Newport, Rhode Island is a city of festivals. Each summer, the coastal town is flooded with visitors for its renowned jazz, folk, and seafood festivals. And with the Rogue Island Comedy Festival, Newport-born comic Doug Key is aiming to make Newport a destination for one more reason.
“Newport has the Jazz Festival, the Folk Festival, the Seafood Fest, Chowder Fest…I really just wanted to add to this palette of festival culture, of arts culture,” shared festival co-founder and currently New York-based comic Key. I just wanted to create something that can be repetitive every year, and have people look forward to it.” After several years of coming home monthly to host the Wasted Talent Show in Newport, Key wanted to grow the comedy presence in his hometown a little further. He wondered, “Why don’t I do a couple shows in one weekend and call it a festival?”
Backed with the support of a number of local businesses and friends still living in the area, Rogue Island’s inaugural comedy festival debuted on Columbus Day weekend 2015 with eight shows across three venues. In its fourth iteration, the festival has doubled the number of shows and attracted headlining performers like Nore Davis, SNL’s Sam Jay, Jared Freid, Corinne Fisher and Krystyna Hutchinson of the Guys We F***ed podcast, and Mark Normand, who Key has toured with in recent years.
The supporting slate has expanded in the last two years, as Rogue Island underwent its transformation from an invite-only festival to a submission-based festival. Key says its initial invitation-based process was not a move borne of elitism, but in fact the opposite: they wanted to earn the right to take people’s money:
When the festival first started, because we were new, we didn’t feel like we had earned the right to be a submission festival yet. We wanted to set the tone and build respect first. So we did an invite-only festival; we limited it to comedians we knew, great comedians we knew, locals and from New York, Boston…and it was awesome. It far exceeded our expectations, audiences had nothing but positive feedback.
Last year marked the festival’s third year, and first as a festival which took submissions. Aware that the politics of submission festivals can be fraught, Key seeks to be transparent about why the process works as it does, and where the money goes: to ensuring that submissions boards are paid, that comics are housed during the festival, and that acts are paid for each spot they do. And an unexpected side effect? The event has provided a grounds for comic “matchmaking,” though not in the way you might be thinking. “It’s great, because now we have comics coming from all different states meet each other in Newport for the first time. It’s cool seeing those friendships form, and then see those comics put other comics on their shows when they come to town.” Key likened the pride of seeing these comedic connections play out later in new cities to that of a proud dad.
National talent has always been paired with a number of local and regional comics, keeping a homegrown feel to this deeply personal project for Key and his collaborators. Even the festival’s name has a strong association to its locale. Rogue Island was a nickname given to the tiny state to represent its holdout status for Constitutional ratification; it stubbornly refused to sign (eleven times!) until over a year after it went into effect. But its rebellion on comedy seems to be softening, as more and more locals now incorporate the Rogue Island festival into their plans for the long weekend in October each year. “Columbus Day weekend has turned into a holiday for comedy,” Key noted as he talked about how the festival has changed Rhode Island’s comedy scene. “It really brings something out, and you can feel it in the air…even with the comics who come in to volunteer.”
Should you wish to head to Rhode Island for the long weekend to take part in that feeling, Key has a few tidbits of advice to share. First, get tickets early. Shows sell out quickly the night of, thanks to a city of what he calls “last minute decision makers.” Even for shows with relative unknowns, counting on walking up might backfire. Related to that: Key encourages people to treat all shows as equally exciting. Recalling his earlier proud dad comment, he shared that he doesn’t have a favorite show of the festival. Having set all the lineups himself, he insists “I love all sixteen of my children equally.” But what he does want people to know, is that there’s something for everyone on each show. The showcase format with seven comics on most shows means you’re likely to find someone you like, not unlike a pack of jelly beans (but he also acknowledges, “not everyone likes the black licorice ones, but somebody probably does).
The 4th annual Rogue Island Comedy Festival runs from Thursday, October 4th to Sunday, October 8th with sixteen shows all over the city of Newport. Tickets and passes are still available at rogueislandcomedyfest.com.