Brian Crall’s Comedy Spot in the MARRS building at 20th and J streets sits firmly in the heart of midtown, which for some has become the heart of it all.
Crall likes the venue and location so much he’s just signed a three-year lease extension so his upcoming Sacramento Comedy Festival has a home for the foreseeable future.
The 2014 Sacramento Comedy Festival runs Friday through Sept. 20 with a lineup that includes England’s legendary Cambridge Footlights and a reunion of the Free Hooch Comedy Troupe, the sketch and improv group that started things for Crall. The festival’s signature event has become a standup competition with more than $2,000 in cash prizes.
“I have wanted to make Sacramento a destination for comedy from the beginning,” Crall said, sitting inside his 80-seat club on a recent afternoon as light streamed in from the large window that frames the bustling street activity.
“The festival is just our first way of starting to show people there’s something going on here,” he said. “When I started there were standup clubs and that was it.
“Over the years, we got started and now have a thriving improv-and-sketch comedy scene,” Crall said.
He has nearly 100 performers who rotate through his seven nights of shows at the venue, and he also has five nights of comedy classes (improv, standup and sketch comedy) at a second smaller location two blocks away on J Street that he calls his “lab.”
But the dizzying logistics of the festival, now in its fourth year, have been the major focus as of late.
“The festival’s tough,” he said. “As it’s gotten bigger, there are more moving pieces. Last year, we had 30 people in our standup competition.
“This year, we’re going to have 40. They’re coming from all over the place – New York, Los Angeles, Wisconsin.”
And England, where the Cambridge Footlights sketch comedy troupe originated.
Based at the ADC Theatre, and run by students from the University of Cambridge, Footlights’ inaugural performance was in 1883. The troupe has gone through numerous iterations and now creates four major shows each year: the new comedy festival, the pantomime, the spring revue and the summer national tour show that goes to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Footlights alumni include John Cleese, Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie. The Footlights first performed at the Sacramento Comedy Spot in 2012 and return for this year’s SCF. They’re set to perform at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday.
The festival’s standup competition has three components: preliminary rounds, semifinals and finals. Forty comedians compete for a $1,000 grand prize (with $750 for second, $500 for third and $250 for fourth places).
“We had twice as many people apply for the standup competition this year,” Crall said. “I just love the idea of giving the unknown a place to start and maybe to make a name for themselves.”
Last year’s grand prize winner, Trenton Davis, will headline the semifinals event at 9 p.m. Sept. 19. The final round of this year’s competition will take place at Laughs Unlimited in Old Sacramento (1207 Front St.) at 10:30 p.m. Sept. 20.
In addition to the stand-up comics, the festival will host improv groups from all over the West Coast. Crall said he’s especially looking forward to a reunion of the Free Hooch Comedy Troupe (9 p.m. Saturday), which got the Comedy Spot started.
“It was because we had a little bit of success early on that we decided to keep that thing going and eventually open up the Comedy Spot,” Crall said.
He’s also hoping people check out the show “Barger’s World” from the locally based comedian Eric Barger (8 p.m. Friday).
“ ‘Barger’s World’ is a kids television show, but for adults,” Crall said. “The character’s a very nice kid who films this show out of his garage. This character only sees the good in the people no matter who they are. It’s ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse’ but for adults.”