Comedy Festival Will Help Fight Cancer In Grand Rapids

Mar 8, 2012

An ambitious comedy festival last year brought some of the nation’s top comedians to Grand Rapids for 10 days of merriment.

The second installment of Gilda’s Laugh Fest begins today. It runs through March 18th.

The festival is staged by Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, one of 52 clubs in North America inspired by Gilda Radner. She’s the Saturday Night Live star who died in 1989 after a battle with ovarian cancer. They provide free support to cancer patients and their loved ones.

WKAR’s Scott Pohl talked with Leann Arkema, President and CEO of Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, about Gilda’s Laugh Fest.

LEANN ARKEMA: Laughter has such huge positive physical benefits, and our message here at Gilda’s Club is when you’re dealing with something as big as cancer or grief in your life, there are emotionally healthy ways to do that. Some of that is to learn more things, share with others, and equally, laugh along the way.

So, we decided to take the essence of who we are, and that gift, Gilda Radner’s legacy that she left in terms of valuing laughter in the midst of a cancer or grief journey, and Laugh Fest is a community experience that we wanted to deliver to people that mirrors exactly the type of community experience that happens here on a daily basis at Gilda’s Club.

SCOTT POHL: So it all seems quite simple. Let’s throw a ten day comedy festival and get dozens of some of the best comics in America to come to Grand Rapids. Pretty simple, huh?

ARKEMA: Very simple! And then there’s all the thousands and millions of details behind that!

Last year, in 2011, we hosted 226 events and had over 55,000 people come to the festival, from 25 states and Canada. We were so thrilled that people wanted to participate in this concept of exploring what makes us all laugh. We had free community showcases, we featured people and pets, literatary, dance, improv, music.

We all laugh as human beings. That’s our commonality as emotional human beings. We all laugh. We all laugh at different things. So, this is not necessarily a comedy festival, although we have a lot of standup, but as we put together the festival last year, we really wanted to also create a way to draw people to West Michigan in the middle of March, to celebrate laughter! So, we did that by bringing in the likes of Betty White and Bill Cosby. This year, we’re thrilled with the fact that Martin Short and Kevin Nealon and Whoopi Goldberg, Rodney Carrington, Jim Gaffigan, Mike Epps are some of our biggest headlining acts that are coming in.

POHL: When booking acts for a festival like this, does it help to be associated with Gilda Radner? I assume that some of these people, at least, were personal friends with Gilda Radner, or if nothing else, were fans of her. Does that help get people to say yes to coming to Grand Rapids?

ARKEMA: Well, the fact that Gilda Radner is associated with us in terms of legacy, it truly does help people grasp what it is that we’re trying to do here. Some of the artists that we bring in are very busy and do very limited shows across the country. A number of them have said to us that the mission and the purpose behind this festival is what draws them.

At the end of the day, 100% of the proceeds raised by Laugh Fest stay in West Michigan to support those families from 33 counties who are coming to our free program.

POHL: When you talk about the health benefits that people can gain from a life that’s filled with laughter, one of the people coming to town that strikes me as really fitting in with that message is Patch Adams.

ARKEMA: We’re thrilled that Patch Adams is headlining our LaughteRx series this year. Of course, he’s a medical doctor, and his life was portrayed by Robin Williams in the film Patch Adams a number of years ago. He has walked the road with literally thousands and thousands of patients, particularly patients who are in their last days of living, and he has studied up front and personal as a medical doctor the important role that laughter plays, no matter how many days we have left on this earth.