WHEN MARILYN RAICHLE first mentioned her dream of producing a festival of comedy in Seattle someday, friends told her to forget it. "Not in this city," they told her. "Way too PC."
Well, maybe so. But on April 19, Foolproof, the first annual Northwest Comedy Festival, kicks off with a gala Children's Hospital benefit, hosted by Steve Allen, that opens a week of events dedicated to the proposition that laughter is the best medicine. The medicine will be provided by a diverse array of talents including king of stand-up Bob Newhart, journalist-satirist Molly Ivins, Lauren Weedman and her one-woman stock company of Southern female archetypes, and Rick Miller's MacHomer, an adaptation of Macbeth as performed by the Simpsons. Apart from the gift of laughter, what connects such assorted performers and others such as LA's stand-up single mom Paula Poundstone, NPR essayist David Sedaris, Native American poet-screenwriter Sherman Alexie, Latina firebrand Marga Gomez, and monologist/movie star Tommy Davidson? The thread's not that easy to spot until you've spent some time watching what passes for comedy on the typical network sitcom, or visited an open-mike night at your local comedy club. The difference is one of attitude. Among the players Raichle and her team have assembled, none thinks that comedy is just a matter of extracting laughs by any means. For them, comedy is about something: about the way we live now, God help us, and the best chance we have to survive it.
You'd think everybody at this burnt-down fag-end of a century would appreciate such a broad-spectrum prescription for healing. But getting Foolproof up and running has proved the greatest challenge of Raichle's quarter-century in the producing game. It turns out that for a lot of people, comedy is no laughing matter.
"A lot of the problem is political correctness," Raichle says. "When I went to talk to potential sponsors [Foolproof is a nonprofit venture], I became aware of how worried many people in business are about giving offense. But there's more to it than that. Comedy, any kind of comedy, is perceived by many people as somehow threatening, and at first I found it very difficult to understand that. But then I read newspaper articles about businesspeople in Thailand and Japan and India going to laughing clubs to reduce stress, and I began to get a clue.
"Then just a month or so ago I met a woman who was on her way to a class in comedy. And I realized that we have gotten to the point in this country where the pressures on us are so great that we've built watertight compartments to protect the various aspects of our lives: Work in one, family in another, romance in another, and so on. Well, if that's the case, no wonder comedy is threatening. It's the essence of comedy to break down barriers."
Raichle's approach to overcoming fear of funny is direct counterattack. "I tell people about all the research that's shown that laughter is therapeutic, not threatening. That's the whole basis of the work of the Clown Care Unit, whom we're showcasing during the festival for their work at Children's Hospital. They go in to remind seriously sick kids that life goes on even in the hospital. And that's not just sentimental; it's been shown that when you laugh—even when you just expect to laugh—your T-cell count goes up. Humor is healing."
Raichle has good reason for her confidence. Although she's been passionately devoted to the arts of comedy throughout her career—as an intern in producer David Merrick's office in the glorious Hello, Dolly! days, as producer of the Bathhouse Theater and Tacoma Actors Guild's goofy Ming trilogy, as founder and booker of Seattle Center's International Children's Festival—the subject took on personal importance several years ago when she was suddenly confronted by life-threatening illness. At that point she decided to strike out on her own and create a carnival of laughter.
FOOLPROOF IS VERY MUCH a family enterprise. To help her with promotion and fund raising, Raichle turned to Kris Easterday, with whom she first worked developing sponsorships for Children's Festival events back in 1990. Her association with artist John Engerman goes back even farther: With Phil Shallat, Engerman was co-author and composer of The Ming Cycle, a musical space opera inspired in equal parts by Richard Wagner's Ring and old Flash Gordon serials. With Spark Advertising partner Terry Short, Engerman created the Foolproof Festival's stylish ad campaign, as well as the inspired notion of adopting a laughing version of the tormented androgynous figure in Edvard Munch's The Scream as the festival's logo.
From her years running the Children's Festival, Raichle was familiar with a worldwide variety of comic performers, and she did her homework on some of the more homegrown varieties by attending other festivals, such as Montreal's Just for Laughs and the US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. But recognizing that stand-up comedy is a world with rules of its own, she recruited Ron Reid of the Seattle's Comedy Underground to help with selecting and contacting some of the first string of local comics to take part in the festival, and a group of "heirs of Lenny Bruce" for a late-night program for the not-faint-of-heart.
Foolproof events will take place in a broad range of venues, from Seattle Landmark Association's Paramount (in both standard and ballroom configurations), both auditoria in the Seattle Symphony's Benaroya Hall, Seattle Center's Bagley Wright Theater, and both the Comedy Underground and Market Theater.
Although Foolproof is very much a home-grown affair, it has benefited from enthusiastic support from two big national players: Time-Warner's Comedy Central and TCI Cable. "They really got the idea and got behind it 100 percent," says Raichle. "Without their support we could never have put the festival together."
With 700,000 flyers distributed as a stuffer in TCI's March bill and a mailing of 100,000 brochures, first weekend ticket sales for the fledgling event were hearteningly brisk. And despite initial caution from local corporations about sponsoring something as risky as comedy, there are signs that some local heavy hitters will be lining up to underwrite events in the second edition of Foolproof a year from now.
As far as Raichle is concerned, the most heartening omen so far came just last week, "when I was trying to get a permit for something or other from the city licensing department, and the lady I was talking to wasn't sure I qualified. We chatted for a while about what a good way laughter is of breaking down barriers and realizing our common humanity, and I actually ended up making her laugh. A couple of hours later she called back and said, 'You know, you're absolutely right about laughter. Ever since we talked I've been feeling just great!' Isn't that terrific? Plus I got my license!"