The first NC Comedy Arts Festival — created as the Dirty South Improv Festival — invited four improv acts to party, perform and take workshops on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill in March 2001. This small college invitational quickly became one of the most talked about events on the improv festival circuit, one of the largest festivals of its kind in the country, a model for other comedy events, and recognized across the state of North Carolina as a cultural institution.
Dirty South Improv ("DSI") produced the first comedy festival in North Carolina so that local audiences and students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill might benefit from the experience of workshops in the art of Chicago-style improvisation. That first festival welcomed three college improv groups, 27 improvisers, and two teachers (Beth Melewski and Zach Ward) for an incredibly successful festival in March 2001. Groups came from three different states. When the festival ended, it was decided that the festival would become an annual event and a southern comedy staple was born.
The second festival, held in March 2002, experienced considerable growth. The number of attendees tripled to more than 80, and a third show was added, and five instructors traveled to Chapel Hill.
DSI was coming into its own, with a national festival, a college network, and growing buzz across the country. By February of 2003, interest had grown exponentially. The festival boasted 150 attendees, five shows and 16 featured groups. Chris Tallman from Comedy Central's "Crossballs" and "Reno 911" was a featured instructor, and the festival's signature format "The Bat" was recorded for the first time. The Bat, an improv form developed by Joe Bill with Chicago's Georgia Pacific, has become a tradition of the Comedy Festival, being performed each year by the festival faculty.
DSI began attracting national attention, with professional performances in Chicago and New York and with its college touring company. The 2004 festival hosted over 200 attendees. A total of seven shows were staged. By February 2005, the festival had expanded its schedule and outgrown Hamilton Hall as a single venue. Both Local 506 and Skylight Exchange in Chapel Hill and King's Barcade in Raleigh, NC were added to accomodate 10 shows throughout the week. Close to 350 registered festival participants traveled to see shows and attend workshops with 18 of the most recognized improv teachers in the world, including Jonathan Pitts, Asaf Ronen, Jeff Griggs, Dan Izzo, Eric Hunicutt, Anthony King and Jill Bernard.
The 2006 festival celebrated the opening of the DSI Comedy Theater, an 84-seat venue in North Carolina and the new home of Dirty South Improv. The 2006 Festival featured MISTER DIPLOMAT guest Jimmie "JJ" Walker of Good Times, the first DSIF shows at Carrboro's ArtsCenter Mainstage, as well as workshops led by Charlie Todd of ImprovEverywhere, Dan Izzo, Anthony King, Asaf Ronen and Jeff Griggs. The theatre helped solidify DSI’s commitment to producing the highest-quality shows and workshops.
DSIF 2007 played host to over 500 performers and students, including acclaimed stand-up comedian Louis CK and teams from the famed Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Joe Bill, a featured performer with Bassprov, was able to perform in The Bat, a format he helped create.
In 2008, DSI partnered with MySpace, making the Festival a Winter 2008 featured event on MySpace Comedy. The year also featured the first appearance of MC Chris (of nerdcore rap and Adult Swim fame), who put on a concert AND played an improv set with Festival favorites Death By Roo Roo. Doug Sarine (askaninja.com) played a Bassprov set with Joe Bill and Mark Sutton, and the Festival hosted a ComedySportz Tournament featuring improvisers from Richmond VA, Washington DC, North Carolina and Chicago. The Master Class offerings expanded as well and Bassprov returned.
Then in 2009, a new era for the festival began. The festival added a week of stand-up comedy and rebranded as the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival. In 2010, the festival added sketch comedy to its line-up and the festival solidified its standing as the largest comedy festival on the East Coast.
With the new branding, the festival made Carrboro a true national comedy destination in the middle of winter. This has opened new doors all around, including the focus of a featured article in Amtrak's Arrive Magazine. In recent years, the festival has built a partnership with RooftopComedy, who made the NC Comedy Arts Festival their official Southeast Gateway To Aspen. The talent has expanded with the festival featuring Emo Philips, The Chris Gethard Show, MC Chris, MC Frontalot, Elephant Larry, Paul Thomas, Eddie Brill, Jill Bernard's Drum Machine, The Josh and Tamra Show, Bryan Tucker (writer for SNL, MadTV, The Chris Rock Show, Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, and 'Roy' from SNL's digital short "Roy Rules!"), and more.
Annually, the festival raises the population of Carrboro by at least 4% for improv week and generates over $150,000 in spillover spending for the downtown business community. Local leaders and the Chapel Hill-Orange County Visitors Bureau have acknowledged DSI Comedy Theater and the NCCAF as contributors to area economic development. During the economic downturn, the festival has continued to grow.
From its celebrated Comedy School and Comedy Theater in Carrboro, NC to operations in Chicago (THE BEATBOX), and professional touring company, the “DSI” name has spread around the country, attracting both participants and quality teaching staff to its annual comedy festival year after year.