Tig Notaro on organizing this weekend's Bentzen Ball
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When compared to cities with more established comedy scenes (such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York), our nation’s capital often comes off as a humorless, joyless place filled with a bunch of button-down, 9-to-5 working stiffs. So, thank the bright, young people at BrightestYoungThings for bringing plenty of laughter into D.C. this week with the massive Bentzen Ball. Curated by L.A.-based comedian Tig Notaro (and named after Danish audiologist Ole Bentzen, who died from laughter-induced cardiac arrest in 1989 while watching A Fish Called Wanda), the Bentzen Ball features more than 60 of today’s best comics—including Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, Todd Barry, and Lizz Winstead—performing at various venues in the U Street area over the weekend. Prior to tonight’s kickoff event at The Lincoln Theatre, Notaro spoke with The A.V. Club about organizing the festival, fresh underwear, and her short-lived career in music.
The A.V. Club: How did BrightestYoungThings end up getting involved with the festival?
Tig Notaro: When I was in D.C. for the D.C. Comedy Festival last year, they had done an interview with me. I ended up connecting with them on a personal level. After the interview, they gave me a ride to go find something to eat and we just hit it off. We ended up hanging out the whole night and the whole next day. Then they brought me out for their inauguration party and we just stayed in touch. When I was thinking of doing this festival it just seemed like they would be the perfect people to partner with.
AVC: What’s a night with the BrightestYoungThings crowd like?
AVC: Sounds like they gave you a pretty good tour of the U Street area.
TN: Yeah, that’s pretty much where we’ve hung out whenever I go in town. I mean, they’ve definitely taken me other places—I just can’t remember the names of the places.
AVC: Was your familiarity with that part of the city behind the decision to book most of the Bentzen Ball performances around there?
TN: When I contacted BrightestYoungThings I told them that I felt like the key to having a successful festival is to have everything contained and walkable. You know, a lot of festivals that I do, they shuttle us around from venue to venue. It works out, it’s fine—but it would be a lot easier to get the audience and the comedians where they’re going if everybody can just walk. And it’s more of a community-type feel.
AVC: Who came up with the name "The Bentzen Ball"?
TN: Well, at first BrightestYoungThings came to me with some names for the festival but I wasn’t totally excited about any of them. There was one point where they were all pretty much sold on this one name and I wasn’t, so I really fought them on it. They said, “Oh we’re really good at naming things, we feel like that’s a strength of ours.” So I said, “Well, in that case, come up with a bunch of new names, and we’ll go from there.” Once they came back with The Bentzen Ball, and told me the story behind it, I was like “That is exactly what I’m looking for.” It captured the whole idea of what I wanted to do with the festival, which was make it literally like a ball.
AVC: How so?
TN: Like, we’re not just booking comedians and booking shows. It’s from noon to three in the morning every day and night. We have activities like Segway tours of the city, a private tour of The White House, champagne brunches. We have things from start to finish that the comedians can go do. If they don’t want to do anything, if they just want to lay in their hotel rooms and sit in their underwear all day, that’s great. But, if they want to throw on their fresh underwear and come out on a Segway tour, then all the better. It’s all about the comedians.
AVC: And the association with Ole Bentzen?
TN: We were being kind of top-secret about what it meant, because we wanted there to be speculation, some mystery behind it. But it’s kind of gotten out. I think it’s more fun that way. Everyone seems to love it and respond to it really well.
AVC: One person who responded to it was Ole Bentzen’s nephew, Brian Bentzen. One of the local promoters says he sent an email to you guys?
TN: Yeah, he got in touch with BrightestYoungThings and we’ve been in communication with him.
AVC: What has that conversation been like?
TN: I haven’t talked to him, but the email correspondence I read was, like, somewhere online somebody with BrightestYoungThings said, “Email us if you can guess what the name is named after.” Something along those lines. And he wrote, “I know what this is named after: my uncle who died.” That’s my understanding. The communication has been positive and he’s been supportive…We even invited him out for the festival but I don’t think he could come this year. We’re hoping to make this a yearly thing and we want him to be our guest next year.
AVC: You’ll be performing at the festival’s kickoff event on Thursday, Oct. 22. Have you found that your slow-paced delivery gives hecklers extra time to pounce?
TN: I guess I’ve dealt with my share of hecklers. As far as people being rude and disruptive, I’d say not too much. But people talking to me while I’m on stage has definitely happened a bit because I speak slowly and take pauses. So people tend to talk to me when I’m performing. But that doesn’t bother me. Unless somebody’s being obnoxious, then it kind of becomes a little exhausting. But, usually, people are pretty polite and they ask earnest questions—which only makes it funnier.
AVC: You recently landed a role in the upcoming Runaways biopic, The Runaways. How was that different from your experiences in stand-up and television?
TN: It was ridiculous, amazing. It was my first time to do a major film, or any film really. And it was the first time when the star of the project was not a good friend of mine. Like, any TV I’ve done, I’ve had the luxury of my friend being the star and them casting me in the show. This was also the first time I wore a dress since I was 5 years old, probably. I had to wear heels and a dress and a wig. It takes place in the '70s and I play Joan Jett’s mom. Joan Jett is the executive producer. She and her mom came down and watched me and Kristen Stewart do our scene.
AVC: What did they think?
TN: I guess they were all right with it. [Laughs.] I didn’t get any complaints…I’m a huge Joan Jett fan. And The Runaways. When I was kid I tried to start a band like The Runaways, but I couldn’t really get anyone on board. I think it maybe lasted through third and fourth period in seventh grade.
AVC: It was a short-lived musical career.
TN: Yeah, it came to a screeching halt by fifth period. There will not be a movie about my band, ever.