“Laughter is a uniquely human thing,” said Brooke Tansley, founder of the Sonoma Laughfest comedy series and the upcoming Laughnights comedy show at Petaluma’s The Big Easy on Jan. 29.
“Telling jokes,” she said, “finding the funny in not-so-funny things, turning a random remark into a gag — it’s what our species does and there’s a reason for that. Because comedy and laughter really do sustain us and bring us joy. Laughter can raise our spirits, even when things get dark and uncertain. As a species, laughter has always unified us during difficult times.”
Tansley has certainly generated her own share of laughter over the years.
A veteran of the Broadway theater scene — having appeared on the New York stage as Penny Pingleton in “Hairspray” and Belle in “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” — Tansley has also yucked-it-up on television and in film, sharing the screen with folks like Hugh Grant in the hilarious opening moments of the 2007 comedy “Music and Lyrics.”
As a stage comedian, Tansley was a member of Amy Poehler’s Upright Citizens Brigade sketch comedy troupe, in Los Angeles, where she became friends with some of the best up-and-coming comics in the country. It’s the born entertainer’s love of stand-up and improvisational comedy that first inspired her to launch Sonoma Laughfest in October of 2015, in the town of Sonoma.
“We have so much here, in Sonoma County, but we haven’t had a very robust comedy scene,” she points out. “There are a few comedy events here and there, but compared to San Francisco or Los Angeles, professional comedy shows are kind of few-and-far-between here. So I called up some friends and said, ‘How’d you like to come up and make people laugh in one of the most beautiful places on Earth?’ ”
Tansley first discovered Sonoma County five years ago, when she spent a summer in Wine Country as part of the Transcendence Theater Company, which presents a popular series of song-and-dance shows every summer at Jack London State Historic Park.
“I was at a place in my life where I was looking for the next phase,” she explained, adding that her decision to stay permanently was made easier when she met her future husband. They were married in the fall of 2016. Having decided to make Sonoma County her home, she eventually developed the idea of launching a comedy festival in the town of Sonoma, where she was living at the time. Sensibly dubbed Sonoma Laughfest, the event — featuring dozens of Tansley’s comedy colleagues from L.A. and New York — was an instant success.
“I knew it would work,” she said. “We used a model that was proven elsewhere. And knowing how funny and clever and creative the people were I was bringing up for the festival, I was certain local audiences would take advantage of all that talent being offered in one place.”
Conceived as a five-day-long series, featuring more than 100 comedians performing in a variety of styles, the event proved so popular in 2015, Tansley repeated it in 2016, to similar success. And now, Tansley — who produces along with Kristen Rozanski — is eager to give the rest of Sonoma County a taste of Laughfest. Beginning with a Jan. 28 show in Guerneville, followed by The Big Easy show the following night in Petaluma, Tansley has assembled three of the acts that proved to be audience favorites at last October’s Laughfest.
Tansley said she hopes to make the Laughfest brand a regular part of the local entertainment landscape.
The host of the event will be stand-up comic Terry Dorsey, originally from Chicago.
“He has a unique perspective on things, coming from Chicago, now living in Northern California,” Tansley said. “His observations on our life here are very interesting, very funny and very kooky.”
Joining Dorsey are Joe Liss and Marcus Sams, known as Liss n’ Sams, a two-person Bay Area improv team that has played to sold-out houses at the San Francisco Sketch Fest.
“You never know what these guys are going to do,” Tansley said. “They have incredibly good chemistry, and the way they are able to pick up each other’s subtle cues is really amazing to watch. You can tell these guys have been working together a long time. They just immediately click into that comedy hive-mind that happens with really good comedians.”
Also on the ticket are internet sensations Erin Mcgown and MeLissa Luna, better known as Erin & MeLissa, who combine comedy and music in unexpected ways.
“They are basically a ‘comedy band,’ ” said Tansley laughing. “MeLissa plays the guitar, and Erin plays the trombone and sometimes the harmonica. They sing really funny songs about relationships and current events. They do a lot of ‘topical humor,’ you might say.”
Erin & MeLissa recently had a YouTube video go viral, with their song “(Before You) Pokemon Go,” a surprisingly rich and darkly funny exploration of how a relationship becomes affected by the whole “Pokemon Go” phenomenon.
“If you haven’t googled it, you should,” Tansley said.
Asked if the Petaluma show is just the beginning of regular Laughnights shows in the area, Tansley said that she certainly hopes so.
“We’ll see how it goes,” she said. “If people come out and enjoy it, then we’ll keep doing it. Personally, I expect it to do well. From what I’m seeing, people really do want a reason to laugh right now.”