Doug Key, Rogue Island Comedy Festival.

Buckle up Newport, and prepare for an invasion of comedians this weekend.

The Rogue Island Comedy Festival returns to the region over the next few days with a diverse lineup of local and national talent. The five-night festival includes a dozen shows at locations in and around Aquidneck Island.

“Our kickoff is Thursday (May 25) in Portsmouth at Ragged Island Brewery,” says festival organizer and local favorite Doug Key. “Saturday and Sunday, we’re at Jane Pickens, and Monday, at the Top of Pelham.”

The festival has grown significantly since it began in 2015, with top names in comedy making it a destination event for fans.

“This is our ninth year, and our third spring festival. It used to be just in the fall, and we would sell out all of our shows,” says Key. “We felt like, ‘Why don’t we just do this twice a year.’ For Memorial Day weekend, Newport is a big destination for tourism – we wanted to maximize our reach with comedy. We have a good mix of locals and vacationers who come to the shows.”

The event features a solid lineup of local and national talent spread over five nights.

“It is a Rhode Island-born comedy festival – I like to highlight a lot of the best comics locally and regionally, whether it’s Rhode Island, Connecticut, or Boston, and sprinkle in a little bit of variety from around the world. We have comics from Canada, from LA, a bunch from New York City, and some from random towns. They put in their submission, and we watch hundreds of tapes. We select 30 comics out of around 300,” explains Key.

A well-known comedian himself, Key has a good sense of who to bring to town. He describes himself as a comic/scout for this event. He’ll also be performing this year, for the first time, on the final evening of the festival at Top of the Pelham.

“As far as the headliners, I look for who is getting the most heat in the industry right now, that I can afford. I can see who’s gonna pop soon. I try to get them in the festival before they become unobtainable,” he says.  

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Indeed, the festival attracts world-class talent. “Our headliner at Pickens Sunday, Chris Distefano, sold out over a month ago,” says Key. “He also just sold out Radio City Music Hall, and now he’s promoting his Madison Square Garden debut. He’ll draw some new eyes for the festival.”

With over 30 comedians in town, there’s a comic for everyone this weekend. Who else is Key looking forward to seeing?

“Napoleon Emill – he’s been on the scene for a while, and he’s starting to get a little more notoriety; he just had a Don’t Tell Comedy special that came out. These are like secret shows, and all of them are going viral. He’s playing on Thursday, and then Mike Cannon, I’m super excited to see on Saturday at Jane Pickens. He’s a festival favorite, he did our very first festival in 2015, and then he headlined during COVID outdoors at Greendale Vineyards.

There’s been a resurgence in live comedy recently, especially since the end of the pandemic. “Back in the day, there was Comedy Central and the occasional late-night stand-up talk show appearance,” explains Key. “Now it’s in front of your face all day long, on TikTok, Instagram reels, on Facebook. It’s more competitive, and comics really have to step up their game as to how they promote themselves. The content you put out has to be good, or people will get bored and swipe right past you. I think it’s evolved for the better as there is more exposure online, more and more people recognize the art form as a mainstream thing, and they’re buying more tickets, which is great.”

Fans can even join a live podcast in a late show at the Firehouse Theatre.

“We’ve done live podcasts in the past, and we’re really excited about this one. These two guys Chris O’Connor and Tommy Pope, have a podcast called ‘Stuff Island.’ They’ve been getting a lot of big names on their podcast, and they started touring with it. They’ll be doing stand-up and their live podcast; if you like that format, it will be a fun little byob experience for the audience.”

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Key suggests getting your tickets now – most shows sell out in advance. “If they’re not sold out, we always fill up that weekend,” he says.

For further details and tickets to the festival, click here.

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