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Comedy review: Big names don't disappoint at first Duluth Comedy Fest

Tig Notaro. Photo submitted by Jade Presents

The inaugural Duluth Comedy Fest came to a close Saturday night at the Norshor Theatre with performances by two humor heavyweights — Brian Posehn and Tig Notaro.

Comedians of their caliber rarely make it to the Northland, so the mere fact they were here in the flesh was impressive enough, but their sets demonstrated why they've both risen to the fore of their chosen fields over time.

Posehn came on a touch after 9 p.m., looking resplendent in a vintage Metallica "Sad But True" shirt, metalhead that he is. As he began talking about how he's become a pseudo-political comedian against his will and then moving quickly into commenting on his reputation as a nerdy comic, it was obvious the Saturday-night crowd was not only larger (there were many more people in the balcony than at Friday's Gary Gulman/Alex Edelman show), but also a bit rowdier. During a segment about listening to quintessential death-metal band Obituary via headphones during a hotel-gym mishap, audience members began yelling out song titles, causing Posehn to double over with laughter. He quickly regained control and eventually ended his 25-minute set with some Louis C.K. material while never actually naming the disgraced comedian.

It was actually too bad Posehn left as soon as he did, given he had the crowd on his side and was just seemingly beginning to hit a groove, but Notaro was a fine trade-up. She hit the stage in a green blazer and was immediately up and running, noting (as the comics on Friday night did) how cold she found our Northland. The crowd didn't quite agree. "Is today warm?" she asked, slightly bewildered. The audience answered as one: "Yeah!"

Notaro's set was a bit more loosey-goosey than might have been expected. Fans of her stand-up specials may have detected she wasn't in that same mode, completely. It seemed as if she was experimenting with different ideas, ones that she's been trying out on the road. The top half of her set touched on her well-known health issues (she has fought cancer, among other challenges). A story about EMTs being dispatched to her home was hilarious not just because of the absurdity of the situation, but because her description of the event itself was so funny and depended heavily on her bemused reactions.

As the performance went along, Notaro moved from more typical stand-up to a long section in which she had various songs played over the PA, and she would comment on them in different ways. At times, she just lip-synced for comic effect. Later on, she moved to a keyboard and took requests — the humor coming from the fact that she absolutely cannot play the instrument. This latter portion of the show perhaps went on a little long, but the audience was on board for all of it, likely because Notaro is just a plain-old magnetic, funny performer.

Without a doubt, the first Duluth Comedy Fest was a success. While more seats could have been filled, the fact that such A-level talent was attracted to the Norshor is a gift for comedy fans. Couple this with the upcoming Maria Bamford (who was namechecked by Notaro during her set) shows, and it seems that the potential future for stand-up comedy from big names in Duluth has quickly become much brighter.

Tony Bennett is a Duluth freelance writer and arts critic.