If a comedy festival’s success is to be measured in how much ranch dressing was used as a massage oil, New Orlean’s 2017 Hell Yes Fest, which ran mid November from the 15th to the 17th was a definite hit. Then again, if you measure Hell Yes’s success in any number of other more logical factors, it would still be a success. The festival sought to conquer North American comedy from the comfort of New Orlean’s eclectic French Quarter and conquer they did.
Hell Yes Fest’s evolution is proudly chameleonic; the festival has “never once looked the same”. It’s leaned towards stand up with a side of improv and sketch, put up largely local comedians with a peppering of out-of-towners and replaced stadium-stuffing headliners with younger, less established voices. In the words of the HYF Facebook page, that means creating “a place to discover and appreciate other artists who push beyond the comedic norms. It’s not just another list of famous names competing for the top position on a poster – it means something to the people who produce it, the performers who fill it up, and the audiences who are lucky enough to soak it all in”. In other words, for a great price you’ll get to see names that might not stick out until years later when you recognize the face on some screen and say, “wow, I saw them in that tiny theater with really cheep beer”. To this northern-raised carpetbagger mostly interested in to-go cocktails, the spirit of Hell Yes Fest seems like the spirit of its beautiful city- versatile, tenacious and so, so welcoming to oddballs.
HYF undertook a distinctly New Orleans-esque task by inviting all of the continent to its party. Both coasts were represented, first from Brooklyn’s weird and wonderful late-late night stand up showcase Just a Show hosted by the symbiotically divergent best friends Jessy Morner-Ritt and Harris Mayersohn. The audience was game for their experimental bits, even the ones that went really far (i.e. involved lady nipples) and left the black box reeking of ranch (the aforementioned salad dressing as massage oil) although after that detour into sticky vulnerability, hecklers were much more emboldened. Perhaps the hecklers would have been just as drunk and vocal without the sweet scent of ranch but both hosts were graceful and forceful, although not enough to prevent the end of the show from feeling hijacked.
Almost every other show involved less nudity and was consequently, despite being solid shows, a little less memorable (but perhaps more accessible). From the West there was the Arts and Crafts show out of LA- a comedy show inspiring a visual artist’s piece in real time (in an inconspicuous corner of the stage) hosted by CollegeHumor and UCB alums and generally non-threatening nice boy comedians Jon Zucker and Nick Skardarasy. America’s bellybutton was present with the 6 year old Epic Comedy Hour out of Huntsville, Alabama and the show could have killed in any literal or proverbial Peoria. A Canadian showcase from the ever-patient Northern neighbors to America’s belligerent frat house featured an audience favorite, Nick Nemeroff (more about that later or if TLDR; just check him out, he’s hilarious). Demographics converged in the many themed, occasionally competitive shows, like the self-explanatory stand up show Stoned Vs. Drunk Vs. Sober. The slightly less obvious but still straightforward Sudden Death showcase favored one-liner comedians with its one minute sets. Portlander Mohanad Elshieky won the contest with his acerbic, lighthearted politics as personal comedy while Canadian Nick Nemeroff’s weird non sequiturs also dominated. Moreover, after parties weren’t performer-exclusive; audience members, fest staff, passersby looking for a cab and comedians mingled in the beautiful One Eyed Jack backroom or the cozy alley behind the New Movement Theater. Hell Yes Fest was a buffet with morsels from all over, celebrating familiar and lesser known cities and the emerging comedians calling those places home. Better yet, the festival made itself a second home to all wanting to try something weird, adventurous or plain dumb and fun.