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LaughFest 2021

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2021 LaughFest logo featuring the signature smile on a mask.

By Breegan Petruska and Annah Johnson

LaughFest 2021 is right around the corner. While this year’s festival has been shortened from 10 to four days, it is running from Thursday, March 11 through Sunday, March 14. 

LaughFest was first launched in 2011 by Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, a community that provides free emotional healthcare to children, adults, families, and friends affected by cancer. From humble beginnings, it quickly gained nationwide popularity bringing in 50,000 attendees a year, the charitable event has raised around $2 million for Gilda’s Club throughout the last 11 years. LaughFest has traditionally been an in-person, 10-day festival, but, like many other events this year, it has been altered to be COVID-19 friendly. The goal of the festival is to raise at least $10,000, encouraging community members to remember to donate what they can – even if it is only $5.

“This is our 11th festival, but in some ways, it feels like our first,” President of Gilda’s Club and LaughFest Wendy Wigger said. “College students from Grand Valley and GRCC have always helped in the execution, along with so many volunteers, but because the event is virtual, we don’t have all of those same opportunities.”

Joanne Roehm, the Director of Strategic Initiatives & LaughFest, shed some light on how the organization of this year’s festival has evolved. 

“It is incredibly different. We are still working remotely, talent agencies and live events are just barely in the early stages of reopening, and of course, the festival is virtual,” Roehm stated in an email to the Collegiate. “Gilda’s Club programming for our members remains virtual and the impact on non-profit organizations during the pandemic is significant. We are constantly re-tooling our ‘normal’ programming and events and doing everything that we can to support our members in non-traditional ways. It’s challenging!”

This year’s festival has 30 virtual shows and workshops, showcasing 100 artists, the majority of which are Michigan locals. The only event that is in person is the Seriously Funny Family Adventure Challenge, where teams race through downtown areas of Grand Rapids participating in challenges and brainteasers. Non-premium events are free to register online operating on a donation-only basis.

Six premium artists will be featured, including Michelle Wolf, Ron Funches, Tom Papa, Justin Willman, Bunny Bunny, and 3 Mics & a Movie in partnership with The Comedy Project. To access all six of the premium shows is just $40. One ticket gives access to all six shows to watch live from home. 

“We’re glad that we’re able to deliver LaughFest at all, in 2021,” Roehm stated. “In the smaller format, our goal is to retain the spirit and community impact of the festival while keeping it manageable in size and scope, ensuring continued net proceeds for our critical Gilda’s Club program and providing a unique celebration of Gilda’s Clubs 20th year of operations in 2021.”

The festival provides an emphasis on laughter, as opposed to comedy, with the unique juxtaposition of raising money for individuals and families of those who are sick, grieving, and terminally ill. In a time where the entire world is facing sickness, grief, and death, LaughFest has only become more necessary. 

“We very purposefully wanted to create a laughter festival, not a comedy festival,” Wigger said, reflecting on the core focus of the event. “There is that serious element to it, which we cover in the Laughter RX Symposium. We have all been sitting in anticipatory grief, not knowing when COVID will end. Laughter is an emotional release, and I think everyone is in need of that, especially now.”