Cinder Block Festival comics recall their lowest moments in life, and how they bounced back

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A cinder block turned out to be pretty symbolic for the festival’s founder.

There are plenty of reputable comedy festivals out there, but a scant few that can boast a progressive political agenda alongside the laughs. The inaugural Cinder Block Comedy Festival, which kicks off tomorrow in Williamsburg and runs through this weekend, was explicit throughout its submission process about prioritizing comedians who didn’t fall into the SWM category. As a result, the roster features an excitingly diverse array of performers — not only in gender, race and sexual orientation, but also in style. There’s sketch, standup, improv, musical comedy and everything in between.

The festival’s name was inspired by founder Coree Spencer‘s own experience getting hit by a cinder block on the Pulaski Bridge (shrapnel, not drive-by). Weeks after she’d finally recovered, gotten back to her life and nailed a job interview, Spencer spotted that very same cinder block on the bridge, and brought it home to live with her as an ongoing reminder of “a time when you are down,” and that “if you keep kicking ass and stay positive, you’ll never be out. Which is also the nature of comedy.”

It’s especially the nature of being anything other than a straight white dude in comedy. So we asked some of the festival’s comedians to recall their own personal “cinder block” stories, and how they bounced back to become the ambitious rising faces of New York’s comedy scene and beyond: 

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Joanna Briley is MT-Acing it these days. via Twitter

Joanna Briley
Shows:
Thursday Sept. 15, 8:30pm-10pm — Laff Tracks Comedy Showcase at The Experiment Comedy Gallery (272 Grand St.)
Sunday Sept. 18, 7pm-8:30pm — The Icons of Comedy at Muchmore’s (2 Havemeyer St.)

“I’ve been in standup comedy over 15 years. I’ve also worked for the MTA as a token booth clerk for 25 years and when I decided to merge the two into a showcase, I had opposition. I asked a few people for help and when that vulnerability didn’t pay off, I just dug in and kept pushing and got the show. It’s called Laff Tracks Comedy Showcase at The Brooklyn House of Comedy (211 Putnam Ave.) in Bed-Stuy.

“I was offered the comedy manager position [there] in April of 2016. Soon, other people wanted to work with me. I knew I had something great and I’m so glad I followed my heart and stayed focus on what I wanted to bring to the audience. I love to laugh just like the next person. I created a platform (pardon the pun) to do what I love while working as a New York City Transit employee. Swipe this, you naysayers!”

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Matt Smith is sober, happy and hilarious.

Matt Smith
Shows:
Thursday Sept. 15, 8:30pm-10pm — Laff Tracks Comedy Showcase at The Experiment Comedy Gallery
Friday Sept. 16, 10:15pm-11:45pm — Dudes Being Dudes Being Dudes at Over the Eight (594 Union Ave.) 
Sun Sept. 18, 6:30pm-7:30pm Broad Shoulders at The Experiment Comedy Gallery

“I was an alcoholic for a very long time, during which I started doing stand-up. I loved it, but it made me so anxious. I’d drink a lot the night before a show, then spend the next day trying to recover. It made me anxious and miserable. But I couldn’t stop trying.

“Then I got sober.  It was the bravest thing I’ve done. I had my first solo show scheduled a month into sobriety; it was the first time I’d be performing without alcohol. I didn’t think I could do it. But then I said, ‘You’ve stayed away from so many things because you’re scared or drunk or both. You got this! It might be scary, but I assure you you’ll survive.’ I did the show, and survived, and it was awesome. It led me to create more of my own work, which now includes Time Out NY Critic’s pick ‘A Friend of Dorothy Zbornak,’ the sold-out ‘Broad Shoulders’ at The Duplex, ‘Go Ricki’ at QED Astoria, and the upcoming ‘Who Gets To Throw The Bouquet?’ at Solocom in November. I have a lot more time to write now that I’m not always passing out and peeing myself.”

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Kelli reads from her own book. Take that, hatahs!

Kelli reads from her own book, “Freak of Nurture.”

Kelli Dunham
Shows:
Thursday Sept. 15, 8pm-9pm — Off-Theme Storytelling @ Annoyance School (41 Broadway, 1st Fl.)
Sat 9/17 8:30pm-10pm — Right NOW! With Carolyn Castiglia at Over the Eight
Sun 9/18 7pm-8:30pm — The Icons Of Comedy @ Muchmore’s

“When I was just a year into comedy, I was convinced that the only way to have a career was to keep hitting the mainstream open mics. No matter how shitty and gross and rapey they were. I used to start my set with ‘I need you to do me a favor and ignore all physical cues and believe me when I say I am an adult female and not a 12-year-old boy.’

“At one open mic in a run down hotel in northeast Philly, a drunk comic yelled in response ‘You’re not a 12-year-old boy, you’re a big fat ugly dyke!’ and before my brain could fully consider the ramifications, I responded, ‘You’re just sad I’m not a 12-year-old boy. You and the Catholic priests both.’

“After the show, the comic chased me around the parking lot, screaming and brandishing a broken beer bottle. I decided there had to be a different scene and offered myself as the comic for any queer, weird, alternative scene thing happening. Not everyone wants to be the comic emceeing from a skateboard ramp at a kinky nerd polyamory conference, but for me it’s heaven.”

The Cinder Block Comedy Festival kicks off tomorrow night (Thursday) with a party at Muchmore’s at 7pm. All shows $15, full weekend passes $70. Check out the website for schedule, tickets and more.