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Despite Controversy, Bill Cosby To Perform At The New York Comedy Festival!

Comedy News

Bill CosbyWith scores of funny people plying their trade at bars, clubs and theaters, the city feels like a comedy festival every night. So why get excited about the annual New York Comedy Festival? Simple: Size matters. From Wednesday through Sunday, more than 200 comics will play more than 60 shows, including more major headliners in big rooms than at any other time of the year. The quantity of performances, large and small across the city, means a dizzyingly array of talent, and some fascinating story lines. Here are a few to keep an eye on.

Hannibal BurressHAS HANNIBAL BURESS CHANGED THE WAY WE LOOK AT BILL COSBY? When Eddie Murphy mocked Mr. Cosby in his 1987 concert movie, “Raw,” his jokes made the older comedian seem moralistic and old-fashioned. But a recent blistering joke by Mr. Buress about Mr. Cosby raised the stakes, providing a charged backdrop for their shows on back-to-back nights this weekend.

First, some background: Mr. Cosby, the 77-year-old comedy legend, has been accused of sexual abuse by several women since a civil suit was brought against him in 2005 and later settled. Mr. Cosby has denied wrongdoing.

Criticism of Mr. Cosby, who has been making a comeback of sorts with a new Comedy Central special last fall and an NBC pilot in the works, had been relatively muted (though Gawker and other outlets raised questions this year), and he has recently been warmly received on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “The Colbert Report.”

But public sentiment seemed to shift in October, when a scathing comedy bit in which Mr. Buress, 31, called Mr. Cosby “a rapist” went viral. Taking umbrage at what he considered Mr. Cosby’s condescending attitude, Mr. Buress questioned his moral authority, bluntly bringing up the accusations. “I guess I just wanted to at least make it weird for you to watch ‘Cosby Show’ reruns,” Mr. Buress said.

He may also make it weird for some fans at the festival. Mr. Buress plays Town Hall on Friday; Mr. Cosby performs at Carnegie Hall on Saturday. Part of what makes these accusations so jarring is that Mr. Cosby has been the master of sweetly gentle if occasionally stern family-man comedy not just on his sitcoms but also in his stand-up. He will surely avoid the subject in his show, but it would not be a surprise if Mr. Buress, who has mined uncomfortable experiences for comedy in the past, addressed it — partly because there has been more fallout from his remarks.

Salon published an article headlined “We Must Abandon Bill Cosby.” One of his accusers, who cited Mr. Buress, spoke out in more detail, and a guest appearance by Mr. Cosby on Queen Latifah’s talk show was canceled, although the show clarified it was “postponed at his request.”

Mr. Buress has talked about the controversy on Howard Stern’s satellite radio show and onstage. And according to a news report, at a St. Louis show, Mr. Buress said that he asked Dave Chappelle for advice, and Mr. Chappelle told him to patch things up with Mr. Cosby. Then Mr. Chappelle watched the tape of the joke and said he better not.

THE L.A. INVASION For many comedy die-hards, the best thing about the festival is, oddly enough, the chance to find out what’s going on in Los Angeles. There will be a huge influx of talent from that fertile scene. Fans of Maria Bamford and Dane Cook can check out their recent acts, but audiences can also see the New York premiere of Roast Battle, a popular, much-buzzed-about weekly event at the Comedy Store that mixes the insult humor of roasts with freestyle rap contests. Jeff Ross, a roast stalwart who serves as a mentor for participants between rounds, calls it ” ‘Fight Club’ for comedians.” It plays at the Gramercy Theater on Saturday.

There are also two comics at the festival who make me most jealous of Los Angeles audiences: Kyle Kinane (who plays Union Hall on Wednesday) and Cameron Esposito (who performs with James Adomian, Jim Gaffigan and Reggie Watts at the Bell House on Friday). They are spectacular comics hitting their prime who do not have television platforms and only occasionally make it to New York.

IS THERE LIFE AFTER TALK SHOWS? You watch them in your home regularly, grow charmed and annoyed by familiar traits, and then suddenly, one day, they disappear. When a talk show is canceled, it can feel like an abrupt breakup. But just as some couples do reunite, there are second acts in comedy, which is why it will be interesting to reconnect with Pete Holmes and Sara Schaefer, who both perform Thursday not long after losing their shows.

When I first saw Ms. Schaefer, she was telling bluntly funny vagina jokes to sparse crowds downtown, then candid and involving tales on her podcast. She cleaned up her act for a weekly MTV talk show, “Nikki and Sara Live,” with Nikki Glaser (who performs on Comedy Central’s show “@midnight” on Monday), which didn’t involve personal comedy as much but offered her side-eyed take on pop culture, a sharp voice not too cool to show off giddy enthusiasms.

Mr. Holmes, a sunny goofball with a wide silly streak, also gained traction from a podcast that led to two seasons of a late-night talk show on TBS that was ambitious and largely true to his stand-up persona. It was a fully realized and promising show that just didn’t find an audience.

Both Ms. Schaefer and Mr. Holmes developed a small following — too small, perhaps, for television. How losing a show affects their careers is an open question, but it should be interesting to see what they do next. Maybe these appearances will provide a hint.

By Jason Zinoman, The New York Times

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