2016 Laughing Skull Comedy Festival bigger than ever (June 7-12)

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Monday, May 30, 2016

In 2009, Marshall Chiles, owner of Midtown's Laughing Skull Lounge, was thinking up ways to build the comedy scene in Atlanta.

He had been to big comedy festivals in Montreal and Edinburgh in the U.K. So he created his own version for Atlanta, bringing six casting and talent agents from Los Angeles and New York to sample comics in a competitive setting.

"The comedy scene itself had not blown up," said Chiles, a stand-up comic himself who had previously owned the Funny Farm in Roswell. "We had some acts here but we needed a spotlight on the city."

He solicited for comedians and received more than 400 submissions from all over the nation for 72 slots. The casting agents judged mini-sets and culled them down to one winner. The winner Josh Gondelman now works as a writer for HBO's "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver."

"The better comedians we got, the more industry wants to show up," he said.

Many of the comics ended up getting booked on shows like "Letterman" and "Conan" and "Last Comic Standing." "Industry people know who's good and who's up and coming," Chiles said. "Then to see them live and also get to hang out with them for a week is different than seeing them on videotape or YouTube."

This year's judges include booking agents from "The Tonight Show," Fox networks and IFC.

Peter Rosegarten, who has been managing comedy talent for 20 years with PARosegarten Media Group including "Last Comic Standing" winner John Heffron and "Top Gear" star Adam Ferrara, has been coming to the festival every year to seek fresh faces. He has signed two comics from the festival: Grant Lyon and Trenton Davis.

"Marshall brings in comics multiple years so I can chart their progress," Rosegarten said. "I'm more inclined to work with someone who is putting in the work. It's a small enough festival, I can spend four days meeting all the comics. I end up staying in touch with three or four dozen of them after that."

Although none of the winners have yet to become superstars, past finalist Tom Cotter came second on "America's Got Talent" in 2012.

This year is the biggest festival to date. Chiles is using 15 different locations with 101 comedians culled from 600-plus submissions. Every year, several are from Atlanta. Besides Laughing Skull, other show sites include the Blind Pig, Smith's Olde Bar, the Village Theatre, Eddie's Attic and Red Brick Brewing.

The winner last year Rob Haze, 27, is a local. Haze said his win led to appearances on Comedy Central, the Montreal Just for Laughs festival and Viceland. He also got to headline at Laughing Skull. This year, he gets to be a judge. "This is Marshall's baby," Haze said. "He really cares about the festival and making sure everyone has a good time. It definitely helps build the comedy scene in Atlanta."

Some of the comics who didn't make the primary pool will compete in a separate "improv" comedy test, where random topics are posted on a screen and the stand-up has to start riffing jokes off said topic. The winner goes automatically into the semifinals.

Chiles chooses not to make this like many other comedy festivals that focus on big celebrity comics. (The Montreal Just for Laughs festival, for instance, this summer features the cast of "Veep," David Cross and Howie Mandel.)

"We have celebrity appearances," Chiles said. "But I don't book them. It's a Pandora's Box. We're about finding amazing new comedians coming down the pike."

Ultimately, he said, this is not a big money maker for him and the winning cash prize is not life changing ($1,000). But he said there are two benefits for him: it gets the name Laughing Skull out to the public and it brings fresh talent to Atlanta, some who might actually move here. Plus, Sirius/XM provided $50,000 worth marketing and promotion and will air the finals on its comedy channel Raw Dog.


7th Annual Laughing Skull Comedy Festival

June 7-12

Various prices, different locations

Finale is at 10:30 p.m. June 11


Terminal West

887 West Marietta St. Studio C, Atlanta




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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.