From Lewis Black saving the day to hanging with Caroline Rhea, BCF maestro Jim McCue tells all
When Jim McCue helped start the Boston Comedy Fest back in ’99, the stand-up scene in these parts was similar to what it is like now, if not even bigger. Performers like Bill Burr and David Cross, who would go on to launch megacareers out of New England, were just getting hot. At the same time, established favorites who cut their teeth during the Hub’s halcyon days, when performers at the Ding Ho Chinese restaurant put the scene on the map in the late ’70s and ’80s, were still holding down headlining duties at clubs around town.
To help gain exposure for himself and the fast-growing network of joke writers in his orbit, McCue did something totally insane and somewhat unprecedented for the time and decided to invite comedians from all over the country to convene in Massachusetts once a year. Now, with two decades of attracting talent to the area against significant odds under his belt, we asked the driving force behind the BCF, which DigBoston is a media sponsor of this year, about his war stories, the thankless organizing that goes into booking more than 75 acts, and how it’s all made possible by McCue’s own time in the clubs.
How did this all start? Did you even call it the Boston Comedy Festival back then?
We did. We started the first one with five hundred bucks, and I called every comedian I knew, and I called the local clubs and asked them if I could have, in many cases, their off nights.
What was the mission at the time? What were you trying to accomplish?
I had to explain to people what a comedy festival was, and they would ask, Why are you doing a festival?
And what did you say?
I had been to Just for Laughs [in Montreal], and I was trying to get the agents to see all of the acts in Boston. We had a lot of great acts coming out of here and you had to go to New York or LA to get seen. So that was the whole concept—we were going to invite them to come here. At the time, if you went to San Francisco, you had to spend a couple of months on couches just to move the ball forward. Just for Laughs said they mostly go to New York and LA to find acts, and that’s what started it all.
What was your reputation at the time? Who were you to be doing this?
I was out of my mind. I was not a Ding Ho guy, I wasn’t one of the top comedians or big headliners. On the road I was headlining, but at that time, seriously, guys like Dane Cook, and Bill Burr, and Patrice O’Neal were just starting out. They were opening for guys like me, if you can get your head around that. And Brian Kiley, and Tony V, and there’s a list a mile long. I remember seeing David Cross every Monday at Catch a Rising Star. Or Lenny Clark every week at Nick’s [Comedy Stop].
There were a lot of acts in my class or behind me who were super funny but couldn’t get any oxygen. If people did come into town, they’d see the same headliners over and over again—not us. When you got to a certain level in Boston you would move, because you had to get to New York or LA and start the whole thing over again.
If there have been phases, how long was phase one? How long did it take you to figure out where your ass is?
I’m still figuring it out. Every year we experiment with something different, and we try different things. We make huge mistakes, but sometimes something works and we keep it. This is a bad week to ask me, though, since we’re still selling tickets. Every year is a nail-biter. Ask me Sunday after the festival is over.
Looking back on 20 years, what are some of your first big memories?
One of the biggest things that ever happened for us was when I got a meeting with Vin Di Bona, who created America’s Funniest Home Videos. He’s a huge supporter of Emerson and comedy in Boston. And also, we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Lewis Black. I opened for Lewis in Andover and, unsolicited, he said he thought I was funny, and that if there was ever anything he could do for me, to give him a call. And he wrote his name on a cocktail napkin. I stuck it in my pocket, and at that time, after that, we had a couple of tough years. My partner, John Tobin, was getting more into politics and became a Boston city councilor, and I was left managing the festival alone.
I unfolded my little cocktail napkin, called him, and Lewis said, “That’s great—you should have a festival in Boston. I’ll come.” So now I booked the biggest theater I had ever been in, the Cutler Majestic Theatre, and we had one of the hottest acts in the country, but tickets weren’t selling—like I said, it’s always a nail-biter. Meanwhile, Lewis Black was shooting a movie, and his people were saying, Why are you going to the Boston Comedy Festival? Why are you doing this? And he said, Because I told this guy that I would come. I gave him my word.
No one in show business will ever understand that. He was giving up quite a bit to be there, and suddenly on the night of the show we had gotten a Boston Globe article, and everything changed. There was a line around the block. I remember there was a scalper on the street selling tickets, and I walked up to him and hugged him. That must have been the second year, and because he came, others wound up coming, and agents wound up coming.
Would this be easier or harder if you weren’t a comic? Or option three—would it be impossible?
It’s both. People come back because I started out with them. Like, Bill Burr came. There is no math or miracle that would make it so that I could afford Bill Burr, but he just showed up. He didn’t want a limo or a hotel—he stayed at his dad’s. He was just like, “I went to Emerson, I know where [the venue] is, I’ll be there.” As good as his word, he knocked on the back door. Last year it was Gary Gulman. It’s all relationships.
At the same time, it can be bad. I’m doing an interview on WBZ television for the festival, and while I want to be funny, I can’t really be funny, because I have to promote the shows. A lot of people look at me first as a festival guy, not as a comedian, even though I make my living as a comedian.
Who is someone you have wanted to get for a long time that you haven’t been able to get, but that you’re getting this year for the show?
Well … Caroline Rhea came and hung out one year, and now we’re very excited to have her come and perform. One of our things we’re trying this year is a North Shore branch of the Boston Comedy Festival, and at the Larcom Theatre in Beverly we have Caroline, and Artie Lange. We got Artie through a friendship with a guy who books me up in Albany.
What is the demographic for the Boston Comedy Festival? Besides the people who come out for one specific act that they love and follow, do you have a lot of comedy groupies who go from show to show to show?
Over the last couple of years, we’ve moved a lot of it to Davis Square, kind of taking it over. And there’s a really mixed crowd there. It’s kind of the story of what makes comedy so great in Boston—a mixture of working class and people from colleges and everyone else, all laughing together.
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