Friday, June 10, 2011

Comedy Competitions: A Necessary Evil

This week I'm taking part in the Rocky Mountain Laugh Off.  It's a comedy competition based in Salt Lake City, which includes shows in surrounding areas.  I was added to the competition as a last minute replacement.  In total there are 23 of us comics performing 5 minute sets 6 nights in a row, all for the chance of winning $1,000 and some bragging rights.  Only the top 5 comics will earn any money.  The rest of us will go home with empty wallets and bruised egos.

A a general rule comedians HATE comedy competitions.  It's taking something we love to do and then turns it into a graded competition that makes us face off among our friends.  On top of that competitions are often a major financial burden for us.  Typically you spend a lot of money and time traveling to a distant location to give a sample of your material among countless other comics and then head home with nothing to show for it. 

You may ask, If that is the case than why do you do it?  The answer is we often have no choice.  When you are an unknown comic, with no major TV credits in a market with literally thousand of others just like you, the only way you can stand out is to win, or at least place, in a comedy competition.  In many cases the only way you can get into a major comedy competition, such as the San Francisco or Boston competitions, is to win smaller ones and earn a spot.  It's kind of like prize fighting.  First you have to beat a bunch of bums before you get a shot at a title fight.

I myself have been in only a handful of competitions in my career.  The first one I was in I took second place to a 9-year-old boy whose closing joke involved stripping off his shirt and flexing in front of the crowd.  Since then the competitions have all gone downhill.  Either I choke on stage and spend months kicking myself for my bad set, or I get huge laughs and then spend months wondering how I lost to the seemingly talentless hack who beat me. 

This brings me back to Salt Lake and the Rocky Mountain Laugh Off.  The contest has been held semi regularly for the past 15 or so years.  Many of the winners have gone on to successful careers, but if I told you their names odds are you wouldn't recognize them. 

There are many talented comics at this year's event, but it is hard to say for certain given that I only get to see them on stage for 5 minutes at a time.  Those 5 minutes can give you a good judge of a comedians skills, but they can also be very deceptive. 

The first thing a comic does when he gets into stand-up is put together a solid 5 minutes of material.  Some comics only work on their 5 minutes of material, making it as good as possible.  With those 5 minutes they can they do well in competitions, but when they have to perform a normal set (30-60 minutes) they fall very short. 

Probably the best example of this is Dat Phan, the winner of the first season of NBC's "Last Comic Standing."  Dat Phan had only been performing comedy for several months when he entered the competition, but he had a solid enough set to win despite facing off against many seasoned veterans.  After the national win he soon found himself headlining top clubs around the country, but he lacked sufficient material to keep audiences laughing and ended up becoming an industry joke (no pun intended).   

The limited time during competitions can also hurt some comedians who are really funny, but who have a slow style of delivery such as story telling, or audience interaction.  Many great comedians have never won any competitions, because they were never able to transform their material into a compact 5 minute spot.  When comics do this they often have to trim out many secondary punchlines which leaves their sets very flat.

Another big hurdle for comedy competition is the judging.  Every comedy competition has judges, and for some reason they are almost always terrible.  At least that's what we comics who lose like to say.

There are several type of people who are often picked as judges for comedy competitions.  One of the most common are local radio personalities.  On the surface this seems like it would be a good idea.  These people are in the entertainment industry.  It's there job to know what people want and they've seen enough to know what's good and what's bad.  Unfortunately many radio DJ's think of themselves as comedians and hate anyone who is funnier then they are.  Many have a particular taste for comedy and think their show and their style of comedy is the only thing that is funny and any comedian who is different must not be that good.  This is also the case with some celebrity comics who are judges.  They can be among the best judges, but some will be overly critical of competitors who have jokes similar to theirs, or deliver them better.  Others can be biased if they personally know one or more comics in the competition. 

Many competitions also use random audience members as judges.  The problem with this is competitions are often supposed to be judged in part on originality and the casual comedy viewer hasn't seen enough to know what's an original joke and what is hacky. 

In the end most judges will leave the scoring system aside and base their decisions almost entirely on how loud the audience responds to each comic.  That means the comedian with the most friends in the audience will likely win.  In one competition I was in, the winner had only been doing comedy for only a month, but brought dozens of friends to the show.  Despite being the weakest comedian by far, he still managed to dominate the competition because his friends cheered so loud.  It was the comedic equivalent of buying an election. 

I'm sure my opinion of comedy competitions will change if I ever win one.  Should that day ever happen I'm sure there will be comics who will whisper to their friends that I didn't deserve it and I only won because I knew the judges or used some hacky material that pandered to the audience.  It happens in every competition I've ever been in.  Something about the competition turns us comedians into a that group of bitchy girls from high school

I am having a great time at the Rocky Mountain Laugh Off, but I have no illusions about winning.  The first round of the competition went so bad for me I ended up taking LAST PLACE!  Things have gotten better, but so far the highest I've ranked is 4th.  Stay tuned to this blog for an update on how it all wraps up.