Comedy should be unpretentious and approachable, a way for us to connect and find humor in the many facets of the human experience. In theory, a comedy festival should follow suit, creating a safe space for artists to try out new material and collaborate with one another in a welcoming setting. But that isn’t always the case, so Tig Notaro decided to create a festival designed to make comedians feel at home.
She shared her idea with former Brightest Young Things (BYT) contributor Jeff Jetton, who brought it to BYT co-founder and CEO Svetlana Legetic, and the three joined forces to create the DC-based Bentzen Ball. Fast-forward 10 years, and the co-founders are gearing up for the festival’s 10th Anniversary of Comedy & Friendship on October 24-27.
The Bentzen team is proud of their longstanding collaboration, and the consistent, simple ethos driving the festival every year.
“We wanted it to be this perfect toolbox of four days, both for the comedians and the city,” Legetic says. “The only requirements to get booked are: Are you really talented and are you not a jerk? We run it like a comedy camp. Everything’s completely democratic.”
As the driving force behind BYT – a DC- and NYC-based events company, online magazine and most recently, creative agency – Legetic says organizing a comedy festival that is equal parts accessible to audiences and the talent they’re coming to see is critical. She describes Bentzen as “the great equalizer,” where the artists are all treated as peers regardless of who’s headlining or has the most IMDb credits.
“A festival should be the best time for the comedians because they all like each other,” she adds. “They’re friends. Fame doesn’t play a role – just quality and respect in the community.”
Notaro’s own brand of dry, often deadpan humor paired with personal comedy, touching upon vulnerable topics like her experience with breast cancer, seems like a natural fit for the open, community-driven message behind Bentzen. On a recent phone call with the comedian, she tells me that Bentzen has secured itself not as a fleeting or entertainment industry-driven festival, but instead as an event built on having a good time and doing good things with good comedians.
“I think we’ve maintained it and just grown it, but we’re not trying to grow it to be this monster,” Notaro says. “I just want it to always remain positive in every direction – from the size of it to the people who come to the charities we work with to the audience experience. As I’m going through all of this, it’s reminding me of how proud of it I am.”
The tone of her voice fluctuates ever so slightly when she says this, and I know in that moment how much Bentzen means to her. Notaro hails from L.A., where she lives with her wife Stephanie Allynne and twin 3-year-olds Max and Finn, but comes to the District every year for the festival. When I ask, “Why DC?” the response is quite flattering, another nod to our burgeoning performing arts scene.
“I had such a great time in DC [during the DC Comedy Festival years ago]. It seemed like such a fun city and like regardless of where you stand politically, it would be a nice draw for people to want to come out. And I was right.”
She says she can rely on good vibes from our city year in and year out – and on smart audiences to come out and support the comedians.
“[DC is] always so fun, and it’s always a place I know I can come and try something new. There are certain cities where I feel like, ‘Oh, it can be hit-or-miss, or I had a good time last time [but] who knows what’ll happen this time?’ But I feel like DC is a town where I can just go, ‘Yeah, I’ll go have a great time for sure on that stage.’”
Legetic reiterates how smart of a city we are, and how the District’s collective intelligence has in some ways led to Bentzen’s continued success.
“I always say everyone gets the jokes here,” she says. “If you can’t land a joke here, you can’t land it anywhere because people have read everything, heard everything. We’re so in tune with what’s happening around us.”
Another contributing factor to the festival’s popularity, according to Notaro, is the creative team’s clean-slate approach.
“It’s really wide open,” she says. “We go into each year with an openness of, ‘What do these performers want to do? What kind of show do they want to have? Who do they want in the show?’ Everything still falls in place but as it unfolds, that’s always one of the best parts: seeing what direction everything goes in.”
Bentzen offers artists the opportunity to expand their forms of expression, opening doors to unexplored creative outlets and giving access to talented peers playing in the same space.
Legetic says, “It’s very much about the performer and the audience. People trust that it’s going to be good on both sides, and a lot of magical things happen in the process.”
She’s confident in the event’s continued success, and with good reason. Audience numbers grew 40 percent between 2017 and 2018 “because I think people needed it,” Legetic adds. Festival passes often sell out before BYT even announces the lineup. And headlining acts like Maria Bamford, who has been on both Notaro and Legetic’s wish list for years, continue to join the Bentzen family.
“We don’t have a marketing budget or anything like that,” Legetic says. “If the audience didn’t want it, it wouldn’t be growing.”
Bamford opens the festival on October 24, and on October 26, audiences can catch Notaro’s “But Enough About You” at festival mainstay Lincoln Theatre or head over to the Entertainment and Sports Arena – a new addition to the lineup – for the DC Homecoming! show featuring DMV natives like Jay Pharoah, Aparna Nancherla and Judah Friedlander. The list of curated talent continues, and regardless of who you decide to check out, Legetic promises Bentzen won’t disappoint.
“We’re very earnest in our enthusiasm. Even if you’re not sure about something, give it a chance. We’ve never taken anyone astray in 10 years.”
Bentzen Ball’s 10th Anniversary of Comedy & Friendship runs from October 24-27 at Lincoln Theatre, the Entertainment and Sports Arena, and the Kennedy Center’s Millennial Stage. Most tickets range from $25-$40. Proceeds from this year’s Bentzen tickets support José Andrés World Central Kitchen. Learn more at www.brightestyoungthings.com/bentzen-ball-2019.