Sit back, relax and laugh: Columbia Laughs hosts Columbia’s first comedy festival

By Kamy Smelser, Staff Reporter

Nicole Kezdy and Paige O’Connor kick off the show with their first comedy short, prepping for the rapture and being the last two humans left behind. Irvin Ibarra

The sounds of an electric keyboard and the voice of senior comedy major Ron Hexagon reverberated throughout the third floor of the Student Center, as he performed original songs such as “Bananas” and “Constellation: Friendship.”

“I love music, and I love comedy, and usually they’re separate,” Hexagon said. “It’s really interesting and funny to me that I do music that is silly, entertaining [and] goofy.”

Hexagon, along with 11 other student performers in Columbia’s first annual Columbia Laughs Comedy Festival, took over the five floors of the Student Center, 754 S. Wabash Ave., on Apr. 22.

The festival was put together as a semester project for the Festivals section of the “Events Management: Practicum” course taught by Department of Business and Entrepreneurship adjunct faculty member and Associate Dean of Student Life Kari Sommers, as four teams – marketing, operations, talent and sponsorship – organized the Friday night event.

The festival brought together students, faculty, comedy industry professionals and attendees outside of Columbia to support those pursuing the art of making others laugh.

As the first annual Columbia Laughs comedy show begins, Arturo Ibarra Jr. and David Gonzaga Deyro welcome guests at the Student Center with wristbands, leaflets, stickers and a raffle. Irvin Ibarra

Being the first comedy festival to take place at Columbia, Mikey Hicks, first-semester senior arts management major and member of the operations team, said it was a challenge putting the pacing of the event together while utilizing the entirety of the Student Center space.

Hicks, who worked as the festival’s graphic designer, designed the event with a ’70s flower-power theme based on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” a comedy show that ran on television from 1968 to 1973.

Through organizing the event, Hicks said he was most excited to see the talent come through and perform. Hicks added that his team strived to bring in diverse talent, showcasing comedians within the LGBTQ+ community and a Chicago-based drag performer as the headliner.

Event headliner Chanel Mercedes-Benz strutted onto the Columbia Laughs fifth-floor stage in a sparkling black dress and heels with a blonde wig as she performed stand-up, danced and lip-synced to singer-songwriter Olivia Rodrigo’s “deja vu.”

“I always like doing special gigs like this because I always like when people treat me like a princess, and they treat you so nice,” Mercedes-Benz said. “You’re the belle of the ball for one night.”

Ben O’Connell plays a game show host for his comedy sketch, quizzing contestants for the chance to win an Oculus Quest 2 — but they are set up to always lose. Irvin Ibarra

Outside of song and drag, performers organized skits inviting attendees to volunteer as part of their act. Cole Ruoto, a junior comedy major, directed a skit reenacting news he received in 2020 that his brother had woken up from a coma.

“[After waking up,] all this guy was doing was sitting there and whining about how I hit him in the face with a baseball bat,” Ruoto said. “I thought that if I included the audience into it, they could share my realities.”

The festival was free for all attendees but a donation of $10 was encouraged to benefit the Columbia Laughs Award in support of the Comedy Writing and Performance students through a new scholarship. With a goal of reaching $500, the festival raised $330 by the end of the night.

“[The Comedy and Theatre Department] really want to give opportunities for comedians and writers and artists to get stages to perform on,” Hexagon said. “[This being] the first annual [comedy festival], I’m excited that this will be a thing of the future forever.”

“I love performing on campus so much,” Hexagon said. “There is this sense of community, there is a sense of togetherness and figuring it out together through art and through performance.”