Berkshire Comedy Festival knows what makes its audiences laugh

GREAT BARRINGTON — There is an old saying in comedy: Know your audience. For New York-based comedian Paul Anthony, who hosts the fourth annual Berkshire Comedy Festival at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Saturday, those are words to live by.

After previous years' shows, Anthony has made a point to stick around at the theater to speak with audience members. He shakes their hands and listens to their thoughts on which acts worked best. From the input he receives, Anthony tailors the next year's lineup to suit the attendees' tastes.

"The comedians need to be able to relate to the audience — it's no more complicated than that," said Anthony, the festival's producer and official host. "If you know your audience, you know what comedians will be the best received by that audience. I don't have any doubt that when the comedians take the stage, they're going to do fantastic because I know they're the right comedians for the right audience."

The festival returns to Great Barrington this year with a lineup of four performers — all new with the exception of Anthony. Jodi Weiner, Vinnie Mark and Dave Cooperman, who have all performed on comedy's biggest stages, bring different styles but elite skill-sets to the show, Anthony said.

"We put four headliners on a show. These are all top-quality comedians," Anthony said. "That's what really differentiates our shows from anything you would see at any comedy club."

Anthony, who has had over a decade of success with the Long Island Comedy Festival, is known for his observational humor; themes in his current work include aging and his difficulties with technology. Having featured on the New York City comedy scene for years, Weiner draws laughs with her smart and bold delivery. Mark, Weiner's husband, infuses magic with comedy to entertain audiences in an improvisational style. Dave Cooperman brings a high-energy act that highlights his personal experiences as a husband and father.

While comedy clubs and Netflix specials have afforded the industry tremendous growth, Anthony said that he believes that stand-up belongs in theaters, where it originated. While specials can give comedians exposure through such distributors as HBO and Netflix, there is a danger in placing too much content on those platforms, he said.

"It's no different from going to see a Broadway show. [At] the award ceremonies, they'll have the performers from 'Hamilton' come out and perform," Anthony said. "When you're watching it on CBS, you might say, 'Oh, that looks like fun.' But if you're in a theater, and you're seeing 'Hamilton' live, people are jumping out of their seats, giving standing ovations. I don't think people are standing in their living rooms by watching something on broadcast television."

For comedy as well, only live performances can deliver instant gratification to both comics and audience members.

"It's a natural high — there's no other way to describe it," Anthony said. "People leave, and their stomachs are hurting because they laughed so hard.

"People come to our shows for one reason: They want to escape, they want entertainment, they want to have fun, they want to laugh, they want to feel good. For 90 minutes, they can forget about their problems, they can have a lot of laughs. When they leave the theater, they feel great."

Scientific research has also linked laughter to health benefits, which include reduction of stress, strengthening of the immune system and stimulation of the heart, lungs and brain. Anthony said that he is currently planning a TED Talk on the subject.

With the festival growing and cultivating a fan base, Anthony expressed a desire to add more shows in the near future.

"The ultimate goal is to be able to expand the comedy festival and bring it to a three- or four-day event, where you can see different comedians performing at different venues with a premiere show at the Mahaiwe," he said. "Now that we're four years in, next year might be the year that we're able to do that."


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