Floodwater Comedy Festival
Downtown Iowa City, various locations -- Feb. 27-29
Alyssa Limperis frequently uses the word “joy” when she speaks of performing. That coincides, for her, with focus, presence and aliveness.
“[It’s a] runner’s high, a feeling of no doubt, no pain, doing something that feels right, good and not doing anything else. That’s a rare feeling, with phones and everything else: to know I’m happy in this very moment.”
Limperis, a comedian on the in-house team at the Upright Citizens’ Brigade’s UCB Theatre in New York, headlines the latest installment of the Floodwater Comedy Festival on Feb. 29 at 8:30 p.m. at the Mill. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door.
Floodwater, which runs three days, kicks off on Thursday, Feb. 27. Tickets range from $5 for some individual shows to $55 for a full pass, and proceeds will go to CommUnity and the National Alliance on Mental Illness Johnson County chapter, partner organizations that fest organizers selected by polling the community.
Floodwater is a nonprofit organization (and James Gang member). It was started in 2015 to bring a diverse group of comedians to the Iowa City area as a way of expanding community and helping those in need.
Limperis owes her success largely to her viral video performances, which often feature caricatures festooned with wigs. In some of her most popular videos, she portrays her mother (who also films the videos), deadpanning lines like, “Once I put these coats on, that means we’re leaving within two hours,” and “Do you want some chocolate? They’re from Valentine’s Day two years ago.”
Limperis began her video shorts after her father died as a way to continue doing comedy before she felt ready to go back on stage.
In addition to improv and videos, Limperis hosts the UCB mental health-themed podcast Crazy; In Bed with May Wilkerson, who also directed her solo show, No Bad Days, which centers on her father’s struggle with terminal brain cancer.
“She’s my best friend, lives two doors down,” Limperis said of her close relationship with Wilkerson. “I don’t remember not knowing her.”
Limperis found a unique sense of community among comedians, including Wilkerson. And the art also provided a point of identity for her, something that led to what she called “a lightness about me.”
“Who I am is comedy. For a while, I couldn’t access it — you feel a little different, don’t know why. But I found comedy in college. An improv group [was] what I was missing. A room with comedians — that’s where I’m at peace. It was the key to the door to what all this is about [that] I wasn’t fully tuned into.”
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These twined senses of identity and community make Limperis a natural comedian, allowing her to navigate serious issues with a sense of grace. She humanizes the exaggerated characters that populate her videos and sketches, endowing them with a dignity that solicits the viewer’s empathy.
“All of them have a sense of quiet desperation that they’re masking with something else — moving a lot, being enthusiastic or loud,” she said. “The main thing — they’re characteristics I see in others or myself that I heighten or play with. … It is nice when people can relate to it — you feel less alone and more part of the experience.”
The joy that she finds in performing is a welcome departure, she says, from her usual role as observer.
“When I am just myself, I evaluate and stay in my head. There’s something freeing about being characters — they don’t exist, they’re not real. … I go in a wig and go big — then I go back to observing. I like having both things.” The elements, Limperis said, “serve each other.”
The “observer” element gives Limperis’ characters a sense of groundedness and reality. She credits growing up in a “big loud Greek family” for encouraging her to practice “observing more than adding” at parties.
“When I’m uncomfortable in situations or parties, [observing] takes some of the power back. … I can create art rather than dealing with the strangeness of it.”
Limperis stays grounded personally by finding her core sense of self through multiple characters and comedic formats.
“Knowing your voice is the big thing,” she said. “You want to be yourself. You still have to be yourself, your POV, how you see the world. … You still see the same version of me, just with different parts heightened. … It is a long journey to really knowing who you are. But the more you [perform], the more you get closer to who you are. … My goal in life is to get closer and closer to that. It’ll never be done.”
That search for self-awareness finds its way into her more traditional comedy, too. “Have kids and start a family? Wish I could but I’m far too busy staring at my phone,” she jokes on Twitter. “’GYM, TAN, LAUNDRY’ – me making a list of things I refuse to do,” reads another tweet.
The balance between identity and community, introspection and observation, imbues her comedy with both sensibility and joy. This, combined with her goal of connecting to audiences, will undoubtedly continue to net her success in the world of comedy.
“The main thing I’ve noticed — whether writing about grief or a lunatic talking about Bud Light from Boston (but they’re both based in reality and realness) … As long as you’re tapping into something real, that’s what people want. We don’t want to feel alone,” Limperis said. “People gravitate toward what is honest.”
But she also acknowledges that her time spent as caregiver for her father helped her appreciate the other attribute of comedy: the appeal of laughter when honesty becomes difficult.
“It was a deeply dark experience, every single day. In that realm, the honesty is too much — it is watching the person you love fall apart. The escape is a laugh with a friend. … [Comedy] can be an escape or an honest reaction to reality.”
Fortunately, Limperis’s work has a maturity that resonates with people looking for either quality of comedy. She’s really funny.
Limperis is looking forward to Floodwater, her first time in Iowa City, noting that festivals offer “a nice communal feeling.”
“It’s like summer camp for adults,” she said.
Ultimately, Limperis states, “Comedy is better with friends. Collaborative work is more likely to be joyful.”
Daniel Boscaljon is an agnostic theologian and experimental humanist with an interest in art, community and joy. To learn about his life or to access his work, please visit danielboscaljon.com. His next public presentation will be on March 11 at 12:30 p.m., discussing “the end of religion” as part of the Art at the End of the World series. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 279.