Gilda’s LaughFest continues through Sunday with several headlining shows

Mary Mattingly

Now in it’s third year, Gilda’s LaughFest brings more than just headlining names — such as Wayne Brady and Joel McHale – it provides laughs to thousands of comedy fans while raising money to give back to the Grand Rapids community.

“We celebrate laughter for the health of it,” said Wendy Wigger, vice president of Program Development and Community Relations.

While the 10-day festival is ending March 17, there is still time to check it out several headlining acts or local talents, including Brian Regan and Bill Burr.

LaughFest is put on in part with the Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, a free cancer support community, with proceeds benefiting cancer, grief and emotional health programs. As of 2012, Laughfest had raised $541,000. “It’s a festival that’s good for you and for a good cause,” Wigger said.

Gilda’s Club aims to support people through all journeys of grief, not just cancer. The club, named for Saturday Night Live alumni and late comedian Gilda Radner, strongly believes laughter is the best medicine.

“When (Radner) was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she lost her funny,” Wigger said. “You can live with cancer, no matter the outcome. (Radner) was able to give herself permission to laugh again.”
Since it began in 2011, LaughFest has continued to gain a following. Crowds for the past two years have averaged around 55,000 attendees per year. This year, attendance has been no different, with many shows, such as comedian Lewis Black’s upcoming March 14 performance at the DeVos Performance Hall, already selling out.

“We like to joke that we went international our very first year,” Wigger said. “We had people buy tickets from 25 states and Canada. We are expecting a similar turnout this year.”

A festival this size is no easy undertaking. The Grand Rapids community has been heavily involved with getting the festival off the ground, taking in volunteers, local business sponsors and partnering with college groups, such as Spotlight Productions from Grand Valley State University.

“The reality is, we started planning this year’s festival before the end of last year’s festival,” Wigger said.

While there is a core team of 6-10 individuals, the festival benefits greatly from the hard work of hundreds of volunteers. Local restaurants, such as the B.O.B., McFadden’s and Hopcat, have been instrumental in the festival’s success by hosting comedy acts.

“We enjoy hosting (LaughFest events),” said Erin Lindsay, sales manager and events coordinator for McFadden’s Restaurant and Saloon. “The festival is clearly passionate about community and being involved.”

McFadden’s has been a venue for the festival since the beginning. On any normal day, after 9 p.m., the restaurant is 21 years old and up, but during LaughFest the restaurant is 18 and up. As a host, McFadden’s donates the space to the festival and sells $5 promotional buttons, with cash donations going back to Gilda’s Club.

“We’d love to continue to work with Laughfest,” Lindsay said. “It seems to get bigger and better each year. We love to be a part of that.”

LaughFest 2013 has featured a wide range of acts, from “People and Pets,” where people were invited to bring their pets to the Grand Rapids Community College Ford Fieldhouse, to films and group shows. This year, there were almost 300 events available for people to attend, both ticketed and free.

“There are a good 800 artists and/or performers, ranging from amateurs to nationally known performers,” Wigger said. “We have been purposeful in making sure the festival remains current and appeals to a diverse audience. The festival showcases all types of laughter.”

Nerdist Podcast Live! rated by Rolling Stone as one of the top ten comedy podcasts, will be at the Fountain Street Church on March 15. It will be co-hosted by Chris Hardwick, Jonah Ray and Matt Mira, with a content rating of “Rated R… Really.” Or for clean adult laughs, comedian Gary Valentine will be performing at the Lowell Performing Arts Center on March 17.

“We get feedback from the audience, it allows us to tweak events,” Wigger said. “We can’t make everyone’s wishes come true, but we take all feedback into consideration.”

Tickets for all shows are available through and at the Van Andel Arena and DeVos Place box offices.
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