Meet the Founder of the First Black Comedy Festival in New York City

Neruda Williams is excited to be presenting yet another year of talented comedians at The Harlem Comedy Festival.

photo credit: https://harlemcomedyfestival.com/

The Harlem-based event will be back for its fourth year and will last from September 23rd to the 30th. The showcase will bring together comedic talent from multiple locations within the United States. This festival has attracted approximately 2,000 attendees and each year new events and venues are added which allows approximately100 more individuals to attend the popular event.

Heartbroken, but yet inspired by the closing of one of the few Black-owned comedy clubs in the country and the lack of support for Black comedic artists is what motivated Williams to plan the first Harlem Comedy Festival. The Harlem Comedy Festival is currently the only festival that takes place within the Harlem neighborhood with a mission to highlight the lack of diversity within specific areas of the entertainment industry, such as in television, film and especially comedy. 

“As a person of color in a majority white society, we are often forced to be in spaces that are not conducive to our success. Usually, we have to work twice as hard for half the reward. And many of the ‘mainstream’ festivals are predominantly male and white, usually with one ‘urban’ or Black comedy night or single show and that’s just not a fair playing field for Black people in comedy to get to the next level,” says Williams. 

photo credit: http://ucbcomedy.com/user/29142

Over the past few years, there have been similar events held that have afforded talented comedians the opportunity to showcase their talents in various parts of the world. 

In just the last three years, the Peachtree Comedy Festival in Atlanta, Memphis’ Urban Laughs Festival, the Black Women in Comedy Festival in Brooklyn, the NW Black Comedy Festival in Portland and others have all sprung up. Unfortunately, back in 2015 and 2016, those opportunities did not exist and Williams noted that he felt similar to those aforementioned producers which was that there was a need for a mid-tier space for Black comedians to develop, showcase and possibly advance their careers.

The festival being held in Harlem was no coincidence since it is the birthplace of Williams and he has such a deep connection with the historic neighborhood. 

For Williams, Harlem is where he was born and it’s always been the epicenter of Black culture in America. Although there are many festivals that take place within the tri-state area there wasn’t one taking place in Harlem, even though it is the birthplace of so much of American culture and entertainment. Because of this and more is why Williams felt that it was the perfect place to hold a Black comedy festival.

The event has also proven to promote an inspirational message while impacting the community as well as the careers of several of the entertainers over the past few years.

Pedro Gonzalez, Alvin Irby, and Jeena Bloom have all won the stand-up competition, and since then have been offered various opportunities. Marianne Ways was one of the judges for the first year, during which she was a producer for Wyatt Cenac’s Night Train and she saw the first winner Pedro Gonzalez at Williams’ festival. This got him a spot on the show which led to him getting his first TV credit and also performing at other national festivals.

In an interview, Williams also shared with us that Alvin Irby, an award-winning entrepreneur, and comedian already well-known for his Barbershop Books initiative that encourages children to read by adding libraries into barbershops, won the second year and two more comedy competitions that same year. 

Previous festivals have featured entertainers such as Pat Brown, Kerry Coddett, Ashton Womack, Donnell Rawlings, Julia Shiplett, and Elsa Waithe. This year, Williams is hoping that this festival will be even bigger than the preceding years since more events, venues and some of the events biggest names and acts have been added to the showcase. 

“My main goal is to help these comics get national recognition and hopefully representation that can help them grow their careers. In past years, our judges’ panel has consisted of local producers, comedy bookers, and club owners. This year we aim to have national television bookers, agents and nationally recognized festivals in attendance as judges and VIP invitees,” says Williams. 

The past success of the festival can be contributed to multiple things such as strategically planning the details of the event from booking the venues to booking lineups for all of the shows. 

The two main obstacles of planning this event is reserving venues and delegating tasks to others such as graphic designers, show producers, marketing promotions specialists, and a public relations specialist, says Williams.

Williams aspires to expand the event and one way of achieving this goal is by reaching out to other arts institutions within Harlem to develop additional partnerships and increase the awareness of the festival.

“We’d love to add an educational component teaching literacy, creative writing, public speaking, and teamwork through Long Form Improv and Stand Up Comedy with Harlem School of The Arts and The Schomburg Library possibly. Of course, that’s not locked in stone but is one of our goals to execute this year,” he stated.

There are several comedians who have not only attended the festival to perform but who have also attended to show support to other entertainers.

Joe Hill, a Harlem native, has been a part of the festival for three years. In 2017, he was a guest judge and in 2018 he hosted and produced the event. This year he is looking forward to doing the same while representing Harlem and enjoying all of the shows.

Hill is among many who agrees that this festival is a great opportunity for comedians since they will have the opportunity to gain exposure and advance their career and hopes that this event continues to grow each year.

“The Harlem Comedy Festival is a great opportunity for black comedians to be seen and heard. Festivals also offer great visibility because comedy producers and bookers are in attendance. As a comedian, a festival can only help further your comedy career,” he stated.

Vanetta Schoefield, a stand-up comedian, moved to Harlem and started performing the year of the inaugural festival after she fell in love with the vibe and culture of the neighborhood. 

She is a huge supporter of the festival and loves that she has the opportunity to gain exposure while showcasing her talent in front of audiences. 

“I love the festival because it is a way I gauge the progression of my comedy career,” she says. 

Schoefield has been a participant of the Harlem Comedy Festival since it’s very first year.

The first year Schoefield was a volunteer and she shared with us that she vividly remembers someone bringing her tickets to sell at her bartending job on a Friday night. The next year at the festival, she was the only volunteer that wanted more responsibility so she assisted Neruda in the curation of the programming and secured venues for the event. By the third year, she had found her niche with an all female show, ‘Funny Hunnyz’. Schoefield was producing a monthly all female showcase and The Harlem Comedy Festival was her first festival showcase. The lineup was stellar and included Robin Montague, Pat Brown and Eva Evans.

This year, Schoefield is excited to be a part of the festival again because it highlights the talent and richness of the culture within the community and also allows her to support other comedians and make people laugh while performing in front of audiences.  

To learn more about The Harlem Comedy Festival visit www.harlemcomedyfestival.com

feature photo credit: http://newyork.improvteams.com/NAW

Written by Iris Hunter

Iris Hunter is the founder and operator of RésuméBy Iris, a company that specializes in creating accomplishment-based career documents such as résumés, cover letters and professional bios for clients globally.

 

She has been a journalist for nearly 10 years and has mastered how to leverage her talent for writing and researching as well as her educational background to interview clients in order to create professional career documents for clients and articles and blog posts for online and print publications nationwide. 

 

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