Michigan comedy fest is no laughing matter

Michael Moore is pictured outside of the State Theater in Traverse City, Mich. The theater will host many of the presentations during the “Traverse City Comedy Arts Festival.”
Michael Moore is pictured outside of the State Theater in Traverse City, Mich. The theater will host many of the presentations during the “Traverse City Comedy Arts Festival.”John Flesher / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Here's a prescription for curing those midwinter blues: Forget jetting off to Florida or the Caribbean. Instead, spend a long weekend in snowbound, frostbitten northern Michigan.

Don't laugh. Well, actually, do laugh — a lot. That's the point.

The inaugural Traverse City Comedy Arts Festival is scheduled for Feb. 19-21, organized by a couple of celebrities with local ties: filmmaker and political gadfly Michael Moore, and Emmy winner Jeff Garlin of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

They conceived the festival to bring a few smiles to a state that's a poster child for the economic deep-freeze — and to create an offseason tourist magnet for Traverse City. The Lake Michigan community 250 miles northwest of Detroit draws thousands of visitors during its sun-splashed summers but is a much less popular destination the rest of the year.

And that's a shame, because — all kidding aside — there's much for tourists to enjoy this time of year in a region dotted with lakes, rivers, forests and resort villages. So let's consider how you might fill a few frosty days in northern Michigan this month.

Begin with the comedy fest.

Moore, a native of blue-collar Flint, moved to Traverse City seven years ago and started a summer film festival, at which Garlin has been a frequent guest.

Their humor series will feature acts ranging from A-list (Roseanne Barr) to up-and-comers (Whitney Cummings of "Live! Nude! Comedy!" and Mike Birbiglia of "This American Life").

Independent film pioneer John Waters ("Hairspray," "Pink Flamingos") will present his one-man show "This Filthy World." Garlin himself will perform onstage, as will J.B. Smoove, his co-star on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." The lineup also will feature improv masters TJ & Dave and the two-man sketch group "Teenager of the Year."

Moore says most of the comedians are appearing for little or no charge, which will enable the festival to keep ticket prices low. Some events will be free, including a couple of late-night "talk shows" hosted by Garlin.

All the performances will be within walking distance of each other in the downtown area just off Grand Traverse Bay. Locations include a historic opera house and the State Theatre, a 540-seat movie palace that Moore and friends renovated a few years ago. With its 50-foot-wide screen, thick maroon-and-gold draperies, ceiling resembling a star-spangled night sky and old-fashioned theater organ, it's a spectacle all by itself.

The downtown district has a village-like feel, featuring art galleries, boutiques, brew pubs and restaurants with sufficient price ranges for about any budget. Red Ginger, an upscale Asian dining spot next door to the State, offers a sushi bar and fresh seafood flown in regularly from markets in Hawaii and Japan. On the other side of the theater is Amical, a popular European bistro that makes liberal use of locally grown fruits and vegetables.

Now that your spirits are lightened from all the jokes and food, what else is there to do?

If those icy gusts off the lake are just too much, indoor options abound. Visit the Dennos Museum at Northwestern Michigan College, where on display through March 28 is "River of Gold," a collection of crafted goldwork excavated from central Panama and dating from the pre-Columbian period 1,000 years ago.

Or drive about 15 miles south to Interlochen Center for the Arts, an internationally renowned training center for teen artists. The Aspen Santa Fe ballet will be on campus Feb. 16, and the Moscow Circus on Feb. 22. Also scheduled for February are several performances by student musical ensembles, whose talent and refinement are well worth the price of admission ($9 for adults, $6 for students and seniors).

For some visitors, no up-north excursion would be complete without braving the outdoors.

Michigan may not be among the nation's best-known skiing destinations. But the northern part of the state has hills up to 500 feet high and quality resorts, some also offering cross-country trails.

More extensive yet is the state's 6,200-mile network of trails for snowmobiling — the backbone of northern Michigan's winter tourist economy. The sport is especially popular in the vast, sparsely populated Upper Peninsula, where sledders zigzag for hours on logging roads that reach deep into state and national forests.

But our theme here is comedy, so let's consider a couple of more offbeat pursuits with at least the potential to make you laugh.

Skijoring is a sport dating back hundreds of years to Scandinavia, when skiers traveled — sometimes long distances — by strapping themselves to horses or reindeer that propelled them along snowy trails. Nowadays, skijorers are pulled by dogs, often breeds that excel in mushing races.

A number of dogsledding outfitters offer skijoring lessons, providing an opportunity for exhilarating runs down woody trails — or acute embarrassment if your dog suddenly jerks into high gear and you fall flat.

Or how about a rafting excursion down a partially frozen river?

An hour or so east of Traverse City, Jordan Valley Outfitters offers trips on the 30-mile-long Jordan River, known for its pure waters and abundant trout. Of course, this time of year you won't be fishing or swimming.

Dressed very warmly, you'll cruise downstream in an inflatable raft, gazing at snow-covered pines bending toward the water as though paying homage; listening to the gurgle of rapids; watching for wildlife such as otters, deer and turkeys. It's a delightful — if unorthodox — way to explore the quiet countryside.

Your friends may say you're crazy. But the joke will be on them.