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Bergamot Comedy Fest brings diversity, laughs and learning to 'the industry's backyard'

Nicole Blaine previously executive-produced the Westside Comedy Theater’s annual Comedy Showdown competition for nearly a decade. There were some good parts to the position, like helping talent gain attention from HBO, “Conan” and Comedy Central. Other aspects proved more discouraging. 

“We had under 20% women submitting to the festival back then,” Blaine recalls. “I calculated the numbers every year. The demographics were mostly white men, period. Even by the time it was starting to get closer to 25 or 30, you still have to decide, ‘Who’s the best quality?’ You don’t want to lower the quality just to let certain people in. How can we go about changing this?”

Los Angeles events over the years — from downtown’s rollicking Riot LA (2012-2017) and the Burbank Comedy Fest at Flappers to Noho Comedy Festival at the Ha Ha, the Comedy Chateau International Comedy Festival, and multiple festival programs at Pasadena’s remodeled Ice House — have faced similar demographic questions. It's an issue that reminds the L.A. stand-up community why Blaine's inaugural Bergamot Comedy Fest is so vital. The April 1-6 festival, anchored at her nonprofit comedy club the Crow at Bergamot Station Arts Center, offers a line-up emphasizing female- and nonbinary-identifying comedians.

Over the last two years since the Crow opened, Blaine has made it the community-oriented venue’s mission to amplify underrepresented voices of female-identifying, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ talent. To do so, she decided to work backwards. If there weren’t enough voices from marginal groups, they required the same access to stage time and professional stand-up education.

“There had to be more opportunity for everybody else,” Blaine says. “We needed to produce a female and nonbinary open mic. We needed to produce shows that booked more women, so they had equal time to get better. They needed more groundwork opportunities. We needed to go long game.”

In light of May’s second Netflix Is a Joke festival doubling down on seasoned talent and Just for Laughs Montreal canceling July’s intended 42nd edition (including its traditionally overflowing “New Faces” showcases), Blaine recognizes that connecting with diverse performers could be made increasingly straightforward for L.A. industry.

Out of 1,000 submissions received and viewed by eight diverse festival screeners, 54% were female/nonbinary. Nearly 80% of BCF performers — among them Andy Erikson, Diana Hong, Jessica Saul, Bee Gutierrez, Melissa Shoshahi, Kristin Chirico, Olivia Flood-Wylie, Greg Roque, Ainsley Bailey, Nina Nguyen, Becky Braunstein, Alia Atkins and Julian Fernandez — are locally based. (Future years’ fundraising will sponsor festival talent accepted from out of town.)

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“With JFL being in existence prior to the last few weeks, I felt there needed to be something in Los Angeles that specifically helped connect the industry to talent, and they don’t have to go all the way to Canada to get it there," Blaine said. "My goal is to bring everyone together here in the industry’s backyard.”

The Santa Monica resident sees herself as a stand-up first and producer second. In designing BCF, “I wear these two different hats,” Blaine says. “I wanted to create a festival for comedians by a comedian who turned into a producer, and produce it from a comedian point of view to serve the industry what they need to help change the landscape of voices.”

While performing at Atlanta’s Laughing Skull comedy festival, Blaine remembers seeing a panel of bookers asking other bookers questions that weren’t relevant to most comics. At Boston’s Women in Comedy Festival, the biggest connections she developed weren’t with industry types like agents and managers, but professional relationships with comedian peers from across the country.

Both in the Crow’s ground-level showroom and upstairs in the intimate Nest space, BCF programming includes ticketed showcases, educational panels and workshops, parties, an evening highlighting nine college-student performers, and more. Opening night even welcomes Kim Prince’s Hotville Chicken food truck. Parking is free; the Metro’s E Line stops at the lot’s 26th Street/Bergamot station.

Among BCF talent’s Private Perks are headshots, meditation, a speed-dating session and private daytime intensives on getting staffed, managing mental health and “The Big Pitch,” an in-depth guide to pitching a pilot, with “Friends” showrunner Andrew Reich and Melanie Frankel, former comedy head at ABC.

Free-to-the-public evening panels begin Monday with “Make Your Tight 5 Tighter” with speakers Michael Cox (“The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon”), Emilie Laford (The Comedy Store) and Comedy Gives Back’s Zoe Friedman (The Improv). Tuesday’s “Agents and Managers” features Sabina Kashi (CAA), Brendan Berger (CAA), Katie O’Brien (3 Arts) and Bruce Smith (Omnipop), while Mike Lawrence ("Saturday Night Live," “Conan”) discusses “How to Write for Late-Night TV” on Friday. Among Saturday’s final offerings, showrunner Danielle Sanchez-Witzel (Netflix’s “Survival of the Thickest”) plus writer Mathew Harawitz (NBC’s “Night Court”) enter “The Writers’ Room: From Script to Screen”; Marianne Ways (“After Midnight”) and Naela Durrani (“America’s Got Talent”) answer “What Makes a Good Stand-Up Submission Video?”

Audience members who upgrade $20 show tickets to VIP status for an additional $25 receive a one-year subscription to the MasterClass educational platform.

“I feel passionate about educational opportunities for the public because it is helping more than the lucky few that get in,” Blaine says. “That’s a hole I wanted to fill that wasn’t fair about other festivals, that you have to be chosen to learn. I don’t want to be a gatekeeper to education. Anyone who wants to learn should be able to. So making things more equitable is a way to help change the local scene for the better."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.