Some Bentzen Balls been more focused on stand-up; others improv. There’s been podcast recordings, film screenings, musical performances and an evening with “This American Life” host Ira Glass. One year had a Halloween theme; another leaned political. Last year, “Queer Eye’s” Jonathan Van Ness interviewed Nancy Pelosi days before the midterm elections.
“It’s such a nice feeling,” Notaro says. “There’s no hard, fast rules, right? We just want to have a ball.”
When Notaro and BYT started the festival 10 years ago, Notaro was still a semi-obscure comic with a Rolodex of famous (and on-the-verge) comedy friends. The Bentzen Ball would go on hiatus after that first year until 2013. When it returned, Notaro, 48, had become a household name thanks to her masterful and deeply personal “Live” album, recorded days after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In the years since, the Bentzen Ball has remained an annual affair and Notaro’s star has continued to rise.
“She’s always been someone who wants to share comedians she loves with bigger audiences, and there’s an understated quality to her generosity,” frequent festival performer Aparna Nancherla says of Notaro. “She’s a genuine lover of comedy in all its forms.”
In honor of the 10th anniversary of the festival’s founding — which runs through Sunday — Notaro will host her live talk show, “But Enough About You,” and emcee a homecoming comedy show featuring eight comics with ties to the region. That showcase takes place on the Bentzen Ball’s biggest stage: Congress Heights’s Entertainment and Sports Arena, where the Mystics just claimed their first WNBA title. Here’s a primer on each of the hometown humorists set for Saturday’s show.
According to BYT’s Svetlana Legetic, Aparna Nancherla has performed at more Bentzen Balls than anyone not named Tig Notaro. “I think the first festival was a starry-eyed, surreal affair for me,” Nancherla says. “Getting to be a part of a festival that was ultimately such a friendly, cozy affair really undid my young comedian heart.” Nancherla, who grew up in Alexandria, was also the first comedian to put out an album on Notaro’s Bentzen Ball Records (2016’s “Just Putting It Out There”). “She’s really got her own way of thinking,” Notaro says. “It just kind of takes your breath away. And it makes you laugh.” After coming up in the D.C. comedy scene in the ’00s, Nancherla, 37, moved to New York and has gone on to acting and voice-over roles, notably on Comedy Central’s “Corporate” and Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman.”
Former “Saturday Night Live” star and master impressionist Jay Pharoah will make his Bentzen Ball debut. A native of Chesapeake, Va., Pharoah, 32, is more loosely connected to the D.C. comedy scene but the area had a significant impact on him — beyond his impression of President Barack Obama. “D.C. made me a better comedian,” Pharoah says, referencing his early days opening a show here for Charlie Murphy. “It was the first time I bombed on the road, but after I left, I became a stronger comedian.” Pharoah, who has had a number of acting roles since leaving SNL in 2016, is still doing impressions but his current stand-up is trending more personal. “A comedian friend of mine and many other people have said this set feels like me and not just me telling jokes,” he says. “I live in them because they’ve actually happened and it’s so much better.”
“He’s just nonsense — and insanity,” Notaro says of Rory Scovel, who’s from South Carolina but moved to D.C. in 2004 to pursue comedy. Scovel, who co-starred opposite Amy Schumer in last year’s “I Feel Pretty,” has a habit of walking onstage as a character — using a Southern accent, or a German one — before dropping it mid-joke. Washington, Scovel says, was a good place to foster that kind of silly spontaneity. “I wasn’t ready for a city like New York or [Los Angeles],” he says. “Those places would have eaten me alive.” At the first Bentzen Ball, Scovel, 39, performed an in-the-round set that he still thinks of fondly. “It helped me really dive into developing a more confident stage presence,” Scovel says. He’s working on a follow-up to his 2017 Netflix special “Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up for the First Time” and has shot a Comedy Central series, “Robbie,” for next year.
Former “30 Rock” star (and noted wearer of trucker hats) Judah Friedlander had already left Gaithersburg for New York when he decided to pursue stand-up, yet the first time he got onstage, at 19, was during a trip home at a since-shuttered D.C. comedy club. These days, he’s a near-annual fixture at DC Improv and will make his Bentzen Ball debut on Saturday. For many years, Friedlander, 50, adopted the self-centered, narcissistic persona of the “World Champion” — a man who was the best at everything, particularly karate — but he’s since shifted his focus to America as a whole. “I satirize America’s response to all the big human rights issues that we deal with,” Friedlander says of his new material, which builds on his 2017 Netflix special “America Is the Greatest Country in the United States.” “At the height of it is American exceptionalism. This idea that America think it’s number one.”
“We could probably leave the festival to him in my will,” Notaro says of frequent Bentzen performer Seaton Smith. He started performing here in 2003, around the same time as Scovel, while attending Howard University. The California native wound up leaving D.C. for New York and a starring role in John Mulaney’s short-lived Fox sitcom “Mulaney,” but he still thinks of D.C. as his comedy home and recorded his first special, “Bologna Meat,” at DC Improv in 2015. The high-energy comic dropped his latest record, “Greatest Album of the Year,” in April and it begins with a bit about why he loves Washington. The Bentzen Ball “is an excuse to come home, it’s an excuse to party with BYT,” Smith, 37, says. He’s also excited to reunite with so many comedians he came up with. “I thoroughly respect them and admire all of them,” Smith says. “To be on the same show as them is an honor.”
Maryland native Yamaneika Saunders is the only comedian on the homecoming show who avoids performing in the area. It’s not because she doesn’t like coming home, or has a problem with D.C. crowds — she just doesn’t want her family members to hit her up for free tickets. “I don’t even tell them when I’m in the area,” says Saunders, who grew up in Aberdeen. “If my family could pack up as a unit and move somewhere else, I’ll be in the DMV all the time.” It’s no surprise, then, that this will be the New York-based stand-up’s first Bentzen Ball. In June, Saunders, 40, released her debut album, “Damsel In Distress,” which includes a bit about her dreaming about being kidnapped, like in the “Taken” movies. Saunders is working on her next tour, as well as an animated series, and can be seen on the truTV series “Laff Mobb’s Laff Tracks,” in which actors help reenact jokes.
is the first to admit that she doesn’t seem like someone who does stand-up, and if you search for clips of her doing it online, you’ll probaby come up empty. But the Rockville-born actress, who grew up in Georgia, has been doing stand-up for most of her life and recently dove back into performing in Los Angeles after a break. “Hopefully, there’s jokes in there that people can relate to,” says Lawless, who does a voice on Netflix’s “Big Mouth” and stars on truTV’s “At Home with Amy Sedaris.” “It’s like a stream of consciousness in regards to my inner dialogue with myself.” Notaro, who has known Lawless for 20 years and asked her to perform at the 2013 comeback Bentzen Ball, puts it a different way. “If people think I’m low key, they haven’t seen anything until they’ve seen Heather’s slow chug of impossible-to-track comedy,” Notaro says.
For two-time festival performer Jermaine Fowler, it’s not D.C. that helped make him the comedian he is, “it’s the people,” he says, including Smith, Nancherla and Scovel. “Aparna and Seaton used to give me rides home to West Hyattsville,” Fowler says, “and I lived in a very sketchy neighborhood.” Like Smith, Fowler recorded his first comedy album, “Give ’Em Hell Kid,” at DC Improv in 2014, which was filmed for a special that aired on Showtime and was structured like a coming-of-age story. In the time since, Fowler, 31, became a father and lost his mother, who died two years ago. “I’ve become a little more mature, and a little more honest with myself,” he says. “I’ve always wanted my comedy to reflect all those things.” After two seasons on the CBS sitcom “Superior Donuts,” Fowler is set to star opposite Eddie Murphy in the sequel to “Coming to America.” “My mom would be very proud,” he says.
D.C. Comedy Homecoming
Saturday at 8:30 p.m. at Entertainment and Sports Arena, 1100 Oak St. SE.
The Bentzen Ball festival runs through Sunday at venues throughout the District. Notaro’s “But Enough About You — A Talk Show” will take place Saturday at 6 p.m. at Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. $40.