MERCED — Tom Price's forays into the universe of producing comedy film festivals had somewhat unlikely origins, at least to the outside observer.
Then again, Price understands good comedy isn't just about making people laugh, but causing audiences to ponder, reflect and maybe push a few buttons along the way.
Four years ago, Price was in the midst of producing what he now refers to as a "way serious film festival." It was so serious that the feature film featured was the somber Coen brothers' film "A Serious Man." About 90 people attended, but only those with a unique sense of humor left laughing.
As Price recalled, the film had a gut-wrenching ending that left some attendees leaving in silence. "So we were like, 'We should do comedy next year'," Price laughed.
Since then, making people laugh has become a winning formula for the 33-year-old Downtown Life Magazine publisher. Next week, the MiddleState Independent Comedy Film Festival makes it return to downtown Merced, opening April 26 with a free reception from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center.
In the spirit of pushing buttons, on April 27, radio personality and comedian Adam Carolla is scheduled to take the stage at the Merced Theatre for a live performance.
Carolla is known as former host of the television program "The Man Show" and the radio program "Loveline." In recent years, Carolla made news after his podcast made the Guinness Book of World Records for receiving the most downloads.
Saturday's festival will include a short film showcase, in addition to two full-length feature independent films: "It's a Disaster" and "Wrong."
"It's a Disaster" director Todd Berger will be on hand during the April 26 reception at the Multicultural Arts Center. He'll also be available for a question-and-answer session after his film screens at the Merced Theatre on April 27.
Price, along with a group of friends, has produced the MiddleState Independent Comedy Film Festival since launching his first festival in 2010, with larger audiences every year.
Price and co-organizer Joey Essig said having a recognized figure of Carolla's caliber at the festival is just the comedic spark needed to take the event to the next level.
"Each year we've done the festival, we've taken a leap of some sort," Price explained. "Carolla is someone who's like a do-it-yourself kind of guy, and we're kind of that DIY style of festival."
The festival aims to help fill a void in Merced regarding independent film.
"Every year there's 30 or 40 people who are film nuts, who are genuinely interested in the filmmaking process, and if we can bring people here who can share their stories and inform them a little bit, I think it's a good service," Price said.
Essig said the festival is an "elegant example" of what people underestimate about Merced and its growing arts community.
"In Merced, a couple guys can get together and throw a film festival, whereas in a town like San Francisco or LA, it would be virtually impossible." he said. "In a town like Merced, you can take chances and you can actually accomplish things. And people will buy in, because there's not a lot going on, and it is cheap to do."
For more information, visit www.middlestatefilm festival.com.