By Matt Hickman
A veteran of the Alaska comedy circle for nearly a decade, Kass Smiley is among those who laments Anchorage’s demise as a city attracting top-notch comedic talent, while at the same time working tirelessly to build up the grassroots scene.
It was during one such late night bitch-fest at Koot’s two years ago when her idea for making Anchorage a comedy destination came into the light.
“We were getting drunk in the bird house after a show and started talking about putting on a festival. Matt Collins and I had applied to be part of a few, so we thought, what do we need to do to host one?” Smiley said. “It was one of those drunken ideas of ‘before you die’, because, you know, you need to go to Alaska once before you die, so we could bring up a bunch of comics who’ve never been here before.”
Such was the birth of the B4UDie Comedy Festival, which Smiley originally thought would have a rather modest debut of maybe a half-dozen comedians, plus locals and the whole thing could be held on one stage at Koot’s. Instead, she ended up with 55, stretched out over six days at five different venues.
“I strung together some touring comics who knew who had hooked me up with some gigs,” said Smiley, who’s routinely traveled the Lower 48 gigging clubs and festivals. “It was easy enough to put the word out — Alaska’s on your bucket list; used that Discovery Channel thing against everyone… ‘do it once before you die! Then I tagged it with ‘come see Russia from our house!’”
The 55 comics area headed by easily a dozen or more comics who could be considered headliners in their own right.
Apart from headliner-among-the-headliners Kyle Kinane is Anchorage’s own Jessica Michelle Singleton, a touring comic living in L.A., and Derek Sheen, whom comic Brian Posehn called, “Derek Sheen is a goddamn delight. So smart and funny it makes me mad. Tiny Idiot? More like Giant Genius.”
“Jessica Michelle Singleton is a hometown girl made good, went to Service High; she’s been doing comedy a long time time now and crushing it — a regular at the Comedy Store. Eventually she’s going to pop and be on TV,” Smiley said. “And Derek Sheen, on Thursday the 4th, is literally one of my favorite comics in the country. Not only is he a powerhouse of a comic, he’s every comic’s favorite comic — an awesome dude. A lot of comics don’t want to hang out, but not Sheen. I’m flying him up myself. I paid for his whole show, just for me.”
Brett Erickson and Andy Andrist, who are part of the podcast ‘The Unbookables’ hosted by Doug Stanhope, the Arizona-based comic, whose visits to the Last Frontier buoyed Alaska as a comedy destination over a decade ago.
“It’s all of Stanhope’s buddies, so it’s exciting — people I would go see,” Smiley said. “If you listen to Stanhope’s podcasts you know with Andy Andrist and Brett Erickson it’s going to be political, dark, and, I wouldn’t say X-rated, but it is not your mom’s comedy.”
The B4UDie Festival also takes advantage of Alaska being on the forefront in the legalization and commercialization of marijuana. The fourth show on Saturday, April 6 at Koot’s will be the ‘420 Friendly’ Gateway Show.
“Comics do one set sober, then take an intermission and do one set high — it’s great, it’s a nationall recognized traveling show,” Smiley said. “If this show goes well they say they’ll be willing to put Alaska on their regular rotation.”
The festival is also giving back to a good cause, as part of the proceeds will go to the Covenant House as well as the fight against seasonal depression.
“My sister committed suicide, and I kind of think there’s a genetic thing to it. I’m of the ilk to believe I’ve been exposed to it,” Smiley said. “So this is platform to help fight seasonal depression. A lot of times in Alaska you can feel like you’re at a dead end. I was really sad and depressed after getting back from L.A.; I felt like my comedy was not going great; my life was not going great, so what’s something I want to do? I’m so lucky that this got the response it did. I really thought we’d have just 12 comics and all of a sudden we had 55 comics and 18 shows in six days.”
Anyone who’s seen Kass Smiley’s stand-up act, might be surprised she could pull off an event this epic in scope, given the generally defeatist and self-doubting persona she wears on stage. Even she is somewhat surprised.
“There’s always some things you can’t control. It’s hard for me to let go of things, let go of control; delegating tasks is hard. I’m primarily the founder but for the handful of us as organizers, it’s been stressful,” Smiley said. “But it’s also been really nice — as I mentioned before this idea of B4UDie is a way to combat stress and seasonal depression here — and it gave me a goal. This started in August of lat year when we said, ‘we’re going to do it’, so all winter long it was kind of a sense of normalcy in the darkness. I had a goal, a mission, something I could work on that would pull me out of my depressive funk.”
Smiley believes a successful festival could pay great dividends for her — professionally and psychologically.
“I think it’s upped my caché in the Lower 48; I’ve gotten a lot of friend requests from people with mics in their profile pictures the last six months,” Smiley said. “Once they find out you’re a producer they want to meet you.”