“Hey! I didn’t grow up in Canada! I grew up three hours south of it!” Mary Mack corrects my misplacement of her accent—which she lays on pretty thick in her comedy routines. Her dialect sounds like it’s a hyprid between Duluth, MN, and northern Wisconsin. “If you heard the people talk at home, your head would probably explode … I only exaggerate it onstage when I’m copying my mom or my sisters, but if I’m drinking at all, it really starts coming out.”
Folks can dissect it for themselves at one of two shows at Dead Crow Comedy Room on May 20 at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Mack is one of three headlining acts for the seventh annual Cape Fear Comedy Festival (CFCF), which takes place May 18-21 throughout downtown Wilmington at Dead Crow (265 N. Front St.), The Reel Cafe (100 S. Front St.) and City Stage (21 N.Front St.).
Mack had a unique journey into comedy. She was a music major in college and went on to graduate school for music conducting at Middle Tennessee State. While there she also had a side gig with a polka band.
“I never meant to be a comic,” Mack explains, “but my polka band was so bad I had to stall for time onstage. So I started making up stories and talking a lot.”
Once she realized audiences enjoyed her chatter more than the songs, shows gradually morphed into comedy. Mack sometimes incorporates quirky songs on the mandolin into her material, and sings parodies like comics who have inspired her for years: Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin and Martin Short. As well, she looks up to them for their longevity and quality material.
“I haven’t been playing my mandolin at shows much this year,” Mack admits, “but I might do a new ballad [in Wilmington] about the lady who cooks at my sister’s bar in northern Wisconsin. Her name is Bonnie and sometimes she lets her Yorkies into the bathtub with her.”
Right now Mack is working on a book of essays, memories and stories of growing up in the woods up north. Otherwise, she’s an observer. Her work continues to be inspired by real characters she meets, even ones “who aren’t trying to be interesting, but they just are.”
The fun part of going out to events like Cape Fear Comedy Fest is that they’re all about comedians being creative, having fun and celebrating the genre of comedy with enthusiasts. “I’m looking forward to all the acts at the festival,” she says excitedly. “My husband Tim Harmston is sitting right next to me, so if I don’t say, ‘I’m really looking forward to his set,’ then I might get in trouble. I’m also looking forward to all the good food and the riverfront in Wilmington.”
Mack and Harmston will return to Dead Crow later this summer, June 17-18, for a whole different set than what they’ll perform at the festival. In fact, they’ll go onstage as a duet for the last 30 or 40 minutes. “It’s really fun to have someone to riff off of while you’re onstage,” Mack says. “We’ve been having a blast performing that way this year.”
While Mack is headlining Dead Crow Stage on Friday, musical comedy duo Reformed Whores will headline Saturday, May 21. Comedian Shane Mauss will take City Stage early on during the festival on Thursday, May 19.
“Shane has one of the most original stand-up shows I have ever seen,” festival cofounder Matt Ward says of “A Good Trip,” inspired by Mauss’ youthful bounty of psychedelic drug use. “Dude is such a funny, hard working guy. He has three different hours of stand-up he works.” “A Good Trip with Shane Mauss” starts Thursday at 9 p.m., but Mauss has a free show on the books to record his science-themed podcast, “Here We Are.” It will be held at Dead Crow earlier in the day at 5:30 p.m.
Improv, stand-up, local and national comedians are only a small makeup of the 70 performances taking over the Port City throughout the festival. “This number can fluctuate because we have two or three shows that are open to comics who didn’t submit to the festival,” Ward adds.
Ward highlights Joe Pettis’ “Underwear Comedy Party” happening at City Stage on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. Pettis also can be found earlier in the day at SeaWitch Tiki Bar (227 Carolina Beach Ave.) at 4:20 p.m. CFCF also invited Southern-based comedian Dusty Slay to City Stage on Sat., May 20, at 8:15 p.m. to record a live album—a follow-up to 2014’s “Makin’ That Fudge.”
“I absolutely love his comedy,” Ward says. “I am super pumped about this because we always seem to get the great comics a little ahead of the curve. We got Sean Patton in 2013, The Grawlix, who are now stars of the hit TruTV series, ‘Those Who Can’t,’ in 2014. Last year we had Baron Vaughn, who is now on the Netflix show “Grace and Frankie,” with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. He is one of the voices for the new ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000,’ too. Dusty will be that big. Trust me.”
CFCF also was Slay’s first festival experience and he’s excited to get back to Wilmington. “I’ve been friends with Matt for long time,” Slay says. “When he asked me if I wanted to record my album at Cape Fear, I jumped on it.”
Slay’s life experiences tend to shape his comedy. He says growing up in the South has given him plenty of material. For his recorded album, he’ll be exploring the man he is today by dipping into his childhood, which tends to be an endless well of humor.
“My pain is your pleasure,” he quips. “You’re welcome, world! I grew up with divorced parents—they had joint custody of me; one lived on a farm and the other in a trailer park. I am a much better writer now, and I feel like this album really tells more of who I am, where I’ve come from and how it’s shaped me today.”
Slay also trusts Ward and company’s curation of new talent annually at the festival. He’s looking forward to seeing comedians he doesn’t already know. “I love seeing a comic who I’ve never met just crush it onstage,” Slay adds.
For a detailed schedule of headlining acts, improv troupes and stand-up showcases a part of Cape Fear Comedy Festival, visit http://www.capefearcomedy.com. Prices vary for individual shows and festival passes include all eight shows at Reel Cafe, five shows at City Stage and all shows at Dead Crow on Wed., May 18 and Thurs., May 19.