For the past two years, the Crom Comedy Festival has drawn comedians from across the country to the frown-furrowed plains of Omaha. The festival's co-organizers, Zach Reinert and Ian Douglas Terry, have recently upgraded hometowns and decided to expand their annual festival while maintaining its original Nebraska base. Enter this weekend's Crom West, which fuses the best of Denver comedy — including festival editions of Too Much Fun!, Lucha Libre & Laughs, Cromaganda and Cromtoons & Comedy — with the national alternative scene exemplified by a trio of fest-capping showcases from headliners Aparna Nancherla, Guy Branum and Allen Strickland Williams. From its "Conan the Barbarian meets Tron" aesthetic of the posters to lineups packed with a murderer's row of rippers from near and far, Crom is definitely a welcome addition to the scene. Westword caught up with Terry and Reinert — who just held their third Crom Comedy Festival in Omaha this past weekend — to discuss the Crom West expansion and compare the Denver and Omaha comedy scenes.
Westword: How did the original Crom Comedy Festival begin, and when did you decide to expand westward?
Ian Douglas Terry: The first one was three years ago in Omaha. When we first started, it was basically because the Omaha scene had kinda blown up and we had so many people wanting to come to Omaha we decided, “Well, let’s have a festival.” Because we were bringing out like one L.A. comedian per month. Guys like Jake Weisman and Sean O’Connor. So we were like, “Okay,let’s get all of our friends together from Chicago, Denver and all these other places, bring them together and just have a fest.” So that was basically the genesis. There weren’t really any wild expectations. Zach and I just looked at the lineup for the first one, actually.
Zach Reinert: It was tiny.
Terry: It was a killer lineup, but it was literally just four shows. Two shows in a row for two nights. And now it’s like two weekends in two different cities. It’s pretty insane.
So, after the first two years, you felt like you were really on to something?
Terry: Oh yeah. The first year, the shows went really well, but financially it wasn’t so great. That’s the way it goes with any first year of something. But people were really excited and comedians were hitting us up for the second year. Then in the second year, we broke even, which was amazing. So now, each year we try to make it a little bigger, but I think that Omaha’s reached as big as it can possibly be without getting ridiculous.
Reinert: Yeah, if you made it any bigger in Omaha you’d be asking too much from the people who live there.
Terry: Yeah, we keep having all these ideas about expanding to other venues, but we realize that no, it’s just perfect the way it is. Then with Denver, we kind of wanted to organize it so that each day would be in a different neighborhood, but scheduling just blew that out of the water.
I also noticed that you incorporated a lot of the Denver shows. You’ve got Cromtoon & Comedy, Lucha Libre & Laughs, Cromaganda and a bunch of other local shows, right?
Terry: Oh, yeah, there’s a bunch. There’s Kevin O’Brien’s storytelling show.
Reinert: There’s Steve Vanderploeg’s show at Chain Reaction.
Terry: Mara Wiles is doing a brunch show, we're even doing Brent Gil''s show up in Boulder.
Were those shows already going on that weekend, and you decided to just bring them into the Crom fold?
Terry: Yeah, for the most part. Except for Chain Reaction, that’s a special one-off just for Crom West. For the rest of them, though, the shows were all happening and we just realized that it would be silly to try and compete when we could just work together. It’s better for everybody if we just say, “Hey, here’s a bunch of awesome comedians for your show so you don’t have to do the work of booking them this month.” It was part of a conscious effort to incorporate as many Denver things as possible.
Reinert: That way everybody benefits from the situation.
It’s interesting that you have such a wide geographic distribution of shows. There are shows in different neighborhoods all over the city, even one up in Boulder. Whereas High Plains was basically all set in Baker, with pass-holders able to stumble between all the shows, you guys could conceivably have several different and unrelated crowds for each show. How’s that been going so far? Are you selling more passes or individual tickets for specific shows?
Reinert: We have no idea.
Terry: What I’ve learned —this is just from Omaha, this is our first one in Denver but I’m assuming it’s the same— if you check the numbers it’s always going to be way below what you expected.
Reinert: Last year, it was only like ten of the weekend passes that we sold ahead of time. And the festival was insane.
Terry: People just wait until the very last minute or day of.
Reinert: So checking is just giving yourself a panic attack for no reason.
Terry: We’ve had comedy shows in Omaha at the Waiting Room, Doug Benson performed there, and there were literally only 25 tickets sold before the day of the show. We thought we were screwed and then it completely sold out. Like 300 seats. It was ridiculous. So I haven’t kept my eye on the numbers. One of the things I’ve noticed about Denver that’s kind of fun, like with the Ratio Beerworks show, is that shows in different areas draw an entirely different crowd.
Reinert: Drawing a different crowd to every show is a lot harder to do in Omaha.
Terry: They definitely just have “the Omaha audience.” You’ll kind of get different people at each venue, but not enough where it’s worth concentrating on growing there.
So how have those Ratio Beerworks shows been going? They’re a pretty new endeavor, right?
Terry: We’ve only had one so far, with Adam Cayton-Holland headlining, and there were 100-plus people there. It’s awesome.
Reinert: Brewery shows are just insane. All these brewery shows just get a ridiculous turn-out. The trend of having shows at dive bars seems like it's being replaced by these cool new spaces because the small bars just aren't turning out crowds.
Terry: There are all sort of places to do comedy here that are completely uncharted. 3 Kings is awesome and Jim Norris is super-supportive, but there are already so many shows there. Our show is the only thing that happens at Ratio, so they're like, "Here's everything! Go nuts, we're going to promote this show like crazy!"
Getting back to Crom, had you guys done a submission model before?
Terry: No, this was the first year.
How did that go? Were you surprised at all by any of the entries?
Terry: Yeah! I mean there were like big comedians who submitted. Some of them wound up dropping off before we got to announce. Chris Thayer submitted. Greg Baumhauer submitted.
That’s funny. You’d think he’d sort of just throw his weight around.
Reinert: It’s always awesome to see the people who have these egos versus the people who don’t.
Terry: Because, yeah, it sucks to submit. We both submitted to the Comedy Expo in Chicago and specifically told them, “We can’t do your festival.” I put an old wrestling video as my submission tape.
Reinert: Yeah, we just wanted to support it by entering anyway.
Terry: The submission thing is like, half-support for the festival, half-legitimately wanting to be involved.
Reinert: Sometimes you’re just supporting your friends.
Terry: We had around 300 submission and took over 100, which is ridiculous. Chicago had 400 submissions and only took 25 comics.
Yeah, I just got their rejection letter.
Reinert: We may have been overzealous in accepting people.
Terry: We might dial it down a little bit next time, but it was cool finding out about all these great comedians we’d never heard of and would never have heard of except through their submission videos. It’s super-cool. It’s a great showcase of Denver comics, plus all these great out-of-town comedians on Denver shows.
There are a couple show formats from out-of-town, right?
Terry: Yeah, “Picture This” is coming to the fest.
How does that show work?
Terry: So there’s standups telling jokes while an artist draws whatever the comedian’s talking about onto a tablet or something that the audience can see on a projector screen. It should be really cool. I know Zak Kinsella is one of the artists. He’s from here and he does comic book stuff that’s amazing.
Reinert: John-Michael Bond from Atlanta is drawing and doing comedy.
Terry: It should be pretty wild. We got a lot of show submissions that didn’t work. One was like a Simpsons talk show. Why would we fly someone out to do that? That’s weird. There were other shows that would have been cool to do, but they weren’t really bringing anything to the table. Then there were obvious choices like “Picture This” and “Freak Happening,” which is a really cool show in Chicago. They always do something weird, there’s always a theme. Goodrich Gevaart dressed up as the Pope one time. That show just happens to fit into what’s happening.
Reinert: And Denver has a ton of killer local shows.
What lessons have you taken away from other comedy festivals that you’ve been to?
Terry: Most of my lessons were from punk-rock festivals. I went to a bunch of those before I ever went to a comedy festival. The first festival I ever did was the Laugh Track Festival that the Nix Brothers put on. That was the first time I’d ever come to Denver. I got way too high; I made all the mistakes you make when you first come to Denver. That was also probably my worst set ever.
Good thing it’s on YouTube.
Reinert: One thing I’ve learned from the comedy festivals I’ve done in the past year is, if you’re going to charge people a submission fee, then book some headliners. There are way too many festivals that don’t book headliners but still charge people to submit.
Terry: We keep it to twenty bucks, which makes sense. You see people charging like fifty, and it’s so gross. Festivals run by people who are just trying to cash in on comedians. We are definitely anti-that.
Reinert: Because comedians pretty much just lose money when they do a festival. So at least give them cool headliners to perform with, and maybe hang out with. You meet friends in new cities and develop connections, so you when you go back there you can book a show.
Do you guys have any sponsors or people who came through for you when planning the fest?
Terry: Sexpot has helped. Illegal Pete's has been awesome, they're helping us out with a bunch of stuff. So has Ratio Beerworks.
Reinert: Nick Gossert has been awesome.
Terry: Matt Monroe and Nick Gossert have helped out a bunch. We were screwed; thinking we were gonna have to cancel until they came along. Gossert's a promotion machine. He took a stack of posters and just biked around Highland putting them up.
Reinert: I'm pretty blown away by Gossert's ability to promote comedy shows and get sponsors. Lucha Libre & Laughs is the best show in Denver.
So, you guys were big fish in the Omaha pond. What made you decide to leap over to Denver's pond?
Reinert: I love Omaha, but you can't really pursue comedy as a real thing and live there.
Terry: There's no real money to be made. And there's definitely a ceiling — and when you hit it, you have to go somewhere else.
Reinert: We have a lot of friends here and the Denver scene rules.
Terry: It just seemed like the kind of place that would value more people contributing to building it. Rather than L.A. where they're just like, "Oh, great. More people here." Or New York, where they just punch you in the face the second you get there.
Reinert: It's kind of a cool period for Denver — because sure, people are moving on, but there's so many more people coming in. There's just like a cyclical thing in place where Denver's just going to maintain quality but the scene and the audience will keep growing.
Terry: Hell, yeah.
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Crom West kicks off tomorrow, May 28, at Deer Pile with a Cromtoons and Comedy pre-party; the festival runs from May 29 through May 31 at various venues. Check out the Crom West schedule for more information.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.