How the Milwaukee Comedy Festival Is Keeping People Laughing This Year

The Milwaukee Comedy Festival is celebrating 14 and a half years of comedy.

Remember events? Those things people would go to long ago, packing themselves into tight spaces with countless others, faces uncovered, to have an experience as a community? Well, this year’s Milwaukee Comedy Festival might not be packing in as many guests as it has for the last 14, but it will still showcase some of America’s best stand-up talent, including acts from New York, Nashville, and Pennsylvania, across nine shows and four venues — with all the necessary precautions to keep everyone safe and comfortable.

Plans were well under way for the festival’s 15th run, originally scheduled for early August, when COVID-19 changed everything. “Last year was our largest year yet,” says Kaitlin McCarthy, a producer of the festival and co-owner of The Laughing Tap. “We had attendance of over 2,200 people, 13 shows over seven days, and four festival headliners…and we were ready to make our 15th year huge.”

The festival’s organizers followed the news and official guidelines closely over the first few months of the pandemic, and when it became clear that holding the festival as originally planned wasn’t an option, they rescheduled for Oct. 7-11 and got right to work on restructuring.

Vik Pandya, performed at the Laughing Tap on Saturday 9/26 to a crowd of 20.
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“If we’re responsible and doing things the right way, there’s nothing to be ashamed of,” says McCarthy.

“Part of why we’re doing this, even though the festival will be smaller, is that we want to help bring a sense of normalcy to the community,” says Greg Bach, also a festival producer and Laughing Tap co-owner. “We can celebrate what we do while being safe.”

Each venue is committed to making the festival as safe as possible. Seating has been limited at all four locations; the Laughing Tap, for example, has reduced its total seats from 100 to 20. Sanitation before and after shows has been ramped up, masks are required while you’re out of your seat, and separate mics are used for each performer to keep them at ease as well.

Bar at the Laughing Tap — majority venue for MKE Comedy Festival

“We’re being as cautious as possible,” says Bach, “and the response from the public and the comedians has been overwhelmingly positive.”

“One thing we’ve noticed with smaller audiences is that the room is so much different with 20 people instead of 100,” says McCarthy. “It’s providing a more exclusive comedy experience. The comics are way more interactive with the audience, and it’s made for some really great shows. The comics know things are different, the audience knows things are different, but we’re still having fun.”

Tickets are sold at the door, ranging from $10-$20 depending on the show, but guests are encouraged to purchase them online ahead of time. With a maximum of 20 people, they’re selling out quickly. If your show of choice sells out, or you’d prefer to get cozy on your couch and watch from home, the festival will also be offering live streaming this year.

“We understand not everybody is ready to come out yet, but just know that we’re doing everything possible,” says McCarthy. “People feel safe here. You deserve a little bit of laughter in your life, so come on out.”

Tickets for the Milwaukee Comedy Festival can be purchased at their website.

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Calvin Lemieux is a Communication graduate from University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point. Following an internship with Milwaukee Magazine in Fall 2019 and graduation in Spring 2020, he returned to work as a freelance writer.