Growing NYCF caters to new and old stars


NEW YORK -- The fourth New York Comedy Festival opens Tuesday with a mix of tried and true and some new.

Comedy insiders compare its emphasis on featuring established stars over discovering new talent with the Comedy Festival, the HBO/AEG Live organized outing in Las Vegas that celebrates its third anniversary next week. But NYCF organizers said they hope to keep evolving their programming into new fields and make the comedy community come together with other creative and artistic fields over time.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled plans for the inaugural NYCF in 2004, emphasizing the hope that it will continue the city's stand-up tradition, entertain locals and visitors and pump money into the Big Apple's economy.

Organizers estimate the economic contribution from the festival at more than $80 million to date when including this year's edition. More than 150,000 people will have attended the festival in its first four years, organizers said.

The event has mainly focused on attracting consumers, meaning that it has brought out fewer agents and network executives that other comedy events on the festival circuit cater to intensely. As such, a lot of big-name talent featured this year has played NYCF before, including Denis Leary, who hasn't missed a single edition of the weeklong celebration of comedy.

But NYCF organizers are hoping to keep things fresh and draw in new audiences by adding types of programming, according to Caroline Hirsch, owner and president of venerable comedy club Carolines on Broadway and the driving force behind the festival.

As examples, she highlighted the addition of a sketch show this year and two panels in cooperation with the Paley Center for Media -- one with the writers of "The Late Show With David Letterman," the other with the cast of "Scrubs."

Also on tap this year are a charity event expected to draw a who's who of the entertainment world and a competition searching for the Big Apple's best up-and-coming stand-up -- a concept that has been successful at other comedy festivals, but is new for NYCF.

Hirsch said she hopes to also push into other artistic fields in the future, something other festivals don't really do.

"We try to really add layers every year," she said. "In the coming years, I'd love to get the arts (field) and fashion involved." For example, the NYCF could curate an exhibition of art influenced by comedy, she added.

In another addition this year, organizers have lined up News Corp.'s MySpace as a sponsor. The social networking site has in recent years made comedy a key priority and has started sponsoring a range of festivals. At NYCF, it will present a couple of shows featuring up-and-comers like Judah Friedlander, and the new generation of comedy stars, like Jim Norton. Both are types of performers loved by the MySpace crowd, and the networking giant wants to replicate these tastes in a live setting.

"Our presence is to integrate programs we have been doing at MySpace and weaving them into the festival," said Jordan Ellner, marketing manager of comedy for MySpace.

In its fourth year, the festival also can boast American Express and Jeep as corporate sponsors. Previous sponsors include Geico, Pontiac and Reader's Digest. The comedy fixture started off with five days but added a sixth after its inaugural run. It hit a festival record in ticket sales of about 60,000 last year, thanks in part to two big Dane Cook shows at Madison Square Garden, Hirsch said. The annual fixture started off with about 15,000 tickets in Year 1.

For this year, she said ticket sales will come in at about 30,000, and most shows are sold out. "Every year we sell out sooner," Hirsch said. A second Artie Lange show that organizers added also is nearly full already, she added.

On opening night, Rosie O'Donnell will perform with special guests to benefit her education charity Rosie's Broadway Kids, while Bob Saget, Jimmy Fallon, Gilbert Gottfried and Robin Williams will look for laughs in support of the Scleroderma Research Foundation.

Wednesday's schedule includes "Stand Up for Heroes: A Benefit for the Bob Woodruff Family Fund," hosted by Conan O'Brien with guests Lewis Black, Bruce Springsteen and Williams. New York industry heavyweights expected to be in attendance include such corporate executives as News Corp. president and COO Peter Chernin, CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves, Time Warner's chairman and CEO Richard Parsons and NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker, as well as TV personalities Stephen Colbert, Katie Couric, Kimberly Dozier, James Gandolfini, Charlie Gibson, Dan Rather, Kelly Ripa, Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters and Brian Williams. Presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani also is scheduled to attend.

With the country headed into a presidential election year and political comedy looking hot, Wednesday also features political comedy in the form of Andy Borowitz's "Countdown to '08: Only 363 Days Left" with Alec Baldwin, Arianna Huffington and Mo Rocca.

Also among the comedy stars featured in the NYCF are Susie Essman, Kathleen Madigan, Damon Wayans, Bill Maher, Sarah Silverman, Rich Vos, Mario Cantone, D.L. Hughley, Louis CK and Leary, who has never missed one NYCF.

WNYW/Fox 5 and WWOR/My9 are the exclusive broadcast partners this year. WABC and Comedy Central served as media partners in the past.

Among the Big Apple venues hosting shows are Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center, Town Hall and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.