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Soundbites: The Vermont Comedy Club Hosts a Virtual 24-Hour Marathon

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Julia DiFerdinando - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Julia DiFerdinando

Which do you prefer: "panniversary" or "pandemiversary"? I think panniversary rolls off the tongue better, but the meaning of pandemiversary is a bit clearer. Whatever you want to call it, it's been a year since the pandemic shat all over everything relating to music, nightlife and live entertainment. Also, practically every aspect of day-to-day life. Nearly all of Vermont's music venues and performing arts hubs shut down a year ago this week. Let Friday, March 13, 2020, forever be known as Dark Friday — that is, the day when all of our stages went dark.

Like so many others, the Vermont Comedy Club closed its doors on Dark Friday. To commemorate the unprecedented 12 months since, as well as raise some much-needed funds, the venue presents a monumental streaming benefit show this weekend.

Dubbed Hellebration, the event is a 24-hour marathon running from noon on Saturday, March 13, to noon the following day, Sunday, March 14. Programming will be streamed via Zoom, with links provided on the club's website. (For all you hairsplitters out there: Yes, because daylight saving time takes effect on Sunday, technically we lose an hour overnight, thus making the event only 23 hours long. But only a dick would harp on that.)

Composed of hourlong blocks of programming, Hellebration features a buttload of local, formerly local and national comedians, improvisers, actors and podcasters doing what they do best: cracking you the eff up. And when I say a buttload, I mean a buttload. Way too many to list in full — especially since, as of this writing, the lineup and schedule were still subject to change.

Expect to see some past winners of Vermont's Funniest Comedian, such as Tina Friml and Tim Bridge. And legendary Kids in the Hall member Kevin McDonald, who's taught some seminars at the VCC, is slated for Saturday night. The final lineup and schedule should be published on the club's socials sometime before Saturday.

Though not ideal, web-based streaming shows have been the saving grace of artists and audiences trying to hang on to a shred of normalcy. All performance-based fields have suffered because of the pandemic, but comedy scenes like the one we have in Vermont have been hit especially hard, for some specific reasons.

Vermont Comedy Club owners Nathan Hartswick and Natalie Miller - COURTESY OF NATHAN HARTSWICK
  • Courtesy Of Nathan Hartswick
  • Vermont Comedy Club owners Nathan Hartswick and Natalie Miller

Local comedy is a community that thrives on fellowship in particular ways that others, such as the live music scene, perhaps don't. I'm not saying musicians can have more fulfilling performances without an audience than comedians, or can universally survive better in isolation. It's hard for everyone. But I am saying that there's a special sort of magic that happens in the comedy world, both on- and offstage.

"It's really, really hard," said VCC co-owner Natalie Miller of performing without an audience. She specifically noted the difficulty of creating energy and momentum while telling jokes into the void of cyberspace. But she also touched on how she and her cohort have adapted.

"We found that, over time, people just want to see other humans having fun together," she said. "If you can't have that live audience, at least the people who you are in the Zoom with need to be reacting in that way. You just need to make sure people are having fun."

The club has hosted streams from various comedians and improv groups on a regular basis since the pandemic began. But because it can't physically be together, Vermont's tight-knit comedy community could be at a huge artistic disadvantage when it is able to reconvene and perform in-person.

Miller revealed that, before the club reopens, fans can expect to see some outdoor, socially distanced comedy shows once the weather improves. However, she noted, "We need to get the comedy scene back in shape.

"None of us have performed in front of people for a really long time," Miller explained. "Delivery is so important. And it's just practice. It's repetition. Getting those reps they need is gonna be big before we reopen."

Miller went on to say that if the VCC's house improv team the Unmentionables were to take the stage in front of a real, live audience, "I think we'd probably bomb pretty hard right now." But, she added, "The audience would be so glad to be seeing people in real life that they would laugh at anything."

Beyond being out of practice, comedians thrive on being together in their downtime. It's not even downtime, really — it's how comedy happens.

"Comedians are constantly working out material on each other," Miller said. "Just the way that we talk is different from everyone else. Being around each other is really important to the creation of comedy, and also just our mental health."

Funds raised through Hellebration will go toward some remodeling and renovations at the downtown Burlington club to allow for better social distancing and sanitation. This includes installing touchless bathroom fixtures and reworking ingress and egress flow to allow customers more personal space.

Folks planning to tune in this weekend should settle in for some homebound hilarity. Though content is likely to get progressively raunchier and less family-friendly as night bleeds into day, the marathon kicks off with a group of family-friendly improvisers on Saturday. Similarly, on Sunday morning, VCC creative director Julia DiFerdinando, along with comedian Brian Park, "will be making breakfast and making jokes," DiFerdinando wrote by email. She emphasized that her family-friendly set will suit all ages.

Brian DeLaBruere - COURTESY OF EMMA TESTONE
  • Courtesy Of Emma Testone
  • Brian DeLaBruere

Just a few more tidbits: Brian DeLaBruere, a member of the Unmentionables, hosts a game show composed of original games he's rolled out during weekly online improv sessions. Comedians will compete in contests such as "Who's That Neck!?" and "One Truth and a Lie." DeLaBruere noted by email that he's likely to make appearances throughout the marathon and that he didn't ask for much information from the VCC regarding his role "because I like my online performance experience to be controlled chaos."

Sketch comedians Stephen Franklin, Ryan Kenyon and John Lyons will bring their Transcendental Comedy Experience to the marathon, featuring some unpredictable prerecorded sketches.

"It's an event that's certain to be strange, unusual and at times downright confusing," Kenyon wrote in an email. "The real question is, will it even be funny? And what is laughter, anyway? I mean, aren't we all just dust in the wind?"

I feel you, Mr. Kenyon.

Down With Disease

A pretty big piece of semi-music-related news came out last week: Phish's Trey Anastasio is opening an addiction treatment facility in Ludlow, tentatively in late 2021. Or rather, his nonprofit, the Divided Sky Foundation, in association with national group Ascension Recovery Services, is heading up the center. Its name is yet to be determined.

According to a press release from Red Light Management, Anastasio raised approximately $1.2 million during the Beacon Jams, the legendary guitarist's string of virtual, donation-based concerts streamed live from New York City's Beacon Theatre last year. That money went directly to purchasing the Ludlow property.

"The center's goal: to be a local asset not only for treatment, but for giving back to the community," read the press release. It went on to note that the forthcoming center will serve people from all economic backgrounds, offer job training and provide educational opportunities.

For years, Anastasio has talked openly about his struggle with opioid addiction.

"I was extremely lucky to have access to care, and I know how important it is to be part of a recovery community," he said via the press release. "I'm grateful that we can help provide that opportunity for others."

Listening In

If I were a superhero, my superpower would be the ability to get songs stuck in other people's heads. Here are five songs that have been stuck in my head this week. May they also get stuck in yours.

Musical Youth, "Pass the Dutchie"

Janet Jackson, "Escapade"

Bran Van 3000, "Love Cliché"

Fleetwood Mac, "The Chain"

Bryan Ferry, "Don't Stop the Dance"

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