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Festival’s 10th year to be full of highlights

May 9, 2017
May 9, 2017

Next month’s Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk promises to be four days of laughter and fun, especially since it’s the festival’s 10th year and 25 years since Johnny Carson stepped down as host of “The Tonight Show.”

“We’re introducing some new elements to the festival, and a slightly different schedule to really make this year’s event something special,” said Mark Zimmerer, festival chairman.The festival — slated to run Wednesday, June 14, through Saturday, June 17 — will again feature evening performances at the Johnny Carson Theatre, but lots more, too, he said.

Here’s a rundown of all that’s planned:

— Throughout the four-day festival

The Elkhorn Valley Museum in Norfolk will be the home to a new traveling exhibit titled “Here’s Johnny: The Making of ‘The Tonight Show.’ ” Created by Jeff Sotzing, Carson’s nephew, the exhibit features previously unseen artifacts from the late-night talk show. During the comedy festival, the museum will offer reduced admission.

— Wednesday, June 14

The festival has collaborated with the CEC-Norfolk 7 Theater to arrange for a free showing of the 1982 NBC primetime special “Johnny Goes Home” that was filmed in Norfolk.

The event is set for 7 p.m. and the free admission will be on a first come, first served basis.

In addition, the evening also will feature a new documentary commissioned by the festival that takes a look back at the making of that 1982 TV special and include interview with some of the Norfolkans involved in the production process.

— Thursday, June 15

The festival’s annual Comedy-Magic Show for the entire family moves to Thursday night this year at the Johnny Carson Theatre and will begin at 7 p.m. Scheduled to perform are illusionists Kalin and Jinger, master juggler Marcus Monroe and mentalists Jeff and Tessa Evason.

— Friday, June 16

The evening’s 7:30 p.m. Best of the Fest performance at the Johnny Carson Theatre will feature eight of the nine past winners of the festival’s professional stand-up competition — Deacon Gray, Kermet Apio, Ryan Hamilton, Pete Lee, Phil Palisoul, Brian Kiley, Brad Wenzel and Mark Normand. The evening will be hosted by Wendy Liebman, a past festival headliner.

Friday evening also will feature the popular Late-Night Show at Divots starting at 10:30 p.m. Scheduled to perform will be many of the comedians who are part of this year’s festival lineup.

— Saturday, June 17

The annual Laugh and a Half Marathon will take place beginning at 7 a.m. along the Cowboy Trail for those interested in participating in a half-marathon, 10k, 5k or children’s fun run.

On Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Johnny Carson Theatre will be the site for a “Tonight Show” Writers’ Panel moderated by Nebraska native and festival alum Dick Cavett. On hand for the event will be Mike Reiss, Andrew Nicholls and Darrell Vickers, all of whom were on the writing staff of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Also participating will be David Steven Simon, co-creator of the new “There’s … Johnny!” television series set to debut this fall. The event is free and open to the public.

Wrapping up the festival will be the annual Gala at 7:30 p.m. featuring comedian Martin Short as the headlining performer and the presentation of the Johnny Carson Comedy Legend Award to Robert Klein, who was the festival’s headliner during its first year in 2008. Also scheduled to perform will be festival alums Larry Miller, Caroline Rhea, Mike E. Winfield and Dennis Regan. Excerpts from the new “There’s … Johnny!” television series also will be shown.

“Come to as many of the events and performances as you can,” Zimmerer said. “There’s nothing else quite like this in the entire Midwest this summer.”

Comedy festival to feature ‘Tonight Show’ writers panel

March 16, 2017
March 16, 2017

To help mark the 25th year since Johnny Carson stepped down as host of “The Tonight Show,” the Great American Comedy Festival is bringing to Norfolk four people key to the show’s success — its writers.

As well as a fifth who is playing an instrumental role in the creation of a new television situation comedy focused on Carson and “The Tonight Show.”

They’ll all be on stage at the Johnny Carson Theatre in Norfolk on Saturday, June 17, at 1 p.m. for the free 90-minute event organized by Jeff Sotzing, Johnny’s nephew and a former producer of “The Tonight Show.”

From Sotzing’s perspective, writers are key to the success of any show, especially a television talk show.

“The job of a writer takes an individual with real talent and creativity,” he said. “You can teach people to do just about anything, but to write is a unique gift. Add to that the pressure of writing for a daily show that demands production at a moment’s notice, and you have an incredibly stressful job.”

The Saturday afternoon writers panel will feature Nebraska native and entertain Dick Cavett — himself a former “Tonight Show” writer — as the moderator. He’ll be joined on stage by former “Tonight Show” writers Mike Reiss, Andrew Nichols and Darrell Vickers.

“I know for a fact that Johnny Carson, who was also a writer, held the work that the writers did to the highest level and was grateful and honored to have them as part of the team,” Sotzing said.

Also part of the panel will be David Steven Simon, co-creator with Paul Reiser of a new TV show currently in production called “There’s …. Johnny!” Eight episodes are being filmed for the Seeso streaming comedy network owned by NBC and are scheduled to air this fall.

Simon began his career with three overall studio deals at Disney, Universal and Columbia. He worked with Michael Jacobs and wrote on “Charles in Charge, “Together We Stand” and “My Two Dads.” He also co-created the Wayans’ Brother situation comedy that starred Shawn and Marlon Wayans. He has written feature scrips for Kevin Costner, John Travolta and Patrick Dempsey.

Mike Reiss has won four Emmys and a Peabody Award during his 26 years writing for “The Simpsons.” He ran the show in the series’ fourth season, which Entertainment Weekly called “the greatest season of the greatest show in history.” In 2006, Reiss received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Animation Writers Caucus.

Reiss has written jokes for such comedy legends as Johnny Carson, Joan Rivers, Garry Shandling and even Pope Francis. For his comedic contributions to the charitable group Joke with the Pope, in 2015 Pope Francis declared Reiss “A missionary of joy!”

Andrew Nicholls and Darrell Vickers were both born in England and met in Canada, where they began writing songs, as well as jokes for cartoonists and standup comics, and for radio, stage and TV. In 1983, they moved to Los Angeles, where they wrote for sitcoms and for performers including Mickey Rooney and George Carlin.

In 1986, they joined the staff of “The Tonight Show,” becoming Johnny Carson’s head writers in 1988 and earning four Emmy nominations.

The team has sold over 75 pilot scripts, of which 35 were produced and 20 made into series. They’ve created or staffed over 100 series and pilots, including shows for Faye Dunaway, Bronson Pinchot and Courteney Cox, Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Magic Johnson and Robert Townsend.  Since 1997 they’ve written over 200 episodes of children’s animation in a dozen countries.

Cavett served as a comedy writer for “The Tonight Show” when it was hosted by Jack Paar and subsequently for his “Tonight Show” successor, Johnny Carson.

Encouraged by such showbiz friends as Woody Allen and Groucho Marx, Cavett became a stand-up comedian. His success in this field led to an offer from ABC to host a daytime talk show in 1968.

Among several other projects, he went on to host a daily PBS interview series, which ran from 1977 to 1981, and led similar programs on the USA and CNBC cable services into the 1990s.

Mark Zimmerer, chairman of this year’s comedy festival, said the writers panel will feature video clips from “The Tonight Show” and the opportunity for audience questions.

“It should be a fun and fascinating discussion,” he said. “And it’s free!”

‘Mind-blowing’ talent set for comedy festival’s magic show

March 16, 2017
March 16, 2017

The Great American Comedy Festival’s annual family comedy-magic show may be full of sleight of hand, but there’s no illusion about this: The entertainers scheduled to perform are world-class.

“We have another wonderful show lined up for the festival this year — some really talented folk with very unique acts appropriate for the entire family and adults will love as well,” said Richard Barrett, manager of the Comedy and Magic Club in Los Angeles. “This is a show you won’t want to miss — bring the family, bring your girlfriend, come by yourself, we don’t care. But everyone will be talking about the show the next day, and you’ll regret not having gone.”

As he has in the past, Barrett personally selected the three acts that will be part of this year’s comedy-magic show. It moves to a new night — Thursday, June 15, at 7 p.m. at the Johnny Carson Theatre — this year because of the festival’s revamped schedule for its 10th year.

Scheduled to perform are Kalin & Jinger, Marcus Monroe and Jeff and Tessa Evason.

Barrett said, “Kalin & Jinger are truly one of the top acts in the world with numerous TV appearances on their résumé, and they’re fresh off a successful run on Broadway. They’re exactly what you expect from a classic magic act: big illusions, interactive stage magic, theatrical showmanship, all while being innovative and exciting.”

Kalin creates what appear to be impossible illusions on a monolithic scale. For example, in 2001, Kalin made magic history by performing the largest stage illusion in the world — the vanishing of an American Airlines jumbo jet in front of a live audience.

They have received magic’s highest honor, Magicians of the Year, by the prestigious Academy of Magical Arts-Hollywood’s Magic Castle.

They have made numerous television appearances including NBC’s “World’s Greatest Magicians,” “Hidden Secrets of Magic,” Fox Family’s “Magic on the Edge” as well as appearances on “Entertainment Tonight,” CBS and ABC.

Dubbed “the rock star of jugglers,” Marcus Monroe combines innovative juggling with a high-energy original take. He is the recipient of the prestigious Andy Kaufman Award, awarded once a year to a performer who exhibits an original and creative performance with the spirit and execution of the late Kaufman.

Monroe has appeared on dozens of national TV shows, including “The Late Show with David Letterman,” Discovery’s “Kid’s Mad Science,” The History Channel’s “Pawn Stars” and CBS’ “Secret Talents of the Stars.”

Barrett said, “Marcus Monroe is on a quest to be the world’s most famous juggler and after you see him you’ll probably believe he is. His act is really energetic and funny. He’s young, hip, hilarious and will be doing things that you and I can’t do!”

Jeff and Tessa Evason are acclaimed as master mentalists, Barrett said.

“The Evasons are absolutely mind-blowing. They are a mentalist duo (with) extraordinary skills that defy explanation. They put on an incredible show that will have you guessing, ‘How did they do that?’ for the next few days,” Barrett said.

The Evasons have been honored with some of the top awards in their field. They are the first mentalists in history to receive the Milbourne Christopher Award, considered to be the Academy Award of magic, from the Society of American Magicians. Past recipients include David Copperfield, Doug Henning and Siegfried and Roy.

The Evasons have traveled to more than 38 countries to appear at special events, entertain troops overseas and headline on cruise ships and casino showrooms. They’ve appeared on NBC, FOX, CBS, Discovery Channel and others.

“I’m really excited about this year’s performers and if you’ve been to one of our shows in the past, you’ll know that we’re bringing world-class talent to Norfolk,” Barrett said.

Martin Short, Robert Klein to be two of many stars on hand to mark 10th Great American Comedy Festival

February 23, 2017
February 23, 2017

The Festival also will mark 25th year since Johnny Carson stepped down as host of “The Tonight Show”

Organizers of the 10th annual Great American Comedy Festival are pulling out all the stops to make this summer’s event the best one yet.

The event, which is set for Wednesday, June 14, through Saturday, June 17, will also mark the 25th year since Johnny Carson stepped down as host of “The Tonight Show.”

“It’s going to be like a cross between a comedy festival reunion and a cavalcade of stars,” said Mark Zimmerer, chairman of this year’s festival.

Leading off the list of entertainers are comedian and movie star Martin Short, who will serve as the festival’s top headliner, and Robert Klein, who was the headliner at the festival’s inaugural event in 2008. He will return this year as the recipient of the Johnny Carson Comedy Legend award.

“We’re thrilled to have both of them coming to Norfolk,” said Lori Williams, the festival’s executive director. “But we’re also excited to have eight of our nine professional stand-up winners from past festivals returning, as well as several headliners from past festivals. It’s a lineup like we’ve never seen before in Norfolk.”

The festival, which was begun in 2008 to pay tribute to the legacy of Norfolk native Johnny Carson, is working closely with Jeff Sotzing, Carson’s nephew, in planning for this year’s festival. Eddie Brill continues as the festival’s artistic director.

“We have worked so very hard over the last decade to bring the best talent in America to Norfolk to celebrate and honor our hero, Johnny Carson,” Brill said. “For our 10th anniversary, we have pulled out all the stops.  Over four days in June, you will see the greatest collection of comedy entertainment anywhere in the country, all in one place. You won’t want to miss any of it.”

The festival will have a bit of a different schedule this summer because of the anniversaries being celebrated. Here are the highlights:

— Wednesday, June 14, an opening night tribute to Johnny Carson

Planned is a special showing of the 1982 NBC primetime television special “Johnny Goes Home,” along with airing of a new documentary featuring Norfolk and area residents who were part of the production of that TV special.

In addition, there will be a special sneak peek of the new “There’s …. Johnny!” comedy-drama currently being filmed for the Seeso streaming comedy network. The show will premiere this fall on Seeso, but festival attendees will get the first look at the show being co-created by actor Paul Reiser and David Steven Simon. It tells the fictional story of a young man from Valentine who makes his way to Los Angeles and lands a job with “The Tonight Show” during the early 1970s.

Those Wednesday evening activities will be free and open to the public. Also planned is a reception for festival sponsors.

— Thursday, June 15, the annual comedy-magic show for the entire family.

Traditionally taking place on Wednesday night, the comedy-magic show moves to Thursday this year and again will feature top performers as selected by Richard Barrett, manager of the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, Calif.

Scheduled to take the stage at the Johnny Carson Theatre are magicians/illusionists Kalin and Jinger, Marcus Monroe and Jeff and Tessa Evason.

— Friday, June 16, the “best of the fest” performance.

This show will be headlined by Wendy Liebman, who performed at the 2012 comedy festival. The performance will feature eight of the nine individuals who won the professional stand-up competition at the festival in past years.

Scheduled to perform at the Johnny Carson Theatre are David “Deacon” Gray, who won the inaugural festival competition in 2008; Kermet Apio, the 2009 winner; Ryan Hamilton, the 2011 winner; Pete Lee, the 2012 winner; Phil Palisoul, the 2013 winner; Brian Kiley, the 2014 winner; Brad Wenzel, the 2015 winner, and last year’s winner, Marc Normand.

— Saturday, June 17, writers panel and festival gala.

A free event planned for Saturday afternoon is a panel discussion featuring writers connected to “The Tonight Show” that will be moderated by Nebraska native and entertainer Dick Cavett, who was a writer for the show himself.

The panel discussion will feature Mike Reiss, Andrew Nicholls and Darrell Vickers, all of whom were on the writing staff of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” as well as David Steven Simon, co-creator of the “There’s …. Johnny!” television show currently in production.

The highlight of the festival will be Saturday evening’s gala featuring Martin Short as headliner and the presentation of the Johnny Carson Comedy Legend award to Robert Klein.

But also appearing will be these past festival performers: Larry Miller, the 2010 festival headliner; Caroline Rhea, a 2014 headliner; Jake Johannsen, a 2012 headliner; Tommy Johnagin, a 2011 headliner; and Mike E. Winfield, also a 2011 headliner.

Tickets to the festival will go on sale in the coming weeks, Williams said. Festival sponsorships currently are available.

“We wanted to plan something really special for this year’s festival. I think we’ve accomplished that,” Zimmerer said.


New documentary planned on “Johnny Goes Home”

February 23, 2017
February 23, 2017

It was in 1982 when Norfolk was in the national spotlight as NBC aired “Johnny Goes Home.”

The primetime TV special followed Johnny Carson on a sentimental journey from Hollywood to the heartland as he shared his Nebraska roots in his hometown of Norfolk with a national audience.A special showing of that television special is planned to help kick off this summer’s Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk when it opens on Wednesday, June 14.

“What better timing to do this than the 25th anniversary of Johnny stepping down as host of ‘The Tonight Show,’ ” said Mark Zimmerer, chairman of this year’s festival.

But there’s more planned to help mark the occasion.

The festival is sponsoring the filming of a documentary that also will be part of the opening night events. It will be shown along with “Johnny Goes Home” that evening. To do that, festival organizers need the help of Norfolkans and area residents.

The idea of the documentary is to interview and feature individuals who were part of the production crew or actual broadcast of “Johnny Goes Home.” A number of local and area residents — as well as former Northeast Nebraskans — were involved with the NBC project. 

“So, if you’re one of those individuals — or if you know someone who fits the bill — the festival is encouraging you to let us know as soon as possible,” Zimmerer said.

People can contact Zimmerer at 371-4862 or email him at

“We think this will be great way to revisit that 1982 television special and the people who helped make it possible,” he said.


Fred Willard to receive Johnny Carson Comedy Legend award at 2016 Great American Comedy Festival

March 29, 2016
March 29, 2016

Fred Willard Fred Willard — one of this generation’s most gifted comic actors and a favorite of Johnny Carson while serving as host of “The Tonight Show” — will be the recipient of the Johnny Carson Comedy Legend award at this summer’s Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Neb.

Known for his quick wit and improvisational expertise, Willard appeared with Carson on “The Tonight Show” more than 50 times and followed that up with 100 appearances on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”

Eddie Brill, the festival’s artistic director, described Willard as “one of the most talented and respected actors and comedians this country has ever known.”

“His list of accolades is as diverse as it is impressive. Mr. Willard has been entertaining audiences for many decades including over 50 films, over 80 TV shows, and he continues to make people laugh today with his hilarious and improvisational expertise,” Brill said. “We couldn’t be more proud to present him with this year’s Johnny Carson Legend Award.”

Willard will be on hand in Norfolk to receive the award during the Saturday, June 18, festival gala at the Johnny Carson Theatre. Tom Cotter will serve as the headliner that evening and host the finals of the festival’s stand-up competition.

The festival began in 2008 as a way to pay tribute to the legacy of Johnny Carson, who grew up in Norfolk. The festival annual presents the Johnny Carson Comedy Legend award, one of only two awards in existence that bear Carson’s name. Past recipients are David Steinberg, Ed Asner, Cloris Leachman, Stephen Wright, Dick Cavett, Kevin Pollak, Bill Dana and Jimmie “J.J.” Walker.

Jeff Sotzing, who serves as president of Carson Entertainment and will be on hand for this year’s festival as part of a panel discussion on “The Tonight Show,” was pleased to learn of Willard’s selection. “He’s a great choice,” said Sotzing, who was Johnny Carson’s nephew.

A four-time Emmy nominee, Fred Willard is an alumnus of The Second City and a founding member of the classic improv group, the Ace Trucking Company. In his movie career, Willard’s work in “Waiting For Guffman” earned him an American Comedy Award nod for Funniest Supporting Actor. For his performance in “Best in Show,” he won the Boston Film Critics Award, the American Comedy Award and a tribute from the American Film Institute.

Some of his other film work includes “This Is Spinal Tap,” “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” and “For Your Consideration.” He starred as the only human in the Academy-Award winning film, “WALL-E.”

He first came to prominence as ambitious but dimwitted sidekick Jerry Hubbard to Martin Mull’s smarmy talk-show host Barth Gimble in the satirical series “Fernwood Tonight” in Willard received a Daytime Emmy Award for his role on “The Bold and The Beautiful.” He received three Emmy nominations for his recurring role on the TV series “Everybody Loves Raymond” as Robert Barone’s father-in-law, Hank MacDougall. In 2010, he received an Emmy
nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series for his role on the ABC series “Modern Family” as Phil Dunphy’s father, Frank Dunphy. He was an original cast member of the NBC comedy series “Real People” He has made more than 1,000 television appearances, beginning with “Get Smart” to recent appearances on “Raising Hope,” “Franklin and Bash” and “Hot in Cleveland”and the HBO series “Family Tree.” He can soon be seen in the upcoming Netflix movie, “Mascots.”

He and his wife, Mary, have been honored for their charity work with Big Brothers/Big Sisters and Actors and Others For animals. He also has received a commendation from the City of Los Angeles for “outstanding humanitarian and philanthropic work that helps to further the goal of making the City of Los Angeles a better place.”

Lineup of professional comedians at 2016 festival is revealed

March 22, 2016
March 22, 2016

Eddie Brill couldn’t be more pleased.

The 20 professional comedians who have accepted invitations to be part of this summer’s Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk are talented, diverse and, most of all, funny, said Brill, who serves as the festival’s artistic director.

“We have an incredible mix of comics from all walks of life, and many of them have already starred on major TV shows and in film,” said Brill, a stand-up comic himself and former comic booker for David Letterman.

The “funny twenty” — as they collectively are known — will take to the stage of the Johnny Carson Theater on Thursday, June 16, and Friday, June 17, and perform six minute of material each in hopes of advancing to the gala finale of the festival on Saturday, June 18.

A panel of professional judges will have the task of selecting four comedians each night to make up the group of eight performers on Saturday.Brill said it should come as no surprise that the talent level of the comedians at the festival continues to increase. “The reputation of our festival is growing worldwide and, as a result, the quality of the comedians we bring into Norfolk to honor Johnny Carson gets stronger and stronger. You won’t want to miss one show this year.”

While the festival’s headliners bring name recognition and star power to the annual comedy event, it’s the 20 comedians who are the heart and soul of the festival, Brill said. That’s because the festival was created to pay tribute to the legacy of Johnny Carson, and Carson liked nothing more than to give comedians on the cusp of stardom a chance to perform on “The Tonight Show.” In its own way, the festival seeks to do the same thing by auditioning and inviting comedians to perform in Norfolk, he said.

Here are the 20 comedians who will be performing at the 2016 festival:

Joe List

Joan Fagan

John Wing

Jimmy Brogan

Jim Flannigan

Jaye McBride

Kendra Cunningham

Chris Fairbanks

Chloe Hilliard

Ted Pettingell

Matt McClowry

Leonard Ouzts

Dwayne Perkins

Drew Dunn

Travon Free

Phoebe Robinson

Sarah Tiana

Alex Edelman

Mark Normand

Katie Grady

Comedian Rocky LaPorte will serve as the headliner for the Thursday and Friday performances. Tony V — who was a finalist in last year’s professional stand-up competition in Norfolk — will be the host for both evenings.

“The Tonight Show”: Entertaining and evolving through the eras

March 15, 2016
March 15, 2016

panelNORFOLK, Neb. – Producers from three different eras of “The Tonight Show” will be special guests at a featured part of this summer’s Great American Comedy Festival in Johnny Carson’s hometown of Norfolk, Neb.

Taking part in a panel discussion at the Johnny Carson Theatre on Saturday, June 18, will be Josh Lieb, producer and showrunner of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”; Dave Berg, a past co-producer of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and Jeff Sotzing, president of Carson Entertainment and a producer of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”

“ ‘The Tonight Show’ has been and continues to be such a huge part of the entertainment landscape. To bring producers from three different eras of the show together on one stage promises to be a memorable event,” said Kent Warneke, founder and past chairman of the Great American Comedy Festival, an annual summer event since 2008 in Carson’s hometown.

The 90-minute discussion will allow the three producers to share stories and anecdotes, show video clips, answer audience member questions and more. The event is set for 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 18, and is free to the public.

“We don’t believe anything like this has ever taken place before, so we want as many people as possible to take in and enjoy this historic presentation,” Warneke said.

About the panel presentation’s featured guests:


Josh Lieb

 Josh Lieb serves as the producer and showrunner of “The Tonight Show Jimmy Fallon.” He won seven Emmy Awards as writer and producer of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and has written and produced multiple other television shows, including “The Simpsons” and “NewsRadio.” A graduate of Harvard University, he also is a New York Times best-selling author. In 2013, he wrote and directed a series of comedic shorts to raise money and awareness for the charity Water.Org. Stars featured in the shorts included Matt Damon, Jessica Biel, Sir Richard Branson, and Bono. He is the grandson of the late Charlie and Lil Lieb, of Omaha.


Jeff Sotzing Jeff Sotzing was studying videotape editing at Pasadena City College, when his uncle, Johnny Carson, invited him to join the staff of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” He worked his way up to production assistant, then associate producer and, ultimately, as producer until the final show with Carson was broadcast May 22, 1992. Sotzing now serves as president of Carson Entertainment and also sits as an adviser to the John W. Carson Foundation, a nonprofit trust that provides funding to hundreds of organizations.


Dave Berg Dave Berg, who now is a writer and columnist for The Orange County Register, was a co-producer for “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and “The Jay Leno Show,” where he also appeared in numerous comedy sketches. He has written a book, called Behind the Curtain: An Insider’s View of Jay Leno’s Tonight Show. Prior to his work with Leno, Berg was a producer for “The O’Reilly Factor,” a writer for NBC News and the Los Angeles bureau chief for CNBC.

The Great American Comedy Festival debuted in Norfolk in 2008 as a way to pay tribute to Carson’s legacy. It has since become one of the nation’s leading comedy festival, attracting headlining performers like Brian Regan, Drew Carey, Robert Klein, Paula Poundstone and Louie Anderson.

The festival also annually presents the Johnny Carson Comedy Legend award. Past recipients have included David Steinberg, Dick Cavett, Stephen Wright, Cloris Leachman, Ed Asner and Kevin Pollak.

In continuing Carson’s tradition of giving up-and-coming stand-up comics a chance to shine, the festival also features 20 comedians on the cusp of stardom who audition for the chance to participate in the festival before Eddie Brill, the festival’s artistic director and former warm-up comic for David Letterman.

The festival also features a family magic show, reflecting Carson’s lifelong interest in magic.

Tom Cotter, Rocky LaPorte to headline 2016 Great American Comedy Festival

March 8, 2016
March 8, 2016

Tom CotterAn all-star lineup of comedians will be coming to Norfolk in June to headline the 2016 Great American Comedy Festival.

Tom Cotter will be returning to the comedy festival to headline the festival’s gala finale on Saturday, June 18. He’ll be joined in Norfolk by Rocky LaPorte, who will headline the festival shows on Thursday, June 16, and Friday, June 17. And Tony V – a finalist at last year’s festival – will return to host the Thursday and Friday performances.

“We’re excited to be bringing a mixture of familiar faces and new faces to this year’s festival. Get ready to laugh,” said Lori Williams, the festival’s executive director.

Tom Cotter, who has performed at the festival twice in the past, was the first comedian to ever reach the finals of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” finishing as runner-up. He’s had his own special on Comedy Central, won several comedy festivals throughout the nation and has been seen on “The Tonight Show,” “Last Comic Standing” and “The Today Show.”

“We are so honored to have Tom Cotter as our headliner this year,” said Eddie Brill, the festival’s artistic director. “His meteoric rise to the top of the comedy world is no accident. His well-crafted material and unique delivery is wowing audiences all over the world. This is one festival you do not want to miss.”

Rocky LaPorte’s appeal comes from his everyman, clean, streetwise style of comedy. He’s become one of the most sought-after comedians after being a finalist on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” He was a featured comic on Showtime’s The Godfathers of Comedy, has appeared in two movies with Tim Allen and recently traveled with Drew Carey to entertain U.S. troops in Iraq. He also has filmed his own Comedy Center special.

“Rocky LaPorte is, hands down, one of the funniest comics in this country. His charming, clean and insightful comedy will have the audience in stitches,” Brill said.

Rounding out the 2016 festival lineup is Tony V, who was among the top comedians at last year’s festival in Norfolk and is returning this year to serve as the host for the professional competition. Along with being a popular headliner at clubs and colleges across the nation. Tony V has worked with Jay Leno, Dennis Miller, Stephen wright and Adam Sandler.

“In all my years of comedy, the best host I have ever worked with is Tony V. He’s hilarious, and knows how to move a show a long with expertise,” Brill said. “His integrity and his willingness to work with and mentor younger comics fits right in with what we do here in Norfolk.”

In its ninth year, the festival – which has been voted in the past as Nebraska’s top tourism event – continues its mission of paying tribute to the legacy of Johnny Carson, who grew up in Norfolk.

The festival will again feature a comedy-magic show on Wednesday, June 15, for persons of all ages; and comedy showcases on Thursday, June 16, and Friday, June 17, featuring performances by 20 up-and-coming comedians from across the nation.

The Saturday, June 18, finale also will feature the presentation of the annual Johnny Carson Comedy Legend award. “It’s going to be another funny, special year for the festival,” said Michael Brogan, festival chairman. “You won’t want to miss it.”

Want to learn more?

For more information about the 2016 festival, go to

Tickets are expected to be available for purchase online as of early April.

Magic classes, Red Carpet Premiere, ‘Tonight Show’ clips and more!

May 29, 2015
May 29, 2015

There’s going to be plenty of magic taking place in conjunction with this summer’s Great  American Comedy Festival. And a different kind, too.

Sponsored by Nucor Steel, the comedy festival will again be offering magic and card  trick classes on its opening day — Wednesday, June 17 — and again on Friday, June 19. Taught by Derek Hughes, the professional magician who will host the Wednesday  evening “Magic & More” performance at the Johnny Carson Theatre, there are three classes  planned. On Wednesday, from 1 to 2:30 p.m., a “grab bag of magic” class for ages 9­13 will take  place at the Elkhorn Valley Museum auditorium in Norfolk. From 3 to 4:30 p.m., a “card tricks  with Derek” class for ages 14 and up will be held at the same location.

All magic class materials will be provided for those registering to take home with them.  The registration cost is $25 and there is a limit of 20 participants in each class.

Then on Friday from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at the Norfolk Area Chamber of Commerce, an “Up  Close with Derek Hughes” class will be offered for adults 21 and older. It will focus on “up  close” magic and card tricks. The cost to register for that class also is $25. To register, go to For more information, contact  Susan Warneke at 860­2500.

While those classes will feature actual magic, other parts of the festival will feature  events that will be magical, or special, in their own way.

Thursday: Red Carpet Premiere The festival will, literally, “roll out the red carpet” on Thursday, June 18, from 5:30 p.m.  to 7 p.m. in front of the Johnny Carson Theatre prior to that evening’s performance. Designed to have the feel of a Hollywood red­carpet event, all of the comedians and  talent participating in the festival, as well as local and area dignitaries, have been invited to  participate. They’ll be dropped off by limousines and town cars in front of the theater where local  media personalities will be on hand to interview them, take photos and broadcast live. Paige Pflueger, Miss Nebraska Teen USA, and radio personality Austen Hagood will host  the event and interview guests as they arrive. In case of inclement weather, the activities will take place inside the theater lobby. Members of Norfolk High School’s Panther Posse will be on hand to assist the public with taking and posting “selfies” to the festival’s social media outlets for a chance to win festival tickets to the Saturday, June 20, performance featuring Brian Regan, as well as the festival’s  private post­show gathering.

Friday: Johnny Under the Stars For those seeking to laugh along with Johnny Carson, the festival and the Norfolk Arts  Center is planning a free “Johnny Under the Stars” outdoor showing of video highlights from  “The Tonight Show” on Friday, June 19. The event will take place in the arts center’s outdoor garden and begin at 10 p.m. after the  festival performance at the nearby Johnny Carson Theatre concludes. In case of inclement  weather, the showing will take place inside the arts center. Saturday: Mingle with the comedians Following the Saturday, June 20, festival performance at the Johnny Carson Theatre,  Divots in Norfolk will host a post­show gathering starting at 9 p.m. Many of the comedians who performed at the festival are expected to attend, giving  Norfolk and area residents a chance to visit with them and relive that evening’s show.