Tig Notaro is a Grammy and Emmy-nominated comedian who launched Bentzen Ball in Washington, D.C., in 2009 and has been curating the festival since. She’s known for her semi-autobiographical television series “One Mississippi,” and released a Netflix special called “Happy to Be Here” earlier this year. She’ll be starring in the upcoming comedy “First Ladies” with Jennifer Aniston, and will perform her standup show at this year’s Bentzen Ball on Oct. 28.
The Lily chatted with Bentzen Ball comedians via text and phone calls ahead of the festival, which runs Oct. 25-28.
Tig Notaro: Hi, this is Tig.
Lena Felton: Hi Tig. Thanks so much for giving me a call today.
TN: Thank you.
LF: How are you doing today?
TN: I’m doing alright, how are you?
LF: It’s okay — it’s been a pretty crazy day. But all of us here at The Lily are really looking forward to Bentzen Ball.
TN: Oh good.
LF: Which is why we’re also really excited to be talking to you. I was wondering if you could just take me back to 2009 and how you first conceived of the idea of Bentzen Ball?
TN: I had done another festival and was pretty blown away by how poorly I was treated. They didn’t cover my airfare or put me up at the hotel — well, they put me in a motel that was kind of outside of the town. Didn’t pay me. There were no drinks or snacks back then. I was like, how hard would that be to actually treat people better? And then I had just met Jeff Jetton, who worked at BYT [the online magazine and production company Brightest Young Things], and I was just telling him that I had this fantasy of starting — in response to that festival — that I had a fantasy of starting a festival and just treating everybody well. He was really into the idea, and then he spoke to his other partners, and they were very interested. They were based in D.C., and I had done a festival in D.C. that I found out was no longer coming back. So I just thought, “Well, this might be the best city to do it.” It just feels like, you know, it’s such a beautiful city. And no matter where you stand politically as a comedian, it seems like it’d be appealing to perform in. So that’s kind of what started it — it was really just a response to being treated terribly by a festival.
LF: Were you one of the only women at that festival?
LF: Wow. So how was that first iteration of Bentzen Ball, and how did it evolve from there?
TN: Well the first year, we really had no idea what we were doing. We had it really sprawled out around the city at different venues, and we flew in — I mean, I can’t even remember how many comedians. It was so, so many. And it was fun, but it was certainly not what we as producers would have considered a success, except for the fact that it was an absolute blast.
So we just kind of scaled it down and realized a time when we were able to bring in bigger acts and that it made sense to stay a little more centrally located at the Lincoln Theater, when we could bring in bigger names to headline, and then showcase up-and-comers as openers. But it’s consistently remained, I would say, a very comedian-friendly festival. We try to organize events that everyone can be a part of during the day or after the show, if they want to have something to do. And we’re every year aligning ourselves with a different charity. Just trying to make sure that the entire experience is only positive.
LF: Absolutely. I think that’s great, and it definitely makes sense now that it was a reaction to something that didn’t go well.
TN: Yeah. It just felt like, well, let me see if this is really the only option, that you can’t pay and you can’t put people up. Not even a little bag of chips to snack on in the back.
LF: Come on, you’ve got to have those bags of chips.
TN: Ha, yeah.
LF: So moving to this year, when did you first get the idea that you wanted an all-female and nonbinary lineup?
TN: Well, I’m personally not going to promote it as that. I’d like to present who’s on the lineup and not mention or draw attention to anything like that.
LF: Got it. In thinking about the acts that you did want this year, what do you look for in comedians? What draws you to certain performers as a curator?
TN: Well, there are so many different factors that go in to booking. It’s friends of mine, it’s people — whether you’re a headliner or an up-and-comer, it’s how you’re going to sit well on different shows. I think that — I feel like we have so much room for so many different kinds of comedians to the point where we, even last year, included poetry in the mix of different shows we were putting on. And some elements of it were comedic, but other elements were not. I don’t think there’s any particular thing I’m looking for. I mean, I guess you can’t be a jerk or I can’t know that you’re a jerk when I’m booking you — I might find out later that you’re a jerk. But yeah. They’re fun, they’re funny. They’re not a jerk. We’ll have you.
LF: That’s a good baseline.
TN: And it’s helpful when people can sell tickets. That’s definitely a plus.
LF: Never hurts.
TN: But you know, I also like the variation of political comedians with utterly silly comedians, musical comedians. I’ll take it all.
LF: And there’s such a wide range this year. Which acts are you excited about having secured?
TN: Very excited about Tig Notaro. Can’t believe we were able to get her.
LF: Crazy, right?
TN: I’m excited to see Michelle Buteau. I mean, Michelle I’ve known for years. She’s just really hit her stride in the past few years in a way that I think she’s quite a force. I’m of course excited about everyone I’ve booked, but yeah.
LF: Michelle actually just did a texting interview with my-coworker, and she was just as hilarious on text.
TN: Yeah, she’s the best.
LF: What’s your favorite D.C. comedy venue?
TN: You know, I’ve done a handful of shows at the 9:30 Club, and I’ve always found that to be really, really fun.
LF: It’s intimate enough, but you still get a good energy there.
TN: Yeah, it’s a really nice size. But the Lincoln always delivers. There’s a nice selection, I think, in this city.
LF: And do you have any previews that you can share about what you’re going to talk about during your show this year?
TN: I wish I knew, night to night.
LF: Does it change?
TN: I’m really working on new material, so it’s always a real crapshoot right now with my show.
LF: So you decide right before you go on?
TN: No, there are a few things that I’ll decide, but also — I’m very much in the moment right now onstage.
LF: That sounds scary.
TN: I guess it should be, but I find it a little exhilarating.
LF: That’s great. Well, I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but is there anything else that you want to say about Bentzen Ball this year?
TN: Gosh. Where to begin. Well, we’ve partnered to do a blood drive — it’s funny, because I reached out to my producing partners saying we should get people involved in donating blood every year. And they were like, “Oh, that’s a great idea.” And then it turns out there’s this huge blood drive going on that overlapped with when the festival’s going on. So we’re going to make that a yearly thing, and I’m excited for that to kick off this year.
LF: Awesome. Well, we can’t wait — it’s going to be such a great weekend, and we’ll see you at the show.
TN: Great. I’ll also be interviewing Phoebe, which should be fun. I think my show sold out, but people can still get tickets to see my and Michelle Buteau’s show. But thanks for your time.
LF: No, thank you. Have a great day.