The annual West Michigan comedy festival was created by and is a benefit for Gilda's Club Grand Rapids, a non-profit that offers free support programs for cancer victims and their families. (This year's festival is March 5-15; www.laughfestgr.org
And area residents - the stage-savvy Henry Sapp and upstart comic Abbie Lemke - are both performing at various LaughFest events.
"The thing I really appreciate about Gilda's Club is the work they do with young kids and families," said Sapp, 49, who has been involved each year of LaughFest's 10-year run.
"It's all about getting families connected and building support that really keeps pulling me in," he added.
Sapp (he performs as "Hen Sapp") once again is bringing in several nationally-renowned comedians to offer local audiences a diverse, clean comedy experience.
"Rod Allison is an attorney by day and a comedian by night," said Sapp of the African-American performer who is sometimes referred to as "Rod of God comedy." He's had the stage at LaughFest before.
Early in his career Gilbert Esquivel won a Latino comedy search, boosting his profile as a "clean" performer who can work a variety of rooms and audiences. Sometimes he shares stories about growing up in a migrant worker family.
Sapp is also high on a local artist Evan-Tarence. "He's very witty, and I don't want people to sleep on him," Sapp advised of the multi-skilled performer whose father is the Rev. Tarence E. Lauchie of Grace For The Nations Church on Kraft Ave SE.
As usual, Sapp will be emceeing the event as well as inserting his own comedic barbs.
"It's more than just the fundraising aspect," he said of the idea behind LaughFest. "I don't want people to miss the point about the healing power of laughter," he offered, referencing the verse, "A cheerful heart is good medicine." (Prov. 17:22). "To be able to be a part of this LaughFest journey has been an honor."
GETTING A FOOTHOLD
Abbie Lemke Meanwhile, Abbie Lemke began her fledgling stand-up career just last summer. She started out as most comics do – stepping into "open mic" nights at clubs and bars and getting slots on shows featuring more experienced comedians.
"Sometimes people will message me asking me to send (an audition) tape and then ask me to be on their show," said Lemke, 25. Or she'll be remembered from an open mic performance and booked on a multi-artist bill.
This year Lemke scored gigs (4 to 5 minutes each) in two Laughfest showcases: "Ladies of LaughFest" on March 10 at Creston Brewery, and another March 12 at The B.O.B. (details below).
In her youth the Northview High School graduate watched various stand-up comedians, but never imagined trying it herself. That is, until one of her college instructors suggested she give it a whirl.
"I never really saw a woman comedian I admired growing up.... it was always dudes," she recalled. "So it had never really occurred to me to try it."
Lemke spent three years in Australia volunteering with the faith-based YWAM (Youth With A Mission) organization. When she returned last spring, she got her feet wet in the comedy world. She's well into the water now, with more than 70 gigs behind her, she reckons.
"I see myself feeling like I can do any room; not just staying in places I'm comfortable," she noted.
Lemke describes her humor as "kind of deadpan, a little quirky...a girl-next-door friendly appearance with a little storytelling thrown in."
And perhaps a dash of comedian Steven Wright and his peculiar word and image associations?
An example: "I've been dating a lot lately...mostly just down by my signature."
Her upbringing in a humorous family was a help, she said. "We kind of riffed off each other," she recalled.
Lemke still gets comedy ideas from family members and does co-writing with other comics. "But sometimes you're just walking out your regular life and think, 'That would be funny to say on stage,' and you grab whatever's handy and write it down."
Her religious faith is not something she's likely to speak about from the stage, as do many comics in the "Christian comedy" genre. "I avoid labels," she said. "But my faith journey shines through when I'm living out the calling and passion I feel God has put on my life."
Gilda's LaughFest, March 5-15, 2020 at various venues, created and hosted by Guild's Club of Grand Rapids, benefitting its free programs, www.gildasclubgr.org
Hen Sapp & Friends, featuring Rod Allison, Gilbert Esquivel and Evan-Tarence
7pm Fri. March 6
DeVos Center for Arts & Worship, GR Christian High School, 2300 Plymouth Ave. SE Grand Rapids
Tickets: $20 general admission, $40 VIP passes
Available online at https://www1.ticketmaster.com/event/0800577424337D2C
-------part of Ladies of LaughFest: 7pm Tues. March 10 at the Golden Age at Creston Brewery, 1504 Plainfield Ave. NE Grand Rapids. Free.
-------part of Stand-Up Showcase: 7pm Thur. March 12, 3rd floor of The B.O.B., 20 Monroe Ave. NW Grand Rapids. Free.
(Note: there may be adult material from some of the performers in these two showcases).