Comedy Show Review: Week One Of The Semi-Finals At The 37th Annual Seattle International Comedy Competition

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Last night I attended the first night of the Semifinals of the 37th Annual Seattle International Comedy Competition, at the Edmonds Center For The Arts. The top 10 comedians out of the 33 in the preliminaries competed to advance to the Finals. From here, only five advance and the rest go home.

The competition is run like the TV show Last Comic Standing and is run over 26 days, 22 shows, and at 18 venues from Vancouver to Bellingham. The comedians come from the U.S., Canada, UK, Europe, Australia, and Africa, and go head-to-head over $15,000 in cash prizes, in addition to exposure to talent executives from CBS, NBC, plus movie studios, managers, agents, and producers.

I heard about this from my friend Gary’s mom, Suzanne, a gourmet chef and caterer, of all sources. Of course, I had seen the ads but never bothered to buy tickets.

sicc-november-17-2016-in-edmondsSpending a Wednesday night on the town after getting up at 4:30 AM, sounded like a crazy decision, and then I realized how old that makes me sound! Ouch (well, I didn’t even sleep well that night either). I am sure glad I went!

We went to dinner with our friends and had a lovely time (I seem to have friends with exceptional hospitality, which is why I try to refrain from making them the butt of any of my jokes). Suzanne made us a dinner fit for kings and even sent us off to the comedy show with bags of gourmet desserts and chocolates to eat at intermission (friends moms are the best, amaright?!)

I had to read my program and study the website for awhile to understand what the heck is going on. The skinny is that we were at the first of five rounds of semi-finals. The first two weeks were to whittle it down from 33 comedians (half in the first week, and then the other half in the second week), resulting in 5 from each going to the semi-finals. So this was week three, and it is five days of shows to determine which of the 10 are going to finals. They all perform for five nights in a row and get ranked each night.

The Edmonds venue is beautiful and took me on a trip down memory lane since I grew up there. It seemed far more crowded and expensive than I remember, and the theater didn’t exist (in its current form) when I lived there. It used to be a sleepy suburb of Seattle, but far enough away to be an “exotic” waterfront town. Now it’s full of Yuppie and Hippy retirees with a ton of cash. More power to them.

The crowd seemed to be much older than the ones you get at most comedy clubs in the city, which I think affected the comedians’ reception far more than they realized. There was a huge generation gap that became very apparent when a couple of the twenty-two-year-old’s got up and told jokes about sex and atheism. Interestingly, the opener, Mayce Galoni from Hamilton, who was one of the youngest ones in the semi-finals finished in the top three after closing his act with extremely offensive anti-religion pro-atheism material. Apparently, the judges ate it up and it received many uncomfortable shock laughs from the audience. Oh wait, nevermind, that was just from me. The audiences in Washington State tend to love the anti-religion stuff. Never mind. I guess everyone loved it except me.

After Galoni started it off with a very strong first half of irreverence and cutting edge material showing his witty charm in a very American Pie kind of way, the next comedian hit the stage with an odd affect that no one could quite wrap their minds around. Linda Stogner of Dallas had perhaps the most impressive credentials, having won and Emmy, and worked with heavy hitters like Joan Rivers and several more.

Linda has that “I’m an odd bird” approach, which is a very risky thing to do in my opinion. It tends to lend itself to acting and character development, which if not viewed as completely authentic by the audience, can render the comedian washed up on the rocks. Sadly, in my opinion, Linda came across as trying a little too hard, which made us feel like she was “joking” us. By that, I mean that her naive or crazy character looked more like an attempted caricature that she herself no longer believed in. Because of this, I wasn’t completely convinced that she was truly who she was representing, and it seriously diminished her laughter power.

I feel that Linda could have been one of the best ones there, but she did not finish in the top five. After thinking on it, I feel that a simple change could make a world of difference. It has been said by some that a comedian who smiles too much or laughs at his or her own jokes tends to not get as many laughs as if they did not. I know this to be true personally, and I think it has to do with the audience’s reaction to the body language and facial expression of the comedian not lining up with what they are saying. For example, if I said that I slept in a dumpster last night with a straight face, and it happened to be the punch line of a joke I made about a night on the town, you would laugh far more than if I was smiling and giggling when I said it, as if I was anticipating my own punchline. Assuming you found the joke funny, to begin with, you would laugh more if you felt that it was true (or I at least gave you enough believability that you could suspend disbelief).

In this way, I think Linda could do much better. She has a great smile, but it takes away from some of her believability. She almost plays the role of an air head, but then underneath it all, I can tell she is quite intelligent. If we knew that Joey from the TV show Friends was really smart, we wouldn’t be able to laugh at all his stupid shenanigans, because we knew it would all be contrived.

Scoot Herring, from Portland, did a fine job of adding showmanship, with his singing and high level of physicality. At one point, he spent several of his precious minutes singing a rendition of Part of Your World from Disney’s The Little Mermaid… in a German accent. It got a laugh or two and the audience ultimately applauded the gimmick, but it went way too long and we kept waiting for a big finish or something that capped it and tied it together. In my opinion, he needed to do a full-on song parody if he was going to get my laugh. Showmanship can’t make weak material work, and without changing the lyrics, it was just a guy doing something kind of stupid for his friends in the bar. His final bit was an over-the-top phallic joke satirizing the sword in the stone. I didn’t bother laughing. Overall, he was good but needed to rethink his material.

Eric Lundquist from Seattle was the other twenty-two-year-old. He had a funny joke concerning age and not having seen the movie Cocoon, which I laughed out loud at. Overall, however, he came across as nervous and crude, with a few good lines here and there. I hate to beat people up in the comedy profession because I really do respect all of these people for doing what they do. After all, every one of them has gone further than I have as a comedian, so I say this with respect. My aim is to be helpful in evaluation and to give myself warnings and reminders. I think Lundquist would do well at frat houses at the UW, but in front of old fogies like me, it was just too crass.

Ricarlo Flanagan from Los Angeles was completely underrated and robbed by the end of the night. He had what I would consider a nearly perfect set (the only other with a perfect set was Preacher Lawson of Orlando who came away with first place). Ricarlo had truly funny material and great delivery. He was one of the few that also developed momentum and got on a roll. He was rarely offensive, and I only remember him swearing maybe one time (more on my view of this in a moment).

In fact, the one time he said something vulgar, it was in reference to larger people (like him), in particular, women in baths and it being like soup (I’ll spare the details). My wife suggested he change the punchline to something like “Big girl Bisque.” Ricarlo, if you are reading this, maybe consider a change like this and get a witty laugh, instead of the vulgar one, and your act will then be pretty much squeaky clean and can be performed in any venue. There’s a lot more money in corporate comedy than in the clubs and dive bars man!

I was taught to look at comedy objectively. As subjective as comedy is, you can measure audience response, in terms of the number of laughs in any given minute, or in the total time of positive laughter response in each sixty seconds. I was not able to videotape the performance so I can’t prove this, but just sitting there with this concept in mind, I can say almost assuredly that Flanagan had the most consistent laughs. Only Preacher Lawson had bigger and more sustained laughs, but Ricarlo Flanagan was definitely deserved of being in the top three, rather than in fifth place, where they put him.

Scott Losse of Seattle had some good jokes, but it was not consistent enough for me, and he never seemed to get on a roll. He too was full of blue humor and what seemed to me to be unnecessary amounts of vulgarity.

Since I keep mentioning that, let me explain my take on clean vs. dirty, blue vs. corporate, or cursing versus creative language.

I have said this before, but I really think the best comedians don’t need to go blue (dirty or vulgar, including but not limited to cursing and sexual subject matter). I think most bad language simply creates shock laughter, which is never quite as loud or strong or sustained as a good hearty belly laugh when someone says something truly witty or ingenious. Of course, from time to time, there is a great comedian who uses foul language to punctuate something that is already quite funny, but most comedians never get that good, and simply mimic the foul language itself, thinking that it is the key to the funny. Not so. Even a great like Richard Pryor, who paved the way for modern comedians, was a foul mouth, but the vast majority of wannabes that copied that part of his style never made it anywhere, proving that it wasn’t the vulgarity that made him great.

On a practical note, a clean comedian can work anywhere, and make a lot more money in the corporate market, than a blue comedian, who can pretty much only work in comedy clubs and has to wait for a big break on HBO. Good luck making a living if all you do is blue comedy.

Another thing that annoyed the heck out of me was the constant references to legal weed. I think the Canadians in the competition were obsessed with it, which actually did not do that well in front of the audience as they might have expected. Sure, people laugh the first twelve times, but after the thirteenth joke about weed, most of us were yawning. After all, how many times a day are you thinking about weed? You either are smoking it or you aren’t and that’s pretty much it. Most of the people I know are far more concerned with picking up kids from school on time, our friend’s crazy responses on Facebook to the elections, or when the next episode of Westworld is coming out. I frankly don’t want to hear about how high some broke comedian decided to get. Yawn!

Speaking of being high, I think the comedians must have all been drawing off the same doobie because at least half of them all mention “tea-bagging” at one point or another. Either that or everyone had just done a very odd pre-show pump-up ritual.

Billy Anderson from Seattle seemed like a guy who could do a lot of other forms of comedy, like sketch and improv (he was involved in Sketchfest in Seattle) but did not have enough consistently good material to build momentum. He had some very clever ideas, but it was spotty at best. Drew Behm from Edmonton was good and tended to work the stage like a nervous panther. He finished second, but I would have made him fourth.

Pat Burtscher was a huge surprise. He had to follow the number one finisher and had a completely opposite style. He reminded me of the kind of off-beat guys like Mike Birbiglia or even a Steven Wright. Unlike Stogner, he stayed very true to his character and was quite believable. He had probably the most interesting and intellectual humor of the night and had some of the best elements of surprise.

Finally, the top finisher of the night was Preacher Lawson of Orlando. He is extremely fast paced, high energy, and looks like he works out with very heavy waits twice a day. I would wager that his chief influence is Eddy Murphy. If that’s true, then good for him, because Eddy Murphy was one of the best there ever was and changed the entertainment industry by not “fighting” the race battle, but actually transcending it. I swear that Lawson even said a phrase or two that sounded identical to Murphy. Maybe it’s all in my head, but it wouldn’t matter anyway since he had a perfect set. Even his little asides and riffs with the audience were on point and got hilarious levels of laughter.

Now, his performance just adds more evidence to my case that clean comedians eventually go further and finish on top. Lawson was squeaky clean, and even when he dealt with subjects like race and religion, he managed to do it in a tasteful and witty way, that got a laugh without offending. In my mind, that is infinitely harder to do than simply picking on a group and hammering them. He did it with class and style and still managed to get the absurdities of life displayed in all their glory. The only downside of his performance was that it was so fast and so loud that the sound system didn’t always pick up on his words and created a bit of fuzz.

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The actual order, according to the judges was:

  1. Preacher Lawson, Orlando, Fl
  2. Drew Behm, Edmonton, AB
  3. Mayce Galoni, Hamilton, ON
  4. Pat Burtscher, Toronto, ON
  5. Ricarlo Flanagan, Los Angeles, CA

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Jesse’s Picks:

  1. Preacher Lawson
  2. Ricarldo Flanagan
  3. Pat Burtscher
  4. Drew Behm
  5. Mayce Galoni

As I won’t make it to the rest of the semi-finals, here is a prediction for the future!

Preacher Lawson takes the entire competition and only gets better. Mayce Galoni finishes second, because judges from the Seattle community will love his wit and “edgy” style with controversial topics as a young person, and Drew Behm will finish a distant third because the judges will think he has potential (no offense Drew, I actually think you are better than that).

If it were me, however, I would simply gauge audience response from something like Comedy Evaluator Pro or at least weigh it more heavily toward audience response, rather than any other factor. Sometimes judges will vote differently than the audience, which I disagree with wholeheartedly. They can have their favorites, but in the end, the comedian must please the audience, not one industry “pro”.

Weekend Update: A trip to Ryan Stile’s theater, Kevin McDonald, and The Seattle International Comedy Competition

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Comedy Update

Well, I didn’t make it to an open mic Friday night, but I still had a full weekend of comedy. My daughter literally stood at the door and told me I wasn’t allowed to leave that night. For you young single people, you will probably think I am a big wimp and you wouldn’t understand.

For you father’s however—you know that I am hopelessly in love with my daughter and completely helpless when it comes to her spells. Our son was at grandma’s that night and Keira wanted daddy-daughter time. So I quickly and easily caved, and decided open mic at the Thumbnail Theater could wait.

If you are reading my blog entries for my blog-to-book project Life After High School, you knew I recently attended my high school reunion. That day, I ran into my old high school buddy Jason Mann. We hit it off just like the good old days and so we decided to hang out and catch some comedy.

He invited my wife and me to go up to Bellingham to Ryan Stile’s The Upfront Theatre, for a special show, featuring Kevin McDonald from Kids in The Hall. The theater up there (which I refuse to spell with a “re”), is a charming place, well kept and clean, complete with great black and white photos of various performers and scenes from their stage over the years. Of course, Ryan Stiles is famous from the TV show “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” but I don’t know if he is actually ever there. I heard he lives there, but I imagine he has to travel a lot.

A show with Kevin McDonald from Kids in the Hall
A show with Kevin McDonald from Kids in the Hall

With decades of experience and a long list of film, TV and stage credits, McDonald could easily be considered an expert in comedy. A founding member of The Kids in The Hall troupe, he established his comedy credentials during 28 years with them. Through his experience of making people laugh, he’s seen the evolution of his own comedy writing, starting with improv and flourishing into scripted ideas.

The idea was that earlier that day, McDonald was going to teach a sketch comedy class and then do a show in the evening, which included the work the students did that day. McDonald opened with a stand-up set, then the students did their quickly produced sketches, and then McDonald joined the Upfront Theatre ensemble members for improv based on audience suggestion(s).

We met my buddy Jason in Burlington and drove up the rest of the way with him and his new girlfriend of two months he met on Match.com. They seemed really happy and a good match, so I guess it works. Mae and I are pretty old fashioned and we can’t really imagine having to date in this “modern world” at our age at all, much less on the crazy Internet. I guess that is what people have to do nowadays. Crazy.

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At The Upfront Theater with friends

We went to dinner at La Fiamma Wood Fire Pizza just down the street. It was a busy night and we had to wait twenty minutes, but it was worth it. We had a great conversation, the service was good and the food was great. We shared a pizza for the four of us and got some excellent salads. I would go there again.

Now onto the comedy review…

Ok, so I really like Kids In The Hall. It was from my era. I also like Kevin McDonald…

…However.

We didn’t think his stand up comedy set was all that good. His other skills (sketch and improv) are of course stellar, but his stand up set left us a little disappointed. I am not a harsh critic, either. I love giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. After all, I know I am new and I am definitely no Jim Gaffigan, Brian Regan, or Tim Hawkins (my three favorite comedians).

He was obviously not that experienced and was drawing attention to that fact (which helped). He was also trying something a bit arty in my opinion, which was to kind of do a stand up set about doing stand up. My buddy Jason leaned over to me and whispered: “It’s like he’s doing a sketch about stand-up comedy.” I couldn’t agree more. Now, that alone is not a problem… As long as it is funny. Which it wasn’t most of the time.

Being completely objective, I would guess he got maybe one laugh for every minute on stage. The problem with that is a headliner level comedian needs to get about four to six laughs per minute (or approximately 18 seconds of laughter for every 60 seconds on stage). He was probably getting only five to ten seconds of laughter for each minute. I don’t care who you are or what you are doing—if you are doing stand-up comedy, you need to have the audience laughing, otherwise, it is just a lecture or in this case, a bizarre speech.

Kevin’s students got up and did their class work, which was as good as could be expected from amateurs who created something in one day. I noticed that there was an Upfront ensemble member with each group, presumably to help them out a bit and make sure there was some level of quality of performance.

The end of the show was all improv, which was by far our favorite part. This really surprised me, since often improvisation, due to its very nature, is the least funny of the three genres of comedy if for no other reason than they have no time to rehearse. In this case, however, the ensemble players did an outstanding job. They have obviously spent time together gelling as a team, and have a diverse cross section of talents. I love team sports, and they were definitely on the winning side of the evening.

 

My Own Improv Experience

About a month ago I audition for and got an ensemble role with the improv and sketch comedy troupe Turbo Turkey. The audition was through TPS, the most popular call board, and theater arts organization in Seattle.

turboturkeyLast night we had our first rehearsal. The group has a revolving cast, based on their availability. In other words, if I can commit to rehearsals, I get to be in the next show. December 18th, here I come.

The rehearsal last night was kind of funny. Normally they meet at the TPS studios at the Seattle Center. Due to a conflict in the schedule at the studios, we had to meet in Josh’s basement… which was set up as a shop with work benches, drill presses and saws… which we couldn’t move and simply worked around.

It was really fine for our purposes, and I understand it’s difficult (or expensive) to find space in the city.

However, if I was a new person, especially a woman, I would probably be very afraid to have to walk down some dark alley in south Seattle, find some lonely duplex squeezed in between apartment buildings, go down to the “storm cellar” in the rain (and did I mention dark?) and then walk into a dungeon with power tools and a bunch of sweaty men.

And the first girl that showed up, did her best not to show it on her face. Luckily, she wasn’t killed.

We played improv games (essentially improvisational exercises designed to give you a great creative workout) from 6pm to 9pm… and we loved every second of it.

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my comedy troupe

Incidentally, if you happen to by in my area, I have a meetup-type group that gets together for the purpose of loving comedy doing improv jams, as well as comedy writing. It is called the Crackpot Comedy Cavalcade.

This week!

2016-seattle-international-comedy-competitonWe are checking out something really cool with some friends on Wednesday. This might become one of my goals.

This Wednesday, I got tickets for Mae and me to go see one night of the Seattle International Comedy Competition in Edmonds. We are going to visit our friends in Edmonds for dinner first, and then will catch the show. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I am pondering whether or not to make the competition something I will want to participate in. Perhaps next year.

Chop Wood Carry Water

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I am a part of an AdvoCare mind and body improvement program and I was challenged to create a video for a Facebook group, based on a book we are reading.

The book is called Chop Wood Carry Water, by Joshua Medcalf.

Guided by “Akira-sensei,” John comes to realize the greatest adversity on his journey will be the challenge of defeating the man in the mirror. This powerful story of one boy’s journey to achieve his lifelong goal of becoming a samurai warrior brings the Train to be Clutch curriculum to life in a powerful and memorable way.

Each day we read one chapter and then produce our thoughts. I was assigned chapter five. Here is what my kids and I came up with.

We wrote it, shot the video, edited it together, and uploaded it all in one afternoon.

Enjoy.

 

District 9 Was Ahead Of Its Time

So I was going over some old journal entries today and I stumbled on this one here. I decided to post it and see what you all think. Feel free to chime in with your comments.

Saturday 8/29/09

Saw District 9…. great movie!

I loved the setting: Johannesburg, South Africa. Their apartheid past was an interesting setting. It was a movie about discrimination, bigotry, and “alienation”, without being a “message” movie. I loved the fact that it oozed action and sci-fi fun without being overly preachy. Yet, the moral fiber was interwoven throughout the plot line masterfully.

I wonder about the little detail of the “cat food scam” that the Nigerians were selling beloved cat food at exorbinant prices. It reminded me of the Europeans giving beads and trinkets for large amounts of gold and land from the native Americans. Obviously, that sort of thing has happened many times in history, so I wonder if it was influenced by another happening.

I loved that the main character went from being the normal politically correct bigot to befriending a prawn and even becoming one. He wasn’t a hateful killer, but just a normal guy that started out laughing about the killing of the prawns and the abortion he commited to their offspring, and ended up, via a twist of fate and circumstance, actually identifying with them on many moral and even physical levels.

One particular scene that was poignant was when the young prawn boy had his arm side-by-side with the protagonist and said they were the same, and the protagonist violently pulled away and cursed about how they weren’t the same. The prawn boy was simply pointing out the obvious, and the protagonist couldn’t see it at that time.

It was a beautiful plot, positioned in the middle of an unsuspecting genre: sci-fi edge-of-your-seat power action movie.

I totally loved it.
What do you think? Comment below!