This weekend: Woodstock Comedy Festival

Above: Helene Angley, the winner of "New Faces of Comedy" Contest at this year's Woodstock Comedy Festival, will perform on Friday, Sept. 18 at the Kleinert-James Theatre in Woodstock. Photo via

The weekend of Sept. 18 through 20, the third annual Woodstock Comedy Festival brings big talent and laughs to Ulster County. Friday night’s Laughingstock! at the Kleinert-James Theatre will feature eight standup comics, including Helene Angley, the winner of the festival’s first-ever New Faces of Comedy contest. Saturday will honor the all-time greats in the afternoon, with insider-driven panel discussions about Joan Rivers, George Carlin and a look at the life of a stand-up comic.

Saturday night brings this year’s headliner, the Grammy, Tony and Emmy-nominated comedian and actor Robert Klein, to the Bearsville Theatre stage. And on Sunday, Upstate Films will present the documentary “Just About Famous,” followed by a batch of comic short films, including the award winner of the festival’s first film competition.

The festival’s been drawing big talent and crowds since it began. Watershed Post spoke with founder Chris Collins and co-organizer and media director Sheila Eisenberg about how it all comes together.

Watershed Post: How did it come to pass that comedy legend Robert Klein (Seinfeld has called him his hero) is headlining? 

Sheila Eisenberg: We have three people who book talent and one of them got him! It’s very exciting and thrilling. Their mandate is to get the biggest name they can, and since we’re a charity paying nothing or a tiny stipend, the subtext is “Who will do it as a favor?” The bookers are all people with connections, amazing in their own right--Eddie Brill opened for Letterman for fourteen years; Pat Buckles just knows everybody; Josh Ruben is out in LA putting together a new pilot. We’ve been very lucky every year; the first year we had Dick Cavett, Mario Cantone and Bobcat Goldthwait. The world of comedy is very good to us.

WP: How do you select the winners of the standup and short films contests? People can have widely varying senses of humor. Have you got criteria you can explain? Has it ever come to blows?

SE: It’s interesting because Chris and I are much older than some of the others and I think different generations sometimes don’t find the same things funny; for example, there was a woman in her fifties who submitted stand-up, I thought she was just the absolute funniest ever. I could relate to everything she said and she cracked me up; it might not have been the same for a twenty-something listener. But we have a wide range of ages and senses of humor involved.

For the stand-up, we judge not just on the material but on stage presence, eye contact, timing the overall presentation. We got 50 submissions, and we only asked a few weeks ago! If we ran it year round we’d have way too many to judge. And we got some very impressive short films.

WP: Robert Klein told a New York Times interviewer that comedians have personalities that are "childlike" as opposed to "childish." There's also been a study that found that comedians' personalities often share traits with people who experience psychosis. With all that said: How is it trying to organize a group of them? Is it like herding cats?

Chris Collins: I think we may be looking at people as having pathologies when in reality they just have quirks, and who doesn’t? In performance, these are stars; in personal life, they’re like anyone else. But we think of them as superhuman beings and then their normality looks strange, which it really isn’t. A lot of them have a pretty normal life. They may stand out some for being very amenable to a good cause and loving to make people laugh. We’ve never had to deal with attitude; these are people who make a commitment and come through.

WP: What do you think makes Woodstock a good home for a comedy festival? Are there things about Woodstock that are inherently funny?

CC: The locals are very into it. They celebrate with us, they love what we do. Generally Woodstock has a pretty good vibe; people come here for all sorts of reasons.

I’ve been living here since 1977, and I’ve seen all sides. Like any relationship, you start out all excited and gradually come to understand the positives and negatives. I wanted to do something bigger than me, and I thought this was a good void to fill; I love comedy. I grew up in a funny family and we laughed a lot. I also grew up with five sisters, and when I decided to make it a not -or-profit event, Family of Woodstocks domestic violence program--their hotline is the oldest in New York--and Polaris, which is a unique human trafficking hotline, were natural choices. These are huge and outrageous issues. Domestic violence is like a virulent disease out there, and there are women festival’s websitebeing treated not just as second class citizens but as slave labor.

We donate the entire net profit. We’ve donated over $5,000 each year. Considering we started with nothing, it’s been working quite well. We get superstars performing. I feel very fortunate.

And I think it generally helps the town’s economy. Also the mood. Comedy is a healing thing, it’s therapeutic. Scientists have sat down with people and engaged them in laughter, and their reactions to things afterward are much more positive.

When you’ve got an audience of a few hundred people laughing through the evening, it does create a buzz in town you can feel. Even the anticipation is funny for some reason. People will walk up to me and ask, “Doing comedy again?” and just burst out laughing.

This is our third year. It’s our toddler phase. It’ll be superb and lovely, quirky and strange.

The Woodstock Comedy Festival. Friday, Sept. 18 with an evening of standup performance at the Kleinert-James Arts Center from 8 p.m to 10 p.m.; tickets are $20. Saturday, Sept. 19, an afternoon of panel discussions will be held there starting at 12 p.m.. Saturday night’s featured performance, Robert Klein with Bob Stein and Karen Bergreen, will take place at the Bearsville Theatre at 7:30 p.m.; tickets range from $25 balcony seats to $75 in the “Golden Circle.” Each evening also features an afterparty. On Sunday, Sept. 20, Upstate Films will host the feature presentation at 1 p.m. and comedy shorts beginning at 3 p.m.