Recently, Grand Rapids, MI-based celebrity photographer Brian Kelly had the pleasure of shooting LaughFest for the second year in a row. LaughFest is a 10-day annual comedy festival that serves as a fundraiser for Gilda’s Club of Grand Rapids, a free cancer support community founded by SNL star Gilda Radner. This year, over 56,000 people attended from 25 different states and Canada to see some big names in comedy, including stand-up comedians, improv and film actors, authors and more—all of whom Brian happily got to meet and photograph.
Brian was not only kind enough to send the photos over but answered questions as well. Enjoy!
How did you first get involved with LaughFest?
Several of my clients sit on the The Gilda’s Club board or a LaughFest steering committee. That helped out a lot because many of them already knew my portrait style and temperament.
Would you consider this a typical assignment for you?
Shooting celebrities is never typical, but I love the challenges associated with it all. There are always “lotta ins, lotta outs” to each shoot (to quote The Big Lebowski). Top comedians have very hectic travel (and sleep) schedules. So shoot times and locations can change on a dime depending on how their day is going.
What were the actual shoot days like?
A lot of scouting, set-up, pre-lighting and testing. Then there was the waiting…quickly followed by more waiting. Somewhere in there was a really delicious but unhealthy meal with my crew. I don’t carry these extra pounds because of poor genes…it’s more about poor choices.
How did you choose the locations for each subject?
Nearly every comedian had a unique location that I picked for them. It started with a conversation with Joanne Roehm, LaughFest’s Festival Operations Manager. I’d tell her where I was hoping to shoot a particular person. Joanne would then schedule the shoot with the comic’s agent or manager. I tried to scout locations near (or inside) the venue that the talent was performing in. You’ve got to make it as efficient and easy as possible to get this stuff to happen. It’s helpful that Grand Rapids is my hometown and that I know a lot of little nooks and crannies. But absolutely none of these portraits would have happened without Joanne. She was awesome and undoubtedly a sweet talker.
Who were you most excited to photograph?
Man, I’d hate to cop to just one person because the LaughFest line up this year was stacked! Whoopi Goldberg is a global icon so that was pretty amazing. Martin Short and Kevin Nealon were in their SNL primes when I was growing up and I never would have imagined I’d be taking portraits of them one day. I’m a huge fan of Jim Gaffigan’s comedy. I love Marc Maron’s WTF podcast too. I shot Kathleen Madigan last year at the first LaughFest and was excited to photograph her again because she’s so stinkin’ nice…plus her act kills.
Did you come across any challenges on the shoots?
Sure…a 10-day festival can be a bit of a grind on my family with a lot of late nights. But I’m super lucky. LaughFest is probably one of the best gigs a portrait photographer can get…especially in Michigan.
Who was the most fun to shoot?
I was hoping you’d ask me about my least favorite…here I was ready to spill the beans too. That said, Jim Gaffigan was awesome. He gave me the most time and was up to try some really different things. What was cool about Jim was that as he approached the outdoor set he casually said, “I really love this old gnarly tree.” He said it without really knowing the camera angle or how I had things lit. It was a huge relief because the entire location hinged on that tree and he understood what I was trying to do right away.
Which is your favorite image?
If the house was burning which one do I save first? Ugh…I’d have to say it’s a cage match between Anthony Jeselnik, Jim Gaffigan and Marc Maron.
Any fun stories from the event?
After we wrapped the shoot with Whoopi she hung around the set for about 10 minutes and was chatty. I asked her about the famous Annie Leibovitz photograph of her in a bathtub covered in milk…she said the milk was “f***ing cold!!” I found out Timothy White is her favorite photographer, “That’s my boy right there,” she said. Her choice gets no argument from me. I love his work too. I mentioned as she was leaving that my wife and I were looking forward to seeing her show later and Whoopi said, “I want to meet your wife! If she doesn’t mind cigarette smoke I’d like you to come by my bus before the show and say hi.” So a couple of hours later my wife and I went on her luxury motor coach, chatted for about 5 minutes and took a couple of quick photos with Whoopi our phones. Not gonna lie, that was awesome.
How are the images being used?
They’ll primarily be used by LaughFest as a gallery of past performers and to promote the festival in general. Several of the comedians liked their photos so much that they’ve asked to use them as well. The arrangement is that they can use them for web purposes but not for placement on merchandise or anything they might sell. Most of them just want to put one photo on their social media sites…which is cool by me and LaughFest.