LEE — So two successful guys walk into a Manhattan bar. They remark on how the Berkshires are where Herman Melville was inspired to write “Moby Dick,” where Norman Rockwell painted such great works as “The Four Freedoms,” and where Oscar-winner Mel Gibson made his — wink-wink, nudge-nudge — roaring return to film in “Daddy's Home 2.”
“Yes, the Berkshires are beautiful and inspiring,” one of the guys says to the other guy. “But like ‘Moby Dick,’ ‘The Four Freedoms,’ and ‘Daddy's Home 2,’ the Berkshires aren't funny.”
No joke. The Berkshires have little in the way of live comedy.
That’s why these two guys, Kevin Bartini and David Rice, both from Lee, are launching a festival they first envisioned a couple years ago in that Manhattan bar.
The Berkshire Mountain Comedy Arts Festival debuts 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 6, at the Henry T. Zukowski Auditorium at Lee Middle and High School.
The festival, they say, will be on-going — a year-round, moveable feast showcasing some of the greatest contemporary comedians. Each show will raise funds for, and awareness of, different Berkshire-based causes, groups, charities or organizations.
Saturday evening's show will feature Bartini ("The Colbert Report," "The Daily Show"), Jordan Carlos (writer/cast member of BET's "First Wives Club"), J-L Cauvin (known for his Donald Trump impressions and featured on “The Howard Stern Show”) and Dan Perlman (co-creator and star of Showtimes' "Flatbush Misdemeanors").
The inaugural event will benefit efforts to stop the federal government’s plan to create a dump in Lee as part of a Housatonic River clean-up effort of General Electric’s toxic PCBs.
Neither man is a stranger to taking a stand and pursuing good works. Bartini led a successful three-year campaign to co-name a street in New York City in honor of his hero, the legendary comedian George Carlin. Rice, an attorney who lives in Norwalk, Conn., helped recover billions of dollars for victims of the financier-fraudster Bernie Madoff.
Discovered by the comedian Jon Stewart, who hired him to warm up his audiences at “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” Bartini serves as the festival’s artistic director. A classically trained stage actor, Bartini got his start in theater in Berkshire County, working with the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Barrington Stage Company and Shakespeare & Company. He’s a 1997 graduate of Lee High School. In his senior year, he was the unanimous pick for "Class Clown."
Rice, who graduated from Lee High in 1999, serves as the festival’s chief operating officer.
Both men have extended families in Lee.
As more events are announced, they plan to utilize such venues as Shakespeare & Company, in Lenox, and Spectrum Playhouse, in Lee, as well as theaters, bars, clubs, restaurants and art galleries throughout the county. The events will include “all types of funny people doing all types of funny things,” said Bartini. “Not just stand-ups, although, there will be plenty of stand-ups.”
He said future events will include “intimate sit-down conversations” with actors and writers who have Berkshire connections, live tapings of podcasts hosted by comedians and sketch and improvisation performances.
The festival’s second event is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 24, at Shakespeare & Company, where Bartini serves as an advisory board member. It will be a mix of music and comedy. That event will raise funds for both Shakespeare & Company’s arts-in-education program and Lee Police Department’s Edward Laliberte Toy Fund.
“We’re going to tip-toe because of COVID and the winter weather,” Bartini said, “but then, really in earnest, we’ll kick off in March with a spring schedule.”
Bartini, 42, who had dreamed of being a stand-up comic since he was 6 years old, finally summoned the courage to step onto a comedy stage in Albany in 1999 when he was 20 years old. His younger brother, Andrew, had recently died in a car accident in Lee. Until that point, Bartini said he feared not being good enough and not being respected by his peers. But his brother's death brought home for him the point that life is too short.
“It was ‘Damn the torpedoes and go for it,’” Bartini said.
Rice and Andrew Bartini were best friends.
So back to that time in that Manhattan bar. This was the first time that Kevin Bartini and Rice had gotten together since Andrew’s death.
“Kevin and I went a long time not seeing each other. We were probably processing things in our own way,” Rice said.
They agreed they had both gotten a little tipsy that evening and a little sentimental.
“We got to talking about the Berkshires, and we realized we wanted to give back to our community and that we were both in a position to do just that,” recalled Bartini, who lives in Manhattan with his wife, Jessica, and their three cats.
“This festival has been a nice way to reconnect with Kevin,” said Rice, 40. “Also, he and I are both genuinely interested in helping the community and giving back to the Berkshires.”
For Bartini, the festival will mark a coming together of the two worlds he loves: the Berkshires and New York City. He said he has often boasted to his friends in comedy about how great the Berkshires are. To his family and friends in Lee, he glowingly has spoken about the great entertainers and shows that rarely leave the confines of New York City.
His entertainer friends include comedy teams from Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City, as well as comedy writers and cast members from “The Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live.”
“I've met so many super talented people and made so many friends, a lot of connections over the years,” Bartini said, “and so, it’s time to bring these two worlds together.”