Among the many things that Atlanta is known for—business, hospitality, music, film—its thriving local comedy scene may be among the most underrated. Our city has helped launch the likes of Chris Tucker, Ed Helms, Tyler Perry, and Donald Glover.
Of course, to prove themselves, comedians need a stage. And, fortunately, we have a handful of mics and venues where comics—both legends and aspiring professionals—hone their craft regularly.
Midtown’s Laughing Skull Lounge, located in the back of the Vortex restaurant, is arguably the most iconic. Within the last year alone, Tucker, Dave Chappelle, and Tiffany Haddish have all dropped by to do surprise sets. And this year is particularly special, as it marks the tenth anniversary of the club’s annual comedy festival, held May 9-12 at various venues in Atlanta.
“We started Laughing Skull Comedy Festival for two things,” says Marshall Chiles, the lounge’s owner and founder. “One is that I wanted to help build the Laughing Skull brand in Atlanta—for comedy fans—but I also wanted it to be beneficial for the comedians that are in it. The goal is to get work for as many comedians as possible,” adds Chiles, who is no stranger to open mics himself.
For this year’s “Skull Fest,” a record 1,000 comedians (myself included, though unfortunately I didn’t make the cut) applied for a spot, which guarantees at least five shows in front of audiences that include industry bookers, agents, and managers. It’s not uncommon for a featured comedian to gain representation.
Only 60 comedians were selected, and, while cuts are always hard, this year’s class was particularly controversial. When the lineup was released in March, fans were quick to point out that it included no African-American females. Organizers apologized quickly and scheduled a virtual town hall meeting to discuss concerns with the community. Eventually, the lounge promised to launch an outreach policy (31 black women applied this year), to work on diversifying its judges and administrative positions, and to add panels addressing inclusivity. Chiles also invited the four highest-scoring black female comedians to perform at each of the Industry Showcases, the festival’s marquee events. About the controversy, Chiles now says, “I’m actually glad that it happened because it’s going to make the festival better, as well as just the club itself.”
Past performers at Skull Fest have included Sam Morill, who opened for Aziz Ansari at the Fox Theatre in April; Mandal, a mainstay in the Atlanta comedy scene; and Rocky Dale Davis, who stars in Dating: Unfiltered on E! Mandal’s appearance in 2018’s Industry Showcase earned him representation, which has enabled him to do conferences and college shows. “Working with the festival definitely pushed me to another level, and I think it has done that for other comedians in this city,” Mandal said. “The most valuable lesson I’ve learned is remember to have fun. It’s a fun time and valuable opportunity. Of course, you’re there to try to have good shows, but also there are awesome crowds there too that are ready to laugh.”
If you go: The Laughing Skull Comedy Festival takes place May 9-12 at nine venues. Pro tip: The evening Industry Showcases offer the best opportunities to see future stars of comedy before they make it big. You can get tickets here.