant produce last year, and since Becca was abroad that first semester, I had a chance to see the earlier process of finding the professional acts and stuff like that. I wasn’t too intimately involved with that, but I saw that there was an element of that which I knew would be kind of fun. And nerdy. Doing paperwork, that sort of thing. [Laughs] There’s just something about making a deal with an agent that’s sort of cathartic. So that’s the journey to here.
Now, do either of you see comedy in your future in terms of your post-grad careers, or is it something you’re going to put to rest once you graduate?
BB: With some of my favorite comedians and SNL cast members, I feel like they lived a full life with all these other careers and just absorbed other realities. And then they picked it back up, went to Chicago, and entered the full profession–as opposed to living their life trying to go through UCB and all the Chicago schools. I kind of have a dream, or I keep telling myself “I’m gonna do a lot of things in my life, and at around 40, I’ll go back to this seriously.” Because I want to really live a life and just absorb material, so there’s a way long-term plan, maybe.
AFC: What’s fun for me about comedy is really goofing around with people I like, so I think I definitely want to try to still find outlets for comedy wherever I end up, as a hobby. And, you know, also hang on to my current friends who are pursuing comedy more seriously. You know, if one of them ever gets a podcast and needs a guest or something. I’m not aiming for being on SNL and being a star, but I think comedy will be a part of my life in terms of finding a group to, you know, just be idiots with for a certain amount of time every week.
So tell me a little bit about your responsibilities–more individually, I guess. Have you guys sort of divvied up the responsibilities between the two of you based on your own personal strengths? How has that played itself out?
AFC: We pretty much just divided it up along the lines me taking the professional groups and Becca taking the student groups–because each of those is a full job in and of themselves. One is earlier, obviously, so with the professional stuff, I was doing more on the earlier side, and now that it’s the student stuff, I’m sort of sitting there while Becca’s firing off emails.
But I’m sure it actually works out well, since you guys can sort of help each other out?
AFC: Yeah, definitely, so when one person sort of gets flooded during their time, someone else can step up.
BB: There was a time when I was not really feeling like I was part of it at all or where I felt like I was really supplemental to Adam. And now it’s like I can’t even pick up a book for class. The emails are constant, and there’s always one tiny little task to do as we’re getting closer. So I think that was a really great way to split it. And it also shouldn’t go without saying that we’ve given PR stuff to a third person–Rebecca Shesser–who isn’t technically a co-producer, but she’s done a big facet of it that we just portioned to her.
How’d she get involved with you guys?
BB: Well, that’s her forte. She does a lot of social media, and she’s had a lot of jobs and internships in that sector. So we just thought it’d be really fitting for her.
So Rebecca’s been doing all the publicity stuff, then? Like Facebook and Twitter?
BB: Yeah, that’s all her.
AFC: We basically knew that, especially in the “post-winter-break timeframe,” there was gonna be a ton of stuff for us to do. So publicity stuff would totally get left by the wayside if we had to do it. So it’s great to have an extra person.
So could you guys give me a broad outline of what the preparation has been like for ComFest as long as you guys have been involved as co-producers? Or even go back as far as when you were assistant producers–that’s an official title, right?
BB: It is, it is. So yeah, we assistant produced together. And then right now it’s Boco Haft, Hannah Baker, and Alec Grossman. And we literally did a broad outline at the end of the summer. We just wrote out everything that we had anticipated at that moment, and that’s been worked into and edited with more fine details as we know what we need to do month-by-month, and then week-by-week.
AFC: I guess over the summer we tried to get ahead of it as much as possible, because we knew that previous producers had stuff catch up with them as it got closer to the date. You know, everything seems fine the beginning of first semester, and then things start to pile up near December. So maybe we started up too early, but it ended up working out well. The beginning of the summer, we started to think about pro acts, and we had locked down Tig Notaro in early August, I think. So that was both a little scary and great to have that locked down so early and then have to hold on to that for four months.
BB: We hadn’t even booked the JKB, and we had Tig Notaro.
AFC: Yeah, so she was the first solid thing we had staked out. Once it was fairly easy to get our first choice comedian, it seemed like everything started to fall into place from there.
So she was your first choice?
AFC: Mhmm. Well, we had made a large list, because it seemed like that was sort of a high place to reach. But yeah, it was very exciting to get that “Yes” in an email. And then I don’t exactly remember when we had locked down all the pro groups, but that had kind of bled into looking for college group applications first semester.
Going into it, did you feel any sort of anxiety surrounding getting the perfect lineup? I guess I’m thinking about this in terms of something like SEC–where, you know, it must sometimes suck being a part of SEC, because Big Show is something that everyone goes to, and it seems like with whatever choice you make, everyone’s going to be judging you. And that makes sense with music, but with comedy it must be such a weird thing, because there are some people who know the shit out of it. And I’m sure there’s a large portion that just says, “Well, I don’t know who that is, but I’m sure it’ll be great!”–and then there’s the group whose like, “Yeah, great! They definitely didn’t fuck up or anything.” Did you feel that sort of pressure?
BB: There was definitely some criteria. I mean, it was surprisingly hard to find a decent sketch group in the budget we had, but when you find a group that works it’s like “I don’t give a fuck what other people think.” Because we think they’re funny enough, they fit our budget, and this is it. Obviously, senses of humor are so subjective. But as long as we find it funny, that’s enough for me. And, actually, Adam knew about Chris Thayer long before I did, and Adam was like, “Yeah, I’ve seen him, he’s great, he’s hilarious.” And I did eventually watch the videos of him, but I just gave Adam the green light before I even saw Chris Thayer. For me, I thought “If Adam thinks he’s funny, and he’s within our price range, let’s just do it.”
AFC: Yeah, and we passed up groups that still would have still killed at the show. I mean, sketch groups really are surprisingly tough to find. There are so many good stand-ups out there, and they’ve all got websites and stuff like that. And I think a lot of the cool sketch stuff is filled with people who are also doing other things, so they can be pretty tough to lock down. And then we looked through a lot of sketch groups that had good stuff but didn’t make us personally laugh–and if we took one of those groups, that probably would have been a source of anxiety. You know, if we don’t find it super funny, maybe it’ll go well. But even if–and it’s not going to happen–Gentleman Party isn’t found funny by the audience, I still wouldn’t feel like I made a poor decision, because they cracked me up.
BB: [Laughs] The show’s for us. I want to be entertained!
Of course. You put this much work into it, you should at least be having a good time more than anyone else. And there’s always such a good vibe at ComFest. You know, people are paying money, and they have high expectations, but no one’s really going in there thinking, “Man, I really can’t wait to tear Baby Wants Candy apart” or something like that.
AFC: Yeah, no one’s really going there to be like “IMPRESS ME.”
BB: Actually, on that last note, with Baby Wants Candy, I’ve personally never been super excited by musical improv, but that was something where we had to take into consideration the fact that a large body of students are really going to love that. And they’re extremely talented, and it’s super impressive what they do, but that was something where we sort of prioritized the student body over our taste a little more.
AFC: And, you know, we have groups like UCB at ComFest every year, so this gives the show a little more variety in terms of what the audience sees. It’s nice to always have sketch, stand-up, and improv represented, but to sometimes have a different school of improv is always good.
Definitely. So tell me a little bit about the application and selection process for the college groups. I’m wondering about the similarities between–or what you look for in–the groups that you gave the green light to. Are there some groups that send in a video for their audition and you’re just like “Yes!” and then others that you’d like to let in, but you really can’t with there being such limited spots? So, yeah, tell me a little bit about that.
AFC: Well, we tried to set the most objective way to do it, because obviously you can see a video from one group and immediately say “Yes,” and then you see another one 10 entries down the line, and you sort of have to reconcile them. So we mainly would just watch a video, and if we liked a group, we’d put them on a list. And then we’d watch another one and then ask “Did we like that more or less than the last one” and then rank things that way. It seemed like the best and most objective way to indicate what made us laugh. And there are a crew of groups who consistently return every year and always put on a great show, and who we always invite back–and then we like to mix in some new faces as well.
BB: And rarely were there times where we were just like “DAMN THAT GROUP’S AMAZING!” There just weren’t any clear stand-outs immediately, because we had to really look at the body of their videos and think about the group’s relative to each other.
AFC: And in some cases it’s sort of a matter of looking past certain things–like if some videos are shot from the back of an auditorium or don’t have an audience at all, it’s our job to sort of imagine how they’ll be received for the audience we have at ComFest,which might be different from any other audience they’ve had before. And I think we did a good job of making sure different styles are represented. There’s some stuff that’s more slap-sticky or weird and stuff like that.
Right. The same level of variety you want to maintain with the professional groups. So what has been your least favorite aspect of producing ComFest so far? If you have one.
BB: There was one incident where this girl wrote me from a group that thought they were registered–when they hadn’t even applied. They just weren’t even in our vision. And so she wrote me an email saying “Hey, did my registration go through?” or something, and I had to backpedal and say “Wait, what? I don’t even know your group.” And it was just really icky, and feelings were hurt and all that. And I’m just constantly scared of making mistakes–like petrified that I’m going to make some huge misstep, and I already have, so I already know that the guilt of misstepping is so big for me. So I’m just always scared that I’m going to do it again and really fuck up.
AFC: I think for me it’s probably all the little things that have to come together. Like right now we’re making sure that we have the right number of tickets reserved and stuff like that. And it’s the fear that that I’ve done something weird on the spreadsheet and there’s a whole group that won’t have seats or something like that. And I anticipate these next few weeks to be the best and worst of it in terms of pulling together all these last minute things that couldn’t be done until now. Because the rest of it has been things that are fairly easy to map out. Just deadlines for things, it’s like “We need the pro groups for this date and the student groups by this date.” But now it’s like “We need to buy this specific food for this pro group and get it delivered,” so…
BB: Yeah, it’s getting finer and finer, and the sand is more easily going through our finger and it’s like “How do I keep it all together?!”
[Laughs] Yeah, definitely. Well, then, what have been your favorite things about producing ComFest? We’ll keep it to two maximum. Or one, if that works.
AFC: I’d have to say my favorite thing was getting Tig. I’ve just been a huge fan of her since I found out about her two years ago. And it’s very selfish, but to be able to say that I produced a show that has Tig Notaro as a headliner is pretty amazing.
BB: I won’t repeat that one, but it was pretty fucking cool. Hmm. Okay, one of my favorite moments was actually…this sketch group couldn’t get their shit together–or their videos weren’t working. And we had decided we were going to do this over two nights, because we really didn’t want it to drag over. And it was getting to midnight of the last night we wanted to do this, and we had moved through all the groups and had emailed this other group and said, “Hey, you really gotta get your videos in so we can see them, and if you don’t do it soon, we’re gonna have to overlook you.” And they just got their updated videos to us in the nick of time–
AFC: It was like 11:59.
BB: Yeah! And we look at their sketches, and it was actually one of those groups where we were like “DAAAMN THEY’RE GOOD!” And we had to bump another sketch group because they just swooped in like badass motherfuckers and took over. It was just so cool to see this talent swoop in, and we couldn’t deny them, because we wanted them at ComFest. So that was fun. And we told them that story, and they were like, “Oh god, that’s amazing.”
That’s awesome. Really cool. Like an underdog story. Music swells. Produced by Michael Bay.
AFC: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. I guess the second favorite would be announcing the lineup and seeing the very positive response from so many different places was really exciting. To know that we don’t have completely different senses of humor from the general public and hadn’t totally miscalculated what Skidmore wants.
BB: Yeah, that it wasn’t like “Tig who?”
AFC: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly.
BB: And it’s been happening more recently, but just having a real sense of pride and joy as I hear people talk about ComFest and just thinking, “Hey, I did that!” Which is nice.
What are some things that we should expect this year? Any new developments you guys are excited about?
BB: Well, I was going to give a real geek answer that has nothing to do with the public–
No! Geek answers are great.
BB: [Laughs] Well, I think we’ve really streamlined information and, you know, everything’s really organized, and Adam’s done an amazing job branding. That’s really something that’s more exciting for producers, and not as much for the public–
No, that’s actually really great. I wanted to talk to you, Adam–well both of you–but I know Adam’s really great with graphic design. And I can really see that there’s a great aesthetic going on with the posters and logo and stuff like that. So is that something you want to have as part of ComFest in the future? As a sort of template that can be followed in future years?
AFC: In my mind, yeah. I mean it’s up to future years, what they want to do. But my thought for the whole year of the festival has been–well, you know how last year was the 25th, and that was a pretty big milestone. And I think ComFest has grown incredibly since it started, but I think it hasn’t always kept pace with the acclaim it gets for how important it is. You know, the amount of people who are now comedy stars who have come through here is a lot more surprising than you would anticipate. And so on the branding side, I made the logo with the intention that it would go along with next year’s different color, and they can do whatever they want to make it a unique event, but the same festival and feel like there’s this lineage. Obviously it’s comedy, but there is this serious entity that, you know, commands some respect! [Laughs]
Cool. I mean, it’s all looked really great, and I’ve personally been really impressed in that regard. It just looks really tight and professional. So that’s all falling into place.
BB: Oh! And you know what else is the big thing this year? I really think a lot of people are going to be taken aback. Buttons. Free buttons! So everyone be prepared.
AFC: Yeah! Put ’em on your backpack. Put ’em on your lapels. [Laughs]
Holy shit! Free buttons. You’ll just be handing them out to everyone who comes in?
AFC: We’ll probably have them while ticket tabling and be handing them out there.
BB: This is really what we’re most excited about.
AFC: Oh, and something else that might not be super fun necessarily is that we’ll be doing online ticketing this year. So that’s actually huge. So to get the general word out, the general public can’t just come in and take tickets from Skidmore students, we are tabling in Case like we have in the past. You do still have to come to Case to get your tickets on February 9th when they go on sale at 10:00am, but it’ll be done online, so it’ll be credit card or debit card only. I think it’s a simpler process, but it will probably feel a little more complicated this year because it’s not what people are expecting. So we’ve had to get the word out.
BB: Yeah, it’ll still be in Case, but it’ll be facilitated online.
AFC: And then there will be a small number of general admission tickets that go on sale the next day. So if people’s parents or something want to come, there’s that option.
That all sounds great. So, let’s see. Tell me about your favorite ComFest moments as audience members.
AFC: I’ll say, as an audience members, Rory Scovel and Kate Berlant last year were just great for two different reasons. Like, Kate Berlant’s act was so weird and nothing I’d ever seen before, and the fact that the audience loved it so much was so great. And then the fact that for Rory’s set he stayed on like a half hour longer than he had intended to and was just so into the stadium seating and just connecting to the audience.
Yeah, I remember it being really personalized for the audience.
AFC: Yeah! It’s like it was literally for us.
BB: I remember watching The Improvised Shakespeare Company and just being really blown-away that they could pull out eloquent and clever Shakespearean language on the spot. Just blew my mind.
They all make it look so easy.
AFC: Yeah, it’s very frustrating. [Laughs] If I can cheat and add in another favorite audience moment. I’m just remembering that two years ago, because of the snow, some groups couldn’t come, and in some case, half of groups couldn’t come and stuff like that. And Starla and Sons (from Brown) only had two people come, and I think they’re usually around six or something. And these two guys just did a monoscene that was, in my opinion, the best student improv at that show. [Editor’s note: You can watch the set here.] It was just so incredible imagining, being in Ad-Libs and being it just us two that have to support the show and be the best improv there. I was just blown away.
Now how about as performers? I’m really talking about the weekend in general, because I know that the weekend itself is really an experience.
AFC: Well, it’s what performance is about, and it might be pretty selfish, but I’m looking back to two years ago–and last year, actually–but both Ad-Libs have the last slot on Saturday to sort of finish off the student groups, and we usually have a little sketch. And both of those sketches were highly choreographed spectacle-type thinogs. And the success of pulling them off and the reception–I think we actually got a standing ovation for the racing one we did two years ago–and it just feels really good.
BB: Yeah, that’s immediately what I thought of. I just have to echo that. It’s just really great to do a sketch that resonates with people. We’re talking about this, as the Ad-Libs are trying to plan our sketch for this year, we just have to remind ourselves that it’s so rewarding to do a sketch that sends out a positive message. Like, that sketch was about a love cycle–about going from dating to marriage to old age within this race marathon–and that was such a sweet message, and we managed to do what while making people laugh, and that was so rewarding.
It must be interesting, with you guys putting in all this effort into producing and orchestrating everything. Are there times that you sort of forget and are like “Oh yeah, we’re also gonna be performing in this?”
BB: I think I only forget I’m a producer when I’m in Ad-Libs rehearsal. Like that’s the one moment when I take off my producer hat, and when I’m with the group, I just can unwind, have fun, be silly and think about planning a good sketch and building a good group dynamic. And then when I leave that rehearsal, I check my email and become producer again.
So Ad-Libs rehearsals definitely a safe space. So in terms of how you see things unfolding in the future, are there things that you’d to see continue with ComFest or somewhere that you see it going from here? Or maybe improving in certain regards? Or is it just something that’s obviously been working for years and years, so you just want to see things going as they always have been.
AFC: I think it’s obviously been working for years, but on an oral tradition basis where a lot of stuff ends up having to be figured out for yourself, or you text the previous year’s producers to figure out what’s been going on. And I think there’s something very valuable in that. But I think something we’ve been trying to do in addition to producing the event is to create a new solid ground for next year’s producers. You know, we’ve been talking about Google Doc and organizing it, and making it something you can reference next year and not just having it be a jumble of secrets that only we know how to unlock. And I think along the lines of the branding stuff is trying to add to our budget–and I think part of the great thing about ComFest is being able to bring the kind of talent that’s on the rise. While I think it’d be amazing to bring someone like Louis C.K., it’s just totally not the ComFest vibe to get someone so prominent that everyone already knows about. So I think it’d be great to get more money so we can bring more and more interesting and up-and-coming groups. So I really think that could help the festival grow.
Great. Is there anything else you guys would like to add or talk about? Something you’re particularly jazzed about right now?
BB: So there’s this box that keeps getting passed down from producer to producer. And I went through and organized it, and half of it really is just take-out menus, which was so frustrating when I found that out. Like, I was preciously carrying around take-out menus. But once I went through it, I found some really cool old paraphernalia and some old producer names. And I realize that the network of producers is really spotty. You know, we know about David Miner, and we know about the past four years, but we don’t really know about anyone before that and in between there. So I got alumni offices to help me out, and I reached out to a couple past producers, and just a few responses have come back. But just hearing what producer alumni have had to say and sharing memories has been really interesting. It’s pretty much the same things–same experiences, same stresses–but it’s also, like Adam was saying, just such an oral tradition. And whatever we can’t find in emails, has been passed down through texts and ideas, and a lot of past producers used to write these long–practically love–letters to their assistant producers saying stuff like “It’s a labor of love! You can do it!” And it really is this force that gets passed down to the next unlucky people [Laughs] who have to produce it. And what’s interesting is that in the past it hasn’t just been comedy people. You know, sometimes it’s been Business majors who had comedy friends, and the comedy friends were like “We cannot do this, please do this for us.” I think, over the years, it’s something that’s been maintained by a thin thread, and it’s still being woven. And I’m just so grateful it’s made it this far.
Great. Well, we are too, and we’re all really excited to see it!