Most amateur comedy adheres to certain recognizable themes. There's the overbearing mother joke. The what-not-to-say-during-sex joke. The joke parodies of various dialects or foreign accents. The Passover jokes. The miscegenation jokes. The jokes about contraceptives. The black-guy-playing-a-white-guy-joke. The fat jokes. The is-she-a-midget-or-a-little-person jokes. The political jokes. The poop jokes. The vast repository of redneck jokes. The vaster repository of gay jokes. The masturbation jokes. And of course, those jokes that suspiciously resemble the work of older, better comedians.
All of these abounded at the Bear's Lair September 17, where this year's San Francisco International Stand-Up Comedy Competition held one of six events scheduled for its second preliminary round. Now in its 33rd year, the SF Stand-Up Competition touts itself as one of comedy's greatest incubators, responsible for breaking such talents as Robin Williams (the 1976 winner), Dana Carvey (1977), Will Durst (1983), Johnny Steele (1992), and Patton Oswald (1993). Roseanne Barr, Janeane Garofalo, and D.L. Hughly all competed but never made it to the finals (which might give some hint as to the reliability of its judging process); Ellen DeGeneres and Mark Curry were both finalists, but didn't clinch the grand prize. At this point, the contest isn't without its detractors — people who say it's declined in prestige, or that it's encumbered by too many unqualified judges. But the stakes are still pretty high: This year's contestants are competing for $25,000 and a chance to set their careers in motion. In the cutthroat world of stand-up, that's no small prize.
There are about thirty slots available in the SF Comedy Competition, and hundreds of people wrangle for one of them. According to the official rules, anyone can be considered after submitting a twenty-minute tape and a $25 entry fee, plus two recommendations from established bookers or past finalists. In reality, though, many of the competitors are hand-picked. They're arbitrarily divided into two preliminary rounds and required to deliver five to seven minutes of material for six nights straight. Every night they perform in a different location, facing a different audience and a different panel of judges. The judges rank each comedian in a series of categories — including delivery, audience rapport and stage presence — then average out their scores to come up with five finalists each night. Then someone calculates all the scores and ranks them according to a long-entrenched schema. The top ten will participate in this week's semi-final rounds, and five will go on to the finals, which end October 4.
Oakland comedian and contestant Moshe Kasher believes the system is about as fair as could be. Given that the diversity of audiences and rooms requires each contestant to constantly tweak his material, the more adaptive comics have a better shot at prevailing. "The first night it's these college students," said Kasher, who placed fourth at the Bear's Lair with a routine that included a joke about how he really wants to be gay — because wouldn't it be convenient to just invite your bro' over to play some Xbox, get a blow job, and tell him to "just fuckin' leave." (That night's winner, Grant Lyon, seduced his collegiate audience with a joke about how a geeky history major talks dirty during sex: "You get me so hard, girl. Hard like the decision that President Harry S. Truman was faced with in 1945.") But the second night at Black Oak Casino outside Sonora is a whole different ballgame, Kasher said. "It's the big swinging dicks of Tuolumne, California."
Past champion Steele said, "It's kind of a nerve-racking thing because the judges don't necessarily know what the hell they're doing." Oftentimes, he added, judges are chosen more for their promotional capabilities than their knowledge of comedy. Usually such judges can't distinguish between original and recycled material, so contestants have been known to dredge up thirty-year-old-bits from Bill Cosby or Dennis Leary and get away with it. It's sometimes the hacks who win, and everyone who knows better has to sit there and grit their teeth. Steele hosted two preliminary rounds this year — a Friday at the Golden State Theater in Monterey, and the following Saturday at El Campanil in Antioch — and each night he was surprised by who won. "Probably my top five would have looked nothing like that," Steele said. "There were even a couple of nights when ... most of the people in the wing just sneered" at the eventual winner.
But in this instance, success amounts to getting the biggest number of people in the room to laugh most frequently, and that's not always an indicator of how original or innately funny you are. "The second you take a chance and do something political or irreverent or clever, something more than 'You know you're a redneck if ...,' you might lose some of your audience," said Steele. Thus, it's usually the guys with the loudest volume or the crudest sex jokes — the ones "screaming and yelling and humping the microphone stand" — who do better than the subtle ones playing to their friends in the back of the room, Steele said.
This year's presumed favorites include Steve White, the so-called "great white hope" of preliminary round two, whose web domain is SteveAintWhite.com. (White is black.) "I personally liked him the best," said Bear's Lair judge Jerome Sardoma, a fourth-year business administration major who manages comedy for ASUC SUPERB. "I like that type of urban comedy." White, who boasts 22 years in the business, might take exception to the term "urban." Driving up to Black Oak Casino with his stereo blasting Coldplay and some instructional CDs about how to license your own products, the 44-year-old comic said he was ready for his TV-clean crowd of Wal-Mart shoppers and country music DJs. "I'm originally from Long Island, I was an accounting major, I've been to Israel, I do comedy," said White, who launched his Bear's Lair set with a familiar-sounding bit about how Sammy Davis and Whoopi Goldberg weren't the only black Jews. "I'm not really a Jew, I'm more Jew-ish," he said. "That's how I answer that question."
Not surprisingly, the contest at Black Oak Casino yielded wildly different results than the one at Bear's Lair. "It was definitely not my demographic," said Andy Haynes, who took fifth at Bear's Lair with a joke about the flying midget at Cirque du Soleil. "I get nervous and scared around that many fat people," he recalled in an interview the next day. "They had shuttle-bus stops every hundred yards in the parking lot, and it wasn't even that big of a parking lot." The winners at Black Oak included an older, gray-haired comic who does a bit with a harmonica that didn't go over well at UC Berkeley. White — who Kasher described as "the Michael Phelps of this competition" — was the only repeat winner from the night before.
Such is the reality of comedy. To slay a room full of strangers in five to seven minutes, you have to immediately pick a persona and inhabit it; you don't have any time to saunter out with a beer in your hand, get a lay of the land, and ask how everyone's doing. "There's always been an adage in the comedy business: Be careful not to play to the back of the room," said Steele. "That's where all the other comics are standing — they want to see something original and creative and groundbreaking. The audience wants to hear what they already believe."
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