If comedy is indeed penicillin for the soul, then Santa Barbara’s collective psyche should be completely infection-free after next week, when more than 30 comics converge on various downtown stages to deliver seven nights of funny spread over 13 distinct performances. From the well-known Jay Mohr, Andrew Dice Clay, and Russell Peters of the international scene to emergent laugh provokers such as the music-making SuperNaked and Monique Marvez and Nadine Rajabi’s Hot Funny Femmes, there won’t be much excuse for frowning this Thursday and September 2-7. And if all goes well, the Laugh Out Loud (LOL) Comedy Festival could become yet another annual affair for our event-loving town.
LOL is the brainchild of Scott Montoya, whose accidental career in producing comedy shows started when the former graphic designer air-brushed a poster for the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s. That launched his own design business, where he became a link between two different types of clients: people promoting events and corporations that could sponsor them. When he got caught in the cross fire of a masquerade ball that was about to be cancelled, Montoya jumped in and threw the event himself. It was a great success. “I didn’t even really know what producing was,” recalled Montoya, “but that’s what I wanted to do.”
Among other successes, he helped start the San Jose Summer Fest, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, and put on a Paul Rodriguez performance at the city’s Civic Auditorium. Rodriguez then hired Montoya, so he “packed up the Chevy and moved to Beverly.” His biggest comedy break was creating what would become the Original Latin Kings of Comedy, which he claimed is the number one grossing stand-up show of all time, though he didn’t see much of the money. “I learned TV and film the hard way,” said Montoya. “It did well for Paramount. That’s all I’ll say.”
He struck up a friendship with comedian Alex Reymundo, and they both put up their home mortgages to pay for a couple of comedy shows in, among other places, San Bernardino, where Montoya hatched a plan to film multiple performances in one spot and then edit them into separate programs. Showtime bought them all, so Montoya eventually put on similar events in Los Angeles theaters in the mid-2000s until San Bernardino boosters requested he return. “I didn’t realize the effect that these television shows would have on the city,” said Montoya, who recalled the officials claimed the publicity had done “phenomenal things” for the town’s tourism and image.
From 2009 to 2012, San Bernardino was home to the LOL Comedy Fest, but Montoya realized that he couldn’t keep using the same theater without the footage looking stale. “In this business, you’ve got to keep doing something that’s continually new and innovative,” said Montoya, who almost settled on moving the fest to both San Antonio, Texas, and Richmond, Virginia, but figured transportation across the country would be too expensive. That’s when Stephenie Hope, who works for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s PR maven Carol Marshall and whose kids go to the same school as Montoya’s, suggested he come check out the film fest’s venues. “I was blown away,” said Montoya of his visit to town earlier this year.
He started “calling in favors” from his friends in the industry — including Andrew Dice Clay and Russell Peters, who, according to Montoya, is the number one touring comedian on the planet right now — and began planning a schedule that was truly a festival rather than just a format for shooting TV specials. “This time, I want to come out with a successful comedy festival,” said Montoya. “If we get a few specials, that’s good, too, but one is not driving the other.” There will, however, be plenty of film crews running around town over the next week, shooting the performances and behind-the-scenes stuff, much of which will be streamed straight to Hulu, which has created a special channel for the event.
Montoya is quick to admit that this fest is, like much of his career, quite a gamble for him financially, but he’s a smart bettor. “If I can come out of here without losing my shirt,” said Montoya, “I’ll be back next year for sure.”