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When you think of West Virginia, many things come to mind. But comedy is probably not the first or even second on the list.
Cody Cannon is a Morgantown comedian. He works in the restaurant industry by day, but he’s passionate about what he does. He’s also passionate about where he does it.
“I want comedians to want to come to West Virginia, I want there to be more exciting things happening in West Virginia and I like festivals,” Cannon said. “To create one of my own is kind of like a dream come true almost.”
But that dream was almost never realized, said Noah Basden, another Morgantown comedian.
“This festival was scheduled for 2020 like right before COVID really popped off. It was like it was go time,“ he said.
Alas, a festival in mid-April of 2020 was just one of countless live performances that were hastily canceled as the world adjusted to the emergent coronavirus pandemic. While in-person events have started to recover over the past year, nascent comedy communities across West Virginia definitely took a hit.
“There aren’t as many people, which is a bummer. I really want to see more people coming out to the scene,” Cannon said. “It’s just not the humongous diverse crowds we’re getting right before the pandemic. Now we’re starting to slowly build up steam.”
That steam is culminating with a festival. On March 31, the Red Eye Comedy Festival will bring three days of laughs to Morgantown.
“Red Eye Comedy Festival is a combination of local artists, musical and comedic, and also national acts.Three days, three different venues, three different shows,” Basden said.
Basden spent years working as a comedian in Chicago before moving back to Morgantown. There, he hosted shows in his house under the moniker of “The Potion Castle.”
A festival is certainly a step up from “Do it Yourself” house shows, or even the popular open mics in downtown Morgantown that Basden helped create.
Cannon has been plugging away to create an environment for comedy in Morgantown, too. He’s attracted national names like Myq Kaplan and Joyelle Nicole Johnson to do shows there, often their first time performing anywhere in West Virginia.
For the festival, he has helped to attract touring headliners Aminah Imani and Dave Ross.
Ross will headline Friday’s show, alongside the folks of the satire website “The Hard Times.” Ross came up in the punk and alternative scenes that the site lampoons, with the same kind of DIY ethos that comedy in West Virginia requires.
“I’m really excited to go to West Virginia,” Ross said. “It’s impressive to build a comedy scene from nothing. And that’s a big reason I feel privileged to be booked on this festival. And to be thought of, and why I’m so excited to do it.”
While touring comedians might be a major draw, the upcoming festival aims to highlight local talent. The festival is packed with mostly West Virginia comics, and not just Morgantown’s deep pool of standups. One such comic is Alexandria Runyon of Huntington.
“It’s really exciting for my first participation in a festival to be a West Virginia festival, you know, that was put together by West Virginians,” she said.
Runyon, who works part time as a producer for WVPB’s Inside Appalachia, has been part of Huntington’s comedy scene since she was in college. She sees the festival as a step in the right direction for a region ready for a new way to tell its stories.
“I hope that the future of comedy in the state is just abundant,” Runyon said. “I know that there are so many people here in West Virginia who are storytellers. And I think oral storytelling is a trademark of Appalachian people. And I think comedy is just a very natural way to present those stories.“
That’s a sentiment Cannon can get behind, and drives his desire to see this festival and others like it succeed.
“I want this state to do well. It breeds incredible artists, constantly popping up with incredible talent. And one thing I’d like this thing to do, I only want it to grow,” he said.
Whether the festival will be a success and have a chance to grow remains to be seen later this month, but those involved are giving it their all to ensure some laughs after a difficult few years.