CARRBORO - The 12th annual North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival is coming to town this week, bringing more than 500 performers in improv, sketch and stand-up, as well as big-time comedy acts Mike Birbiglia, the Second City Touring Company and Emo Phillips.
Many of the performers are out-of-town comics or sketch and improv teams that travel the national comedy festival circuit. But the NCCAF - hosted by Carrboro's DSI Comedy Theater - also makes a point of encouraging and promoting homegrown comedy talent.
To wit, Chapel Hill's Brad Schnurr.
Last summer, Schnurr won the Carolina's Funniest Comic competition, a DSI-sponsored event in which audiences vote for their favorite performer in a series of playoff-style showcases. As the winner of last year's competition, Schnurr earned a spot in this year's festival and will perform this Friday and Saturday night.
Catch one of Schnurr's sets, and you'll find a comic with a quiet, confident and affable style reminiscent of old-school comedy performers. Which is why it's rather surprising to learn he's only been at it for about nine months.Going all in
Schnurr said he had never even attempted stand-up comedy before last year's competition.
"I thought I might take a class at DSI, and I went to their website," he said. "Across the top was a banner that said it was the last day to sign up for the stand-up comedy competition.
"When I read that, I had a weird reaction. I almost got sick to my stomach. I really got afraid, and I hadn't even signed up. I thought - well, if it makes me that scared, I guess I have to do it."
So Schnurr signed up and began working on material for his first ever stand-up gig. "I figured - I'm 48 years old, I have five minutes of smart-aleck comments that I can say into a microphone."
That first five minutes became four consecutive weeks of performances, as Schnurr competed with 33 other area comics for the top prize.
DSI founder and NCCAF director Zach Ward said Schnurr's run was surprising and impressive.
"Brad really took last year's contest by storm," Ward said. "So many comics will do the same set over and over again. And there's something to be said for that - refining and bringing a set to maturity.
"As a new comic, Brad came in and did four straight weeks of competition, and every single set was different. I never heard the same joke twice, and every week the sets got longer."
For his part, Schnurr said he just tried to keep things simple.
"I had my stuff memorized, and if they laughed, I knew enough to stop talking for a minute so they can hear what I have to say next," Schnurr said. "Also, the thing at DSI - the lights are on you, and you really can't see the audience. So that was pretty good."New gigs, old records
Since last summer, Schnurr has kept busy performing stand-up in various venues around the Triangle pretty much every weekend. A former theater student at the University of Iowa and a lifelong musician, Schnurr has had his share of on-stage experience. But he said stand-up is fundamentally different from other modes of performance.
"Because it's a solo thing, it's easier than getting a band together, or being in a play," he said. "Insofar as I get to pick the times that I write, or practice. The other thing is that it just sort of fits into the way I tend to think about the world. I like the idea of inverting things - taking accepted wisdom and flipping it. And I've always been able to see what's funny, about myself or something else."
Schnurr said he's been a fan of stand-up comedy since childhood.
"I watched all those guys on Letterman and Carson growing up, and I had all those old records as a kid - George Carlin, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby. ... I had them memorized. I would put the headphones on and go to sleep to them.
"That was what made you cool at school, how much of those routines you could do with your friends," he said, remembering it with a laugh. "That's where it started - all these insufferable 13-year-old boys doing Steve Martin routines."
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be published, broadcast or redistributed in any manner.