John Gibson has booked and overseen the Cola Comedy CON for three years, spearheading the logistics of a three-day festival that puts more than 30 comedians on different stages around town. He’s also brought national comedians to Columbia for the past eight years or so, highly regarded stand-ups like Doug Stanhope and Kyle Kinane and Dave Stone. And he’s also played a key role in supporting local comedy through the Soda City Stand Up collective he co-founded with Joe Coughlin.
The big takeaway from all this experience? Funny ain’t free.
“I’ve learned that everything costs money,” Gibson says with a laugh.
He’s also learned how different creating a festival is from booking one or two comedians at a club. As Gibson prepares for the third-annual Cola Comedy CON, which kicks off on Thursday and will feature Brian Posehn, Stanhope, Dusty Slay, and Carmen Morales as headliners and is expected to bring about 1,000 people out to its various shows, he’s girds himself for a few days of (hopefully) controlled chaos.
“I’ve been booking comedy shows for almost eight years now and I kind of know what to expect,” he says. “But when it comes to festivals, it’s a different thing. It’s not necessarily more difficult, but there’s a lot more planning that goes into it. When you have one show with a couple of comics, that’s easy. But when you’re dealing with 30 comics coming from out of town, plus hotels, plus headliners, plus venues, plus sponsors, it’s a lot of work.”
“Next year,” he adds, “I should probably ask for help.”
He’ll need it.
Ater this year’s CON is over, he puts his money where his mouth is. Toward the end of the month, Gibson will open a new club called The Comedy Closet on Meeting Street in West Columbia. This won’t be Gibson’s first foray into running a venue. He used to own the Red Door Tavern on State Street, where he split events between comedy and music. This time out, though, Gibson says it will be all comedy, all the time.
“We need to have a legitimate club like this in town because it boosts your scene,” he contends. “A lot of comedians used to skip Columbia. They’d go from Charlotte to Atlanta. Now they know after so many years that there’s some pretty good independent shows here. And now we have our own place. I think Columbia’s ready.”
Cola Comedy CON backs up this scene-building ethos, including a variety of local and regional comics, both as performers and hosts, in addition to the national headliners.
“You have to have somebody really good who’s running the show while I’m out running around like a crazy person,” Gibson says. “They take care of the sound and make sure everything’s the way it’s supposed to.”
The comedians will perform at both Curiosity Coffee Bar and New Brookland Tavern from 4 to 11 p.m. on all three days of the festival, many on multi-comic bills. And as chaotic as that might sound, it’s actually a far easier setup than last year, when Gibson had comedians performing at a half-dozen different venues, including The War Mouth, Pearlz, Tapp’s Arts Center, Art Bar and World of Beer.
“A buddy of mine who runs a festival down in Texas told me it would be a lot easier to do all the shows in just one or two venues,” Gibson says, “because people aren’t running around. They know where everything is. This year we chose Curiosity Coffee Bar because they’ve been doing some comedy shows, and [owners Greg Slattery and Sandra Moscato] are really good people. And New Brookland Tavern has always allowed me to book comedy shows there over the years. So I think it’s going to work out for everybody involved.”
Gibson says that he’s “blown away” by this year’s headliners, noting that the festival’s good word of mouth has helped attract national comedians.
“I’ve found out that, all over the country, people know about this festival and what we do,” he shares. “Comics are like this cool little group of people that all talk to each other. There’s this network where everybody knows everybody, and they tour constantly, so they’re always talking about shows, especially the people that do festivals. It’s really just about getting the word out there that Columbia is a great place for comedy.”
His new club will look to sustain that enthusiasm yearound. The intimate space will hold about 100 people, and Gibson says it will be dedicated to independent comedy of all stripes, meaning comedy styles that wouldn’t necessarily fit at a typical comedy club.
“When you go into a traditional comedy club, the old-school way is that it’s 300-400 seats and there’s a two-drink minimum,” he offers. “And what we want is to give people a taste of what the independent shows offer. And by independent, I mean non-club shows that you’d do at breweries or New Brookland Tavern, where you can feel free to get up from your seat and grab yourself another beer. There’s more of an intimate feel. The room is going to be smaller, you’ll be closer to the stage, and it’ll be like someone hanging out in your living room telling you jokes or stories.”
Gibson has been thinking about opening a venue like The Comedy Closet for about a year and a half, and he’s had his eye on the space at 735 Meeting St. for a while.
“I live two blocks from this building, and I would always drive past it and keep looking to see if there was anything available,” he explains. “Number one, the parking is amazing. And two, it’s the right size. There used to be a rug store there, but I walked by one day and looked in the window and it was completely empty. So I walked immediately next door and asked if they knew who owned the building, and it went from there.”
In addition to standups, Gibson emphasizes The Comedy Closet will embrace a broad range of styles.
“We’ll have sketch comedy and improv troupes,” he says, “We’re going to be doing a lot here.”
What: Cola Comedy CON
Where: Curiosity Coffee Bar (2327 Main St.) and New Brookland Tavern (122 State St.)
When: Oct. 3-Oct. 5
Price: Events run $10-$40