Zach Ward ’ 99 slumps against the back wall of DSI Comedy
Club, cellphone still in hand.
He just got word that Horatio
Sanz of Saturday Night Live
fame is undergoing emergency
vocal-cord surgery. That’s a
problem. Ward’s expecting
Sanz to headline the NC Comedy Arts
Festival the next night. Stunned, Ward stares
With Sanz out, Ward, who started DSI
and the festival, will have to refund $6,000
worth of tickets. He needs a replacement
— someone of Sanz’s stature.
Ward jumps to his feet. A master
improviser who cut his teeth at Chicago’s
The Second City theater, he dials up
comics, agents, club owners, friends. One
of them is Zach Galifianakis, a fellow
North Carolina funnyman.
“I’d love to do it,” Galifianakis said, “but
I can’t. But I know a couple people who
They hang up. Ward sighs. He feels
sick. He mutters, “So, this can
happen. Your headliner can
have surgery the day before
the big show. Good to know.”
Three hours later, Ward’s
exhausted. He takes a deep
breath and leans forward at
his computer to check email. There’s a
message from an unusual address — louis@
Six years earlier, Ward is alone in his Chicago apartment. He’s a year
removed from Carolina, where he founded
the improv troupe Carolina Players. He
gets the idea to start a comedy festival
back in Chapel Hill and comes up with
The Dirty South Improv Festival. The
name, he admits, is a misnomer. “It’s not
about foul language,” Ward said. “It’s a hip-
hop term; it’s about art as a family affair:
Someone makes posters, another creates
beats, another writes lyrics, another makes
sandwiches. Everyone gets his hands dirty.”
Ward oversees the festival — which he
renames the NC Comedy Arts Festival —
for three years from Chicago before he
moves back home to Chapel Hill in 2004.
A year later, he opens the Dirty South
Improv, a club at the back of Carrboro’s
Carr Mill Mall.
DSI is an instant success, but two years
later the luster has worn off. A comedy
club in tiny Carrboro no longer is a
novelty. Ward is barely scraping by. And
when Horatio Sanz goes under the knife,
Ward envisions his business going down
the toilet. He can’t withstand a $6,000 loss.
That’s when Ward clicks on the email
from Louis CK, a comedian with a string of
hit HBO specials and a critically acclaimed
television series, Louie, on the horizon.
Turns out, Galifianakis had called
Louis CK, who wrote to Ward: “Call me
if you still need someone for the show
Ward dives for the phone and books him.
The next night, Louis CK flies into
Raleigh, drives a rental car to Cat’s Cradle,
introduces himself to Ward, goes on stage,
tears it up, leaves the stage, thanks Ward
When he isn’t high-fiving baby sea turtles, Zach Ward ’ 99 runs the DSI Comedy Club and the NC Comedy Arts Festival.