February 27, 2014 at 1:00 am

Gilda's LaughFest will have Grand Rapids in stitches

Mike Birbiglia performs March 9 at DeVos Performance Hall. (Kyle Ericksen)

If laughter is the best medicine, consider Gilda’s LaughFest — with headliners like Jay Leno, Chris Tucker, Lily Tomlin, Jim Gaffigan, Sinbad and Mike Birbiglia — a cure for whatever ails you.

Now in its fourth year, the Grand Rapids-area festival is 10 days of comedy in all of its stripes, from family-friendly to raw and raunchy. All proceeds benefit the programs offered through Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, one of the largest of the organization’s 52 branches in North America.

It’s not just stand-up, either — LaughFest is made up of more than 200 events that feature improv, sketch, music, theater and dance, plus off-the-wall activities you wouldn’t consider part of a comedy festival, like pingpong, yoga and art. A featured event is the “Funderwear Run” on March 9, where folks are encouraged to run 5K in their skivvies.

“When we came up with the idea to do this 10-day festival, it really wasn’t a festival about comedy, it was a festival about laughter,” says Wendy Wigger, president of Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids and Gilda’s LaughFest. “Our namesake Gilda Radner had to find her smile and her laughter back when she was on her cancer journey, and she was very inspirational to us.”

Detroit native Radner, an Emmy Award-winning member of the original cast of “Saturday Night Live,” died of ovarian cancer in 1989.

Wigger, who estimates more than 53,000 people attend the event each year, said she wanted the festival to include “anything that was seriously funny and would make you smile or laugh.”

“We wanted to create additional dialogue around the importance of emotional health, and one of the important emotions is laughter. We want to give people a community experience.”

New York-based comic Mike Birbiglia agrees laughing and comedy are a type of therapy.

“At the heart of the best comedy is pain and struggle,” says the stand-up comedian, who appears on March 9 at DeVos Performance Hall. “I have a story about how I had a tumor in my bladder and they caught it early and took it out. I was very lucky. ... It’s one of the funniest bits I’ve ever written.

“There’s nothing funny about getting hit by a drunk driver and then being made to pay for the drunk driver’s car,” says Birbiglia, recalling a real event that happened to him in 2008. “But over time, and over trying new lines and experimenting with different angles and different points of view on what happened and making analogies for what happened and bringing people into your shoes ... if you can make that funny, then you win.”

Birbiglia performed at the inaugural LaughFest in 2011, and his tours regularly hit Michigan (he was at the Royal Oak Music Theater last month). He calls Gilda’s LaughFest “impressive.”

“What’s amazing is how big it has gotten, so fast,” he says. “It’s become one of the best comedy line-ups of comedy festivals in the world in like three or four years. It’s exciting.”

While there are plenty of big-name acts, amateur comedians had a chance earlier this year to sign up for community showcases, which are peppered throughout the festival. There’s also the “Best of the Midwest” comedy competition showcases (many are already sold out), where comics jockey for a $2,500 prize and the title of “2014 Gilda’s LaughFest Best of the Midwest Comedian.”

A popular family-friendly aspect of LaughFest are the free Kids Joke Nights. Kids fifth grade and younger can sign up to tell their favorite jokes at area libraries.

Many events are completely free to attend. LaughFest offers a “fast pass” which allows guaranteed entry at free events.

Gilda's LaughFest

March 6-10

Various Venues in Grand Rapids, Holland and Lowell

Tickets, info, merchandise and more can be found at

LaughFest Central, 101 Monroe Center, Grand Rapids

(616) 745-HAHA


Highlighted events

Jim Gaffigan, GRCC Ford Fieldhouse,

8 p.m. March 7, $47.50-$57.50

Judah Friedlander, McFadden’s 3rd Floor,

9 and 11 p.m. March 7, sold out

Mike Birbiglia, DeVos Performance Hall,

7 p.m. March 9, $37.50

Maria Bamford, Wealthy Theatre,

8 and 10 p.m.. March 8, $25 (8 p.m. show sold out)

Lily Tomlin, DeVos Performance Hall, 7:30 p.m.

March 10, $45-$60

Signature fundraising event with Jay Leno,

cocktails and dinner, DeVos Place,

5:30 p.m. March 12, $250

Chris Tucker, GRCC Ford Fieldhouse,

8 p.m. March 14, $37.50-$57.50

Sinbad, Fountain Street Church,

4:30 p.m. March 16, $32.50-$39.50


Jay Leno will perform at the main fundraising event March 12. (Mitchell Haaseth / NBC Universal)
Chris Tucker will perform March 14 at GRCC Ford Fieldhouse. (Gilda's LaughFest)
Jim Gaffigan will perform March 7 at GRCC Ford Fieldhouse. (Stephen Lovekin / Getty Images)
Maria Bamford will perform March 8 at Wealthy Theatre. (Susan Maljan)