Lisa and Carlee Pidge are indisputably the first couple of wine country comedy. Creators of The Laugh Cellar, they’ve brought a whole new world of humor to Sonoma and Napa counties, presenting their shows at a variety of wineries around these famous wine regions. It’s the best of all worlds: prime vintages, beautiful settings, and, of course, the comedy for which they’re known.
That comedy is, notably, giving voice to often-marginalized performers. Says Lisa: “I was passionate about providing a platform for female comics, and specifically female comics of color. I wanted to provide a platform where people could come up and perform in this beautiful wine country.” They’ve always had a huge LGBTQ presence among their performers (and audiences), and a look at the comedians page on their website (www.thelaughcellar.com) shows the incredible diversity of their performers. From its origins in 2014, The Laugh Cellar, powered by Crushers of Comedy (the original name for this company that presented shows in and around crush pads and wine caves, and in the vineyards, has grown to include a yearly Wine Country Comedy Fest, the opening show for Sonoma County’s renowned Gay Wine Weekend, and an annual LGBTQ-centric comic extravaganza in connection with Sonoma County Pride.
It was perhaps inevitable that the organization, founded by Lisa, would be run by this dynamic couple, who met just a couple of months before the first Comedy Fest. Recalls Lisa: “I was in the entertainment industry when I first graduated from college, and then I went off and did other things in my life. I was living in New York City, and I came back to Wine Country, which is where I’m from. I had always wanted to get back into the entertainment industry; I had lived across the street from the The Comedy Store in L.A. When I moved back to wine country, I just wanted to do this. Living in the Sonoma Valley, surrounded by wineries, it’s kinda like what everybody does, you go to wineries. But every single live entertainment I came across was music.”
Something else happened as she prepared for this first festival: she met Carlee. In fact, their first date was just a month before the first Comedy Fest began. Recalls Carlee: “I met Lisa two months before the festival was going to happen. We ran into each other again about a month before it took place and went on our first date.” Naturally, she was recruited to lend a hand. “I helped at the first festival by checking people in,” she reminisces, laughing: “That’s become my job!” Adds Lisa with a smile: “I didn’t know I was going to meet the love of my life right before Comedy Fest!”
After a brief foray into a brick-and-mortar club, the Crushers have returned to their original idea: presenting comedy in wineries, a concept that’s proven remarkably successful. Notes Lisa: “the first year of the festival we saw 600 people over two days, the second year we added another day, and our last comedy fest in 2019 was six days and we had over 1200.” With plans at press time to reduce the 2021 offering to four days due to the pandemic, the organization has also ventured into a new realm: virtual performances like the Wine and Comedy Lounge, a wine tasting and comedy evening that has proven wildly successful. The concept is ingenious: people buy two 2 bottles of wine online, which are shipped to them, and they’re given entry to the virtual performance, which includes a wine tasting and discussion with the winemakers, followed by an opening act and a headliner, and, perhaps most fun, a Q & A with the comics and their virtual audiences.
Another show they’re super-proud of is “Crazy Rich Wines,” a special evening which they’ll be reviving in virtual form this summer. The show pays tribute to the Asian workers who were so essential in building the wine country. It’s a history that not everyone is familiar with: in the mid- to late 1800s, Chinese immigrants were essential in the foundation (literally, in many cases) of California’s wine industry, a presence that continued until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed. “I sometimes wonder,” muses Lisa, “what would have happened if not for that Act. Would Asians now be running California’s wine industry?” Held at Buena Vista Winery (whose own wine cave was built by Asian laborers), the evening involves wine-tasting, a brief presentation on the history, and an all-Asian group of comics, with such special guest stars as Aidan Park and Helen Hong. As the official description declares: “Asians make history in wine country again!” There’s one big difference in this piece of history, though: “This time around, big laughs, crazy rich wine, and talented Asian comedians will reign, not bigotry.”
Good laughs and good works: that pretty much sums up what this couple is up to. As Carlee notes, they’ve made a big point to support local merchants, from promoting restaurants near the winery performances to the wineries themselves, as well as other Sonoma County merchants. Case in point: Rainy Day Chocolates, which sells out their offerings at every show. Well, if you have comedy and wine, what better third ingredient than chocolate? Laughs Carlee: “They have 200 people at every show who are going to want their chocolate!”
It’s all about mutual support, and the couple doesn’t forget who was there for them when the idea of comedy performed at wineries was just a dream. Says Lisa: “I really want to give a shout out to Deerfield Ranch Winery, they were our first, and I’m still loyal to them. We end the festival at Deerfield, and it’s so gorgeous sitting there looking out at the Mayacamas Mountains. “So beautiful!” echoes Carlee.
The same has held true of their foray into neighboring Napa County, which takes place at Charles Krug Winery, run by the Mondavi family. Perhaps summarizing the difference between Sonoma and Napa Counties, Carlee mentions that, “It’s a totally different crowd from here in Sonoma. It’s Friday night, and everyone wants to see and be seen.” Adds Lisa: “The Mondavi family goes because Charles Krug is run by Peter Mondavi Sr.’s family, and we really appreciate their support, they’re such great people.” “Salt of the earth,” Carlee agrees.
That’s what happens when you build a loyal base not only of “fans,” but of people who become friends. Carlee reminisces: “We were trying to support small wineries that were just getting their start. We were trying to help them get known.” Lisa’s reply is immediate: “These were all my friends!” Carlee leans over as if confiding something top secret: “That’s the thing that is so different about Lisa. She cares so much, almost too much sometimes, about helping everybody else in business. This time it worked out on both ends.”
To them, it’s just the best way to conduct a business, and their lives. “I think that’s what’s unique about mine and Lisa’s relationship, and business relationship, and how we do things,” says Carlee. “Personal relationships are huge for both of us; we truly care about learning about people, about hearing about them, and being invested in their life, their success, their hard times, their good times.” Adds Lisa: “I try to reach out to everyone who’s there. I try to say hello to every guest. We’ve made a lot of good friends throughout the years of doing the shows.” Carlee: “Our regular grocery store clerk started coming to the shows with her husband, and he started a winery tours business. We become close with everybody.”
One major event that brought even more friends (and, obviously, changed their lives) was the birth of their daughter Gigi. As Lisa tells me: “We see hundreds of people every month, and they saw Carlee pregnant, so Gigi had lots of fans from the beginning. When she was 8 days old, we did a show at Landmark Vineyards, and it almost started late because everyone wanted to see Gigi!” Now four years old, she’s grown into quite an amazing child, as those of us who know her can testify. Her latest passion: horses. Says Carlee, “She’s been riding horses now. She is 34 pounds and she owns this 2000-pound horse. They told us at the horse place, she is a true horsewoman. Her posture, her confidence. We’ve seen it grow by leaps and bounds since it started. We always want her to be part of the business; she is the face of the business!” Not only that, but she’s as close to the comics as her mothers. Lisa tells of doing a scouting trip to Los Angeles: “I’d go inside to scout the talent, and Gigi would be outside with the talent babysitting her. She has an extended family of aunties and uncles who are comedians. I think she’s going to be running the show before long!’
Well, anything is possible. After all, the idea of a “a mobile standup comedy production company” was, in the beginning, just Lisa’s “dream of something I really, really wanted to do.” It all makes sense, if you think about it: good wine, beautiful scenery, and, most importantly, lots of laughs. After all, in Lisa’s words, “Comedy, wine, and laughter go hand in hand.” As the festival gears up again, there’s the additional value of spending time in the company of compatriots, particularly rewarding after the isolation of the past year. As Carlee says, “People are going to be so crazy happy, they’re going to be excited to be somewhere, and the people that come out are the people that DO want to come out and have a good time.” There’s really no better formula for stress reduction, and that applies to the purveyors of the comedy as well as their audiences. Lisa sums it up succinctly, in what could be their business model, or their mantra: “It’s comedy. We’re in the laughter business. What’s to stress about?”