(NORFOLK, NE.) – “It doesn’t take a village, but close,” is how Lisa Wattier describes the effort to stage the Great American Comedy Festival every year.
Wattier, executive director of the 13th festival this Thursday through Saturday, June 16th-18th, at the Johnny Carson Theatre in Norfolk, says the “to-do list” for the three-day event is nearly endless and it takes dozens of volunteers to stage the festival.
The festival has been presented by Nucor Steel Nebraska, Nucor Cold Finish Nebraska, Nucor Detailing Center, and Vulcraft Nebraska for several years. Dozens of Norfolk area businesses also provide financial support to stage the three-day event. “Without those sponsors, we have no festival,” Wattier said. “We absolutely could not do it without them. I hope they know how much they are appreciated.”
The 2022 Great American Comedy Festival includes the family Comedy Magic Show Thursday, the Comedy Showcase Friday with David Koechner as headliner and four other comics, and the Festival Gala Saturday night with headliners The Smothers Brothers and four other stand-ups. Friday night’s entertainment includes the /Sparklight Adults Only, Late Night Show at 10:30 at The Stables in Norfolk.
“The responsibilities of our planning committee are many and we pull in many volunteers from the community to present the festival,” she said.
After a two-year Covid hiatus, planning for the 2022 festival began early last winter. One of the
key challenges is finding headliners for the Friday Comedy Showcase and Saturday Gala. The committee works with a talent agency in Omaha to find those headliners. Magician Ben Seidman, who performed at the Comedy Magic Show here in 2018 and 2019, assists with finding magicians for the Thursday magic show.
This year’s magician line-up includes Matt Marcy, Alexander Boyce and Andrew Goldenhersh.
Then the work turns to finding four other comedians for the Comedy Showcase and Festival Gala. “This year, we have had great, great help from our Friday and Saturday night host, Pat Janssen,” Austen Hagood, comedy festival Board of Directors president, said. “He has worked in the entertainment industry and knows many in the entertainment realm.”
Janssen is a Nebraska native and has appeared in several commercials and TV shows. He also appeared on an album cover and music video for the Grammy-nominated indie band, Glass Animals.
He was named New England's Best Bar Comic by Jack Daniels.
Janssen assisted in booking comedians Cat Alvarado, Sophie Buddle, Chris Lewis, and Glen Tickle for the Friday Comedy Showcase and Emmy Blotnick, Eric Owusu, Taylor
Williamson, and Adam Yenser for the Saturday Festival Gala.
Once all the entertainers are secured, other aspects of festival planning continue. One Great American Comedy Festival committee member works with a local travel agency to book flights to and from Omaha and provide ground transportation from Omaha to Norfolk.
“Because Norfolk does not have a major airport, we go out of our way to welcome and accommodate all guest needs and wishes,” Hagood said. “That includes transportation from the Omaha airport and chauffeur services by volunteers for all activities in Norfolk.”
“The arrival schedule to pick up all entertainers at the Omaha airport over four days is mind boggling,” Wattier said. “The magicians come in on Wednesday and some Gala entertainers don’t arrive til Saturday. There are lots of trips by volunteers back and forth to Eppley Airfield.” A chartered mini-bus takes most back to the Omaha airport on Sunday.
“Many of our airport drivers have very interesting rides back to Norfolk with their comedians/passengers,” Wattier said. “For example, three live doves will travel with one of the magicians this year. The driver for the magicians and doves hopes the birds travel well.”
Hagood said many drivers and comedians remain friends for years. “We have comedians from past festivals who still keep in touch with their Norfolk friends,” he said.
The festival committee also schedules special activities to entertain their guests while in Norfolk. This year, a Runza luncheon is planned at the Elkhorn Valley Museum so the comedians can enjoy the Johnny Carson exhibit there. “And, of course, a visit to the Johnny Carson mural downtown and his
childhood home on 13th Street is a must. Homeowner and festival director Jim McKenzie makes many trips to the house over the four days to give tours of Johnny’s home,” Hagood added.
“We keep the magicians and comedians busy while they are in Norfolk,” Wattier said. “They are all so appreciative and have such fun in northeast Nebraska. In all the years I have worked on the festival, I can honestly say we have only had one difficult, unhappy comedian.”
One comedian who appeared at the 2014 festival, Michael Somerville, was asked when departing Norfolk if he had had a good comedy festival experience. “Oh, if only every weekend I spend on the road could be as much fun as this weekend was.” Many comedians include their participation in the Great American Comedy Festival on their website bios.
Other committee members and volunteers are needed for fundraising, marketing/publicity, stage and technical crews, program design, ticket sales and scanners, green room furniture/food for the entertainers, and picnic food for the magicians and comedians. The list goes on and on,” Wattier said.
The Great American Comedy Festival opened in 2008 to honor the legacy of Norfolk’s favorite son, Johnny Carson, who was host of NBC’s “Late Night Show Starring Johnny Carson” for 30 years.
The Great American Comedy Festival is also made possible with the support of the Nebraska Arts Council and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment. For tickets and information, visit www.greatamericancomedyfestival.com
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