Coree Spencer defied the odds of putting on a comedy festival

Chad White

Festivals are very hard to create. From planning to execution, there’s no telling what could go down in terms of obstacles. The entire staff could catch a flu-like disease. People on the internet could talk horribly about the event for no particular reason. The organizer has to pony up for certain things and be in charge (for once) while remaining sober during work hours.

All of these things happened to Coree Spencer as she tried to throw the first ever Cinder Block Comedy Festival. And she was successful. Hundreds of comedians applied, over a hundred performed and had fun as did the audience. I recently had a chance to catch up with Spencer as she was coming down from the emotional roller coaster that is putting on a festival.

What’s it feel like now that [The Cinder Block Comedy Festival] is over?

Coree Spencer: I don’t know what to do with myself honestly. [laughs] I guess I go back to standup.

What have you been doing to come down from that high?

Spencer: Sleep. And it’s also very, very sobering to go back to your day job. So there’s that. Which I did today. I went back to work. It sucked. It definitely sucked.

How long had you been off?

Spencer: I didn’t work last week and then the week before, I probably worked 12 hours. I thought it would just be wise to take time off in the final weeks [of the festival]. I was right because there was always these last minute things that would happen. It was so crazy because I made so many damn spreadsheets and then, while I was walking around going from show to show just to make sure everybody had what they need and everything was going smoothly, somebody got sick. A lot of our crew got sick. We called it the Cinder-flu. Our volunteers were calling out sick and then they’d come back the next day like “I’m so sorry.” We’re like “It’s fine. We’re all sick. We’re just trying our best.” All the pre-work – you had to change, you had to adjust right on the spot. It was really exciting. It was definitely a high. I can’t wait to do this again.

It sounds like it was the most stressful vacation from a real day job ever. You essentially had no time off because you were running this empire for a week to a few months straight.

Spencer: I’ve been working on Cinder Block since September 15th of last year. I’ve given myself a quality year to plan it. I was actually told that I should treat it like a wedding. Most people when they’re going to get married start planning about a year in advance. It’s kind of average. I actually signed up for The Knot. It’s a wedding website. And me and my cat have a wedding date. I set it for this weekend. They send you updates. “By now, you should have this taken care of. You should have this book.” Everything was actually very similar to a comedy show. You’re booking your band. You’re making sure that they’re [taken care of]. I was able to take this pretend wedding with my cat and use it as a way to track how quickly and when things should be done. Which is kind of silly when you say it out loud. [laughs].

Did you get a chance to perform at the festival yourself?

I did. It was insane. I didn’t book myself originally. My friends were yelling at me “This is the time to do it!” But at the time I hadn’t done standup in months. I was like “I don’t belong in this festival. I’m not good enough to be in this festival” [laughs]. I scheduled myself one regular set on a Saturday. And then I did one fun set on a Sunday with a show called Late Late Breakfast. They throw challenges at you. I had to act out the Seven Deadly Sins in my set. One of them was gluttony and they handed me this chocolate pudding that I smeared on my face. That was my other set. I also ran my show I used to have at the Creaky Cave; it’s a live stage reading of Saved By The Bell. That was a really fun free show that we got to do. That’s all I really committed to because I was like “There’s no way I can do all this.”

I saw that you tweeted a link to your Facebook status. You have this long, exhaustive post in regards to the Cinder Block Festival. Do you want to speak on that a little bit? It seemed like people were looking down on it; people weren’t expecting much from it. To me, it seems that the entire festival came off without a hitch. It seems that it went pretty well even though people got sick and everything.

Spencer: Yeah there were a couple of hiccups. I’m not going to lie. There’s always going to be. We’re comedians running something we’ve never ran before. We’ve only experienced it. All we can do is say “This is what I like and this is what I don’t like” and “How are we going to make that a reality?” Obviously, every festival is going to go through something like that with everything that’s challenging. Not many festivals have to also deal with crazy people who have nothing better to do than just troll people. That’s on them though. It was negative energy. At the same time, I felt like it only affected us for a small fraction of time. It definitely did impact – it definitely did depress me that people are spending their time basically shitting on something they don’t understand. I kept telling myself, especially in New York, no one knows my work ethic. I haven’t had a chance to prove it. I’ve done it on the west coast. I’ve done projects that were big in scale. And I’ve had crew helping me.

And they were successful…successful where they happened. You can plan something and plan something and plan something but if you don’t do it, it’s not a success. If you actually finish it, even if it sucks, it’s still a success. It makes you stuck with it. I’ve produced long form web series with a cast of forty and a crew of fifteen. I’ve done things like that. Nobody in comedy and standup knew I could do things like that. For me, it was “They can hate me if they want but I’m just going to put my head down and keep going.” I didn’t know what else to do. When there were a lot of articles written, it was [suddenly] now happening. If I backed down from any of the things I know are important, then no one is going to take me seriously. I’ve been doing comedy for sixteen years and the one thing I learned if you go all over the place, no one’s going to want to work with you. No one’s going to trust you. No one’s going to expect anything good from you. We just kept going. We didn’t know what else to do. We just kept going.

[both laugh]

Spencer: We got 420 submissions, which is hilarious if you’re a pothead (some of us are). But it was a lot to get through. We could’ve complained about going through so many videos. But those are all people that like us. Those are all people that had support for us. I remember there were some bad ones. I remember going through with the judges and having them say “Do I have to watch some of these all the way through?” And I’m like “Yes, you do. I require you to watch the whole video; at least the time [we promised]. These are the people that paid for this festival to happen.”

First year festivals don’t get a lot of sponsorship. We got some sponsors but nobody gave us money. We got products; we got goodies. That was great. But comics paid for this – including me. This came out of my pocket book. This came out of my organizer’s pocket book. Somebody supported us. You can’t turn back from that. You have to keep going because those are all people that believe in you. It’s $20 of believing. That’s a lot of money for a comic. We’re all broke! I don’t know anybody who has […] a spare hundred dollars for dinner. I know people who hustle. They do free shit and just want to get in there.

I read that you tweaked submission pricing to attract diverse comics who are used to being tokens. Is that true?

Spencer: Yes and no. It’s funny because no matter what I say in some of these interviews (not that you’re going to do this), the clickbait headline is that we charged straight white men more. Sure, that’s great for headlines but that’s not really what we did. We offered an early bird discount. If you signed up before open submissions, you got a discount of 77 cents on the dollar. That was open to minority, token type comics. People with disabilities, women, people of color. Basically anybody who would be peppered into a line up as an afterthought. As much as some bookers promise up and down that that’s not what they do, I don’t know what to tell you because it’s pretty consistent and pretty obvious. I met with a couple of festival directors in person and on the phone. They would all tell me that, as far as getting a variety of people, I was going to have problems with that. This was before I even thought about having a diverse festival. It was just looking into having a festival. [They said I was going to] have trouble especially getting women to apply because they just don’t.

I remember in interviews, they’d ask “Why don’t women apply?” I don’t fucking know! I don’t know why people do what they do. What I can tell you is if you’re not getting women or people of color applying to your festival, what the fuck are you doing? What are you doing? This is like The Secret. If you want these things to come to you, they will come to you. You have to welcome them. I know that sounds hokey but I welcome these people; I welcome these token comics. What wound up happening was when submissions actually opened, after the early bird discount was over, I thought we’d get that whole slew of straight white males and that was it. What really actually happened was we still continued to get mostly minority comics who were paying full price because the submissions price was $25 flat for everybody after a certain point. It became really abundantly clear that these people who were applying that it wasn’t about the discount. It wasn’t about that. It was about feeling welcome.

64% percent of our submissions were women. In our final line up, 86% were minority comics. We didn’t do a sign in for “Hey, what’s your thing?” This isn’t Trump’s America…yet. I didn’t need to know what their diverse thing was. I didn’t need to know why they are qualified. I just trusted that they need to know that they were [qualified]. I didn’t go back to them and say “Are you sure? Because you don’t seem gay.” It was not a requirement. That’s why my numbers are a little fuzzy on that because it wasn’t like we required them to check in with us about what their diversity was.

That’s pretty interesting because I’m doing a video about diversity in late night writer’s rooms, improv and podcasting. I found from the research that there’s 8 women of color out of a total of 155 writer’s in the late night arena. It’s just so weird to see so many older white men writing these shows as opposed to a younger, diverse generation that would be a better fit for them.

Spencer: Yeah and probably the audience too. What old people stay up until one o’clock to see late night shows? They stay up for the news and they go to bed. They’re old. Young people are home. We just got home from a late night or wherever and we turn on the TV just to decompress and there’s Conan. I want to know that I’m going to get those jokes. You can tell who’s writing what.

You’ve been hosting this festival but then you’ve also performed at other festivals. What’s the difference, besides the stress level, in hosting and performing?

Spencer: [laughs]

Is seeing the behind the scenes scary? Like you don’t want to do this again?

Spencer: I’m sorry. I’m not laughing at your question! Is there a difference. Yeah! The first comedy festival I did was Bridgetown. I was probably maybe two years in. I had no real reason to be there. I didn’t feel like I belonged there. It was overwhelming. It was scary. But it was also super fun. And that’s my first taste of “Holy crap, this could be really fun to be part of.” It makes you want to do more. Obviously, I drank like a fish at all those festivals. I’ve done SketchFest in San Francisco three times. I love to party and I love to have a good time. As soon as my set’s over, let’s go. It was a completely different environment this time around because I could barely eat. I was just on adrenaline the whole time. I would have people wanting to buy me a beer and I’d be like “Not until midnight. I can’t even think about drinking right now.” That’s ridiculous.

There wasn’t much of a party as far as I was concerned but my performers partied. They definitely partied and I’m glad because someone needed to. I didn’t have a lot of terrible stress during it because I did so much pre-work. After I realized that everything was running, I took a nice deep breath and took in a couple shows to. I got to see some standup while I was there. There’s always that fear that treating this as if I was going to get married, like earlier, they always say that if you’re planning a big party like this for yourself, you don’t even get to enjoy it. I wanted to make sure I enjoyed it and it was a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun and I was glad to know that I wasn’t the only one who had fun!

I’m glad you made it through. It sounded like the most stressful thing in the world. But now you get to do it all over again next year (hopefully)!

Spencer: There will definitely be a next year. I don’t know if you listen to this. There’s a podcast called The Art of Charm and they did an episode pretty recently and they were talking about creating an environment and a change. If you’re going to create a change, then nobody’s going to take a year’s worth of work seriously. That’s a fluke. First year festival doing well: that’s a fluke. [You have to do one] next year. You can’t just do one year and expect diversity in comedy is now fixed, because it’s not. I’m going to keep going. We’re going to keep going. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t. At the end of the festival Sunday night, some of us were kind of in a corner [talking about next year]. We were so tired but we were already planning next year when we could barely even talk. We’re happy. We’re really happy with the outcome.

Follow Coree Spencer on Twitter, like her on Facebook, and read more on the Cinder Block Comedy Festival here.