Scruffy City Comedy headliner Tim Northern
Stand-up veteran Matt Ward has been called the father of the city’s latter-day local underground comedy scene—a scene that truly began around 2010, when Ward moved from Ohio to Knoxville and kick-started a regular open mic night in a now-defunct Old City nightclub.
But with the advent of this year’s Scruffy City Comedy Festival, Ward believes his unruly offspring is finally matured to the point that it can make its way without adult supervision. Scruffy City Comedy Festival takes place Nov. 6 through 8 at a host of downtown venues; feature acts are performing at Scruffy City Hall.
“I was really encouraged by the success of the Rocky Top Comedy Contest,” says Ward. “That made me think something like the comedy festival would work. Because the comedy scene here has absolutely grown. It’s grown its own legs and it’s gone its own direction, and I don’t have to direct it anymore.”
A full-time comedy promoter and free-lance writer who—now less frequently—hones his own comic chops through occasional tours and one-offs, Ward wanted SCCF to be bigger and more diverse than any comedy-related event in the city’s history. The fest will see see 50 acts spread across 20 shows in 72 hours.
What’s more, Ward says no more than half of the shows will feature traditional stand-up comedy. “It’s going to be diverse,” he said. “There’s some experimental stuff. I don’t like to use the phrase ‘alternative comedy,’ but it really is that, in the truest sense.”
Some of the not-so-stand-up acts on the weekend’s bill include local rap performance artists LiL iFFy (Harry Potter hip hop); Knoxville improv comedy troupe Einstein Simplified (Second City by way of K-town); competitive erotic fan fiction with Bryan Cook (“Muppet boner comedy”); Underwear Comedy Party (yuksters in tighty-whities); and musical duo the Reformed Whores (“Kind of a traditional country-esque duo that sings songs about obscene things in a beautiful country twang,” Ward says. “They just got off tour with Les Claypool’s Duo de Twang.”)
Other bizarreries scheduled for the three-day event include a couple of “celebrity roasts,” such as The Roast of Superman, with comedians depicting Big Blue’s bff’s, gathered for a Comedy Central-style shaming of the Man of Steel.
Besides Scruffy City Hall, other venues in SCCF include the Pilot Light, Remedy Coffee, the Jack Cellar, Latitude 35, and the Star of Knoxville Riverboat (hosting a Nov. 7 Comedy Booze Cruise.)
But headliners Tim Northern and Jarrod Harris—as well as several other festival events—will take the big stage at Scruffy City Hall. “Both of those guys [Northern and Harris] have been to Knoxville several times,” Ward says. “They’ve always had a good time, and they’ve always blown people’s minds with how funny they are. They’re both crowd favorites around here.”
Also performing will be many of Knoxville’s local stand-up favorites—Drew Morgan and J.C. Ratliff and Jeff Blank, et al.—plus a few dozen promising up-and-comers that Ward hand-picked from among scads of SCCF submissions that poured in from across the country.
“I think some of the non-headliners are as strong as the headliners,” he says. “They’re just earlier in their careers. They don’t have the television appearances or the prestige just yet. But they will.”
Scruffy City Comedy Festival runs Nov. 6 thru Nov. 8 at select downtown venues. The festival kicks off 8 p.m. Nov. 6 at Scruffy City Hall with the finals of the 5th Annual Rocky Top Comedy Contest.