What began in 2003 as a one-night-only show spotlighting Lowcountry improv troupes has blossomed into a four-day festival that annually attracts some of the country's best comedic talent and has helped develop the local comedy scene, organizers say.
The 10th annual Charleston Comedy Festival kicks off Wednesday with a performance by stand-up comic and "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" correspondent Wyatt Cenac at Charleston Music Hall. The festival runs through Jan. 19 and includes performances by several local acts as well as "The State" alum and author Michael Ian Black, up-and-coming comics such as Rory Scovel and Canadian improv duo Two Weird Ladies.
The festival recently has featured the likes of Aziz Ansari, T.J. Miller, Todd Barry and former and current "Saturday Night Live" cast members Casey Wilson and Bobby Moynihan, but such star-studded lineups are a far cry from the festival's humble beginnings, said Brandy Sullivan of Theatre 99, one of its founders.
"That first year it was all local acts, and it was just one night," Sullivan said. "The next year, we teamed up with Charleston City Paper and that's when things took off, and we started reaching out to other venues and attracting more national acts."
The festival now spans eight venues over four nights, according to its website.
Sullivan said getting top-tier talent to Charleston has gotten considerably easier given the region's recent popularity, a buzz fueled by the Charleston's emerging restaurant scene and its reputation as one of the nation's top travel destinations.
"They're usually intrigued the first time they come here," Sullivan said. "They're on the road, so they're just thinking this is another show, another town but within the first 24 hours, they're like 'Everybody's nice, the food's great, it's beautiful.' Getting them to come back is pretty easy."
Cenac's performance Wednesday marks the first time in the festival's history that it has featured a headliner in a venue as large as the 900-seat Charleston Music Hall, but it might not be the last. Standup comedians Bill Maher and Paul F. Tompkins, who already have performed several times in Charleston, are atop organizers' wishlists for future festivals.
But best of all, Sullivan said, the festival has helped grow the area's comedy scene and educate Lowcountry audiences.
"The comedy scene in Charleston is thriving," she said. "There is now a community of people here and an audience for comedy here. Our audiences have really come to understand what it is that we do. It's a really fun environment to be in."