Laughter is the Best Medicine: NCCAF 2017

Interview: Zach Ward
Posted by Jenks Miller

The ArtsCenter is gearing up for the 2017 North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival (NCCAF), a multi-venue comedy showcase and workshop featuring college groups and professional acts, improvisers, sketch writers and standup comics that will take place in Carrboro February 15th – 26th. Over the years, the NCCAF has grown both in size and stature; it is now recognized as one of the largest independent comedy festivals in the country. Recently, NCCAF founder and executive producer Zach Ward has emphasized the role of comedy in bolstering our emotional resilience during turbulent times. We spoke with Ward about some of the upcoming festival’s highlights, improv’s penchant for adaptability, and comedy as self-care.

Photo courtesy of NCCAF.

The ArtsCenter: The North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival is in its seventeenth year. Carrboro/Chapel Hill was a very different place when the festival got off the ground in 2001! What inspired you to create the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival back then? How has the festival changed since then? And do those changes parallel changes you’ve noticed in the town itself?

Zach Ward: We started in 2001 so this will be our 17th annual event. With everything that has happened personally and professionally since then, it seems like a lifetime ago. We were all so different ― Chapel Hill, UNC, comedy festivals in general ― I was 22 when we started NCCAF, producing the fest out of my apartment in Chicago, a block North of Wrigley Field. I produced the first festivals as a way to teach and to foster a local appreciation for the type of comedy I wanted to eventually do myself, and see, in North Carolina. It took a decade and a lot more hustle than just our annual comedy party, but it worked. We did it. Now there are improv teams and troupes all over the Triangle performing “Chicago-style” improv, alt comedy shows and artists experimenting beyond the formats and shows that were popular at the time.

TAC: What can we expect from the NCCAF this year? Are there any highlights that stand out for you in particular?

ZW: I am very excited about how the programming for the festival has changed and stayed the same. Some artists make our fest an annual event, which has turned Chapel Hill, Carrboro and NCCAF into a comedy homecoming for a lot of acts. A large number of college teams have returned every year to perform at our festival for over a decade. This year we have booked headliner Aparna Nancherla, who will be on The ArtsCenter stage on Saturday Feb. 18th, and I am thrilled for festival artists and local audiences to see Aparna. This will be Aparna’s 3rd time at the festival, having first come to the festival in 2007 to perform with her improv team from Washington Improv Theatre in Washington, DC. She gained a significant amount of recognition in 2016, which has made her an “overnight success” (after dedicating the last 10 years to the work and the art of comedy).

Highlights at The ArtsCenter:

* RISK! podcast with Kevin Allison (feat. Eddie Brill, 13+ year talent coordinator for David Letterman)

* The Magic Negro and Other Blackness and AIL Podcast

* Aparna Nancherla (feat. local comics Hannah Strom and Brandy Brown)

* The Josh and Tamra Show (feat. Jim Henson-trained Muppeteer Josh Cohen)

* ImprovBoston and Billyhawk (Los Angeles) and The Magnet TourCo (New York)

TAC: In addition to serving as Executive Director of the NCCAF and the Artistic Director of DSI Comedy, you also teach improv comedy workshops to students and professionals in many different disciplines. I’m interested in the relationship between improv performance and business (or even “life”) skills. What are some of the specific tools students of improv comedy develop in your workshops? Much of improv comedy performance is based on confidence and adaptability – are these skills that can be learned, and then translated into other areas of life.

ZW: I work with corporate clients and non-profit organizations on how the applied skills of improvisation and comedy can be used for active listening, creativity in business, effective leadership, sales, and relationship building. Just in the last year YesAndLife has customized programs to teach teamwork, collaboration, overcome negativity and conflict resolution. Over 20 years since my initial pursuit of comedy just for laughs (which most students secretly want even when they won’t admit it, Read: the endorphin release knowing you were responsible for making someone laugh will always be the best drug) has transformed for me personally into a healthy obsession with compassion, empathy, and a continuing study of interpersonal dynamics.

TAC: The press release for the NCCAF announces that you will be donating some of the proceeds from this year’s festival to the NAACP and to Planned Parenthood. I suppose that speaks to our current political environment. As you put it, “Laughter may be the best (only) medicine we have over the next four years.” Can you discuss the relationship between the political arena and the stage? What does laughter do for us in times like these?

ZW: I’ve regularly posted the hashtag #laughtokeepfromcrying since we sat in the theater on November 8 and watched the (very UNfunny) election results roll in. I stand by comedy as a tool for self-care (#laughmore), as a way to break tension and lighten the emotional weight of communication, especially for the conversations we seem to be having daily in our current political environment. Modern improvisation was actually founded in the 60s by and alongside artists who were exploring comedy, improvised works and satirical sketch comedy, to push for social change. Satire then and now has the opportunity to passively educate an audience and highlight absurdity through entertainment. Laughter is the best medicine, this we know. With the repeal of the ACA it may soon be the only medicine my friends can afford. I always want to make sure we are able to help people laugh in the moment, but right now it was also important for me that we give to Planned Parenthood and the NAACP, orgs who will be actively helping people fight for basic human rights over the next 4 years.

The NCCAF takes place February 15th – 26th.  For a full schedule and to purchase tickets, visit