With DC in crisis, Bentzen Ball fest brings relief  this week with Notaro, Bamford, Holmes, Pharaoh

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Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly  and a prize-winning investigative reporter,  is the author of the book Mental Health, Inc.: How Corruption, Lax Oversight and Failed Reforms Endanger Our Most Vulnerable Citizens. He has written on wide array of topics, including comedy, music, politics and health care, for The Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Newsweek,  The New Republic, The Atlantic, Oregon Music News, Salon, Mother Jones and numerous other outlets.


With the  mounting Trump crisis in Washington, D.C. only getting worse,  the tenth anniversary of Washington’s cutting-edge Bentzen Ball festival this week , curated by Tig Notaro, comes as something of a comedy blessing. The festival is known in part for introducing to the sometimes stolid DC comedy scene innovative comics who were previously ignored there (e.g., Reggie Watts), as well as featuring stars such as Jim Gaffigan, Sarah Silverman, 2 Dope Queens, Chelsea Peretti, Todd Barry — and each year, Notaro, performing in a number of formats.  Notaro says, “DC has always been a great place to try out new material and talent. The audience is very smart.”

For this year’s festival, Notaro is unveiling on Saturday at 6 p.m. the East Coast premiere of a new comedic interview show, “But Enough About You,” featuring a fellow famous entertainer whose identity is being kept under wraps until shortly before showtime.

She’s bringing here the new interview format she developed for her monthly Largo show in LA that’s featured the likes of Olivia Munn and  Sarah Silverman.  Notaro’s wide-ranging comic gifts, of course, have been prominently displayed and hailed in her Netflix and HBO specials; her Amazon series One Mississippi based loosely on her return home after her mother’s death and rave-reviewed roles in films and the popular CBS Star-Trek: Discovery series.  But except for some brief snippets in documentaries and TV talk show appearances,  many people who haven’t seen her live don’t know the full scope of her brilliant off-the-cuff, improvised wit that shines in any setting. (Although it isn’t the same format as this week’s interview show, she’s getting positive attention recently  for her amusing new Funny or Die short interviews with famous people she can’t recognize,  given her ignorance about much of pop culture: Under a Rock With Tig Notaro.

I’ve seen her a few times at the Bentzen Ball, and what’s  particularly remarkable is how otherwise structured formats — such as the podcast Doug [Benson] Loves Movies, or a talk on stage with NPR’s Ira Glass — unleashes in her a fireworks of one-liners, free flights of fancy and even physical comedy that’s a wonder to behold. So this interview program promises to be fascinating and hilarious, regardless of the celebrity she’s featuring.

This year’s festival is marked by something else that’s very new — a star-laden DC homecoming event Saturday at a large new arena, home of the champion WNBA Mystics, featuring comedians who were either born, educated or launched their careers in DC. These include SNL’s Jay Pharaoh; the curmudgeonly Judah Friedlander, best known from 30 Rock;  Aparna Nancherla;  Rory Scovel; and Jermaine Flower, who has had feature roles in Pete Holmes’ Crashing  HBO series, the indie comedy Sorry to Bother You,  and is now filming the remake of Coming 2 America.

Among comedians, the festival has been a draw for fostering a fun-filled, friendly and cooperative atmosphere for the comedians who helped design it. The festival director and co-founder of the Brightest Young Things (BYT) media group. Svetlana Legetic, says, “The goal is, as always, to create a positive, whip-smart and very funny space.” It  may seem like just more hype, but, in this case, it’s true.


The festival starts Thursday with a relatively rare Washington appearance by the beloved Maria Bamford , hailed by Stephen Colbert as his “favorite comedian on earth,” at the U Street neighborhood’s Lincoln Theatre.  She’ll be offering plenty of fresh material that goes well beyond her poignant and hilarious routines about her own bipolar crack-up some years ago that brought her wide new national attention with  her daring Special, Special, Special filmed at home in front of her parents. As part of this stand-up tour, Bamford, reportedly quite shy off-stage, has yet again done something totally innovative: she has publicly invited one lucky fan out of the 209,000 who follow her on Twitter to meet with her one-on-one in her cities on the tour, including DC, at noon for lunch as she tries out new material and rehearses for her show that night. (That alone could serve as the basis of yet another comedy special, expanding the premise of the well-reviewed Old Baby special that  grew from  routines in her home that kept building in audience size until they were performed in auditoriums.)

Fans and critics who swooned over the  creative, surrealistic Netflix sitcom derived from her struggles with mental illness, Lady Dynamite,  and can’t get enough Maria before her next stand-up special should check out her other broadcasting projects engaging her talents as a voice actress: She’s starring in the new Team Coco-produced, scripted podcast, Frontier Tween  as 12-year-old  Tilly Mulch and is finishing shooting a starring role in  a unique new web series her management won’t publicly disclose yet — but from what I’ve learned, will doubtless be a smash hit.

The Bentzen Ball’s booking policy casts a wide net largely geared to smart, well-educated audiences. That includes featuring comics made even more famous from well-regarded TV shows and, this year, adding an afternoon discussion with a bona fide intellectual, novelist and essayist, feminist icon Roxane Gay, who happens to have a biting sense of humor, while not actually being a comedian.  For instance, capitalizing on his rising stardom,  Nerdist podcaster and popular comic Pete Holmes, joined by Jamie Lee, the co-star of  his semi-autobiographical HBO series Crashing, headlines an early show on Friday.

That show is followed by a 10 p.m. extravaganza that is a chance to discover exciting new comics: The live version of the Comedy Central series, “The New Negroes,” highlighting emerging black comedians. It’s named after a now-politically incorrect term derived from the Harlem Renaissance, co-hosted by the erudite and hilarious Baron Vaughn.  If you’ve been lucky enough to see a full set by Vaughn, his routines have a few hallmarks:  He assumes you’re also intelligent and well-educated, and while you never know where they’ll end up, you’ll be glad you went along for the ride. He’s also a skilled actor perhaps best known as the adopted son on the Jane Fonda- Lily Tomlin Netflix series, Gracie and Frankie,  and for playing Tom Servo on the rebooted  Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Netflix.

Vaughn is a truly fresh voice among African-American comedians. He is able to range widely across a rich array of American and black cultural landmarks he deftly lampoons, adjusting his language, diction and style to precisely fit his targets, including himself. He’s bringing the same sort of eclecticism to his comedy that the novelist Paul Beatty brought to his Man Booker-winning novel satirizing American race relations,  The Sellout, arguably the funniest novel written by an American in decades.   And while some of the comedians on the “New Negroes” bill this Friday aren’t widely known yet outside of comedy buff circles, others, such as the Daily Show correspondent Jaboukie Young-White are already  breaking out as young stars hailed by The New York Times but anyone picked for the series and tour is a sign of greater stardom to come.

For those who live in the major cities saturated in hip comedy, New York and Los Angeles, seeing all the lesser-known and stars-to-be comedians at this Bentzen Ball festival may not be as much an adventure as it is for DC area residents who don’t regularly get to see artists of this caliber in showcases here. Yet it’s precisely those discoveries — and established stars such as Notaro and Bamford — that make the Bentzen Ball such a special event and well worth celebrating on its tenth anniversary.


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