How a Comedy Contest Should Be Judged

Hangin' with a couple new fans in Cedar Falls. Check out guy in the background texting "awesome, my chick is taking a photo w/Scott Long!"

Do you remember a class in school where you had a hard time understanding how the teacher was grading you? Well, that is the problem with many comedy competitions.  The best one’s tell you up-front what they are looking for, but too often you are left wondering.  The best competitions break it down to originality, stage presence, and audience reaction.  Those are fair enough.  The worst contests are when it’s 100 percent audience reaction, as those contests should be called “Let’s Make Big Profits for the Club and Not to Have to Pay Anyone Night”.  As I mentioned in my last piece, some contests can suck because the majority of people at the show are friends of each comedian who have been instructed by said comedian to only laugh at his/her stuff. It makes for a crappy show and while a popularity contest might be the fairest way in politics, it sucks to do it that way in comedy.

Another problem at contests is when the judge panel is made up all of local celebrities. A local TV anchor or reporter for the alternative newsweekly are most likely not going to know what is original and what is not. I’ve been in contests where someone who brought a lot of people won, despite doing the hackiest shit you could imagine because the judges were swayed by the crowd. Kind of like a basketball referee falling victim to the pressure of the home crowd.  A 3 judge panel seems to work best in these contests, with at least 2 of the judges being people who are in the business. The panel that Mike Gardner set up for on Tuesday was really good because it had 3 comics, B.T., Jon Stites, and myself, who are all comedians.  We all have different styles, so it was a good mix and we could recognize quality from shit.

I am going to use this show to give an idea of how I judge comedians in a contest. I’m not going to use any of the contestant’s names, as I don’t want to publicly embarrass anyone.  Mike Gardner had asked me to open the show to warm up the people there.  I got up and did 5 minutes or so of stuff that is recent material that I wanted to work on.  It was hit or miss, like new material is usually like. In hindsight, I wish I would have done more of my time-tested material, as I think it would have warmed up the crowd better. The most important part when performing in a comedy competition is when you go on.  I’ve done competitions where there were 24 comics on the bill.  Fucking insane.  Never should be more than 10 comics on a stage in one-night, even if every one is just doing 5 minutes. Considering there will be an MC who does 10 minutes and probably a little between each comic, plus someone to close the show while the judges tabulate, there should be a limit on the comics.  Also, a majority of comics will go longer than the time they are allotted.  The best contests automatically disqualify comics who go long. This not only combats the show going way long which hurts the comedians going on last, but just as importantly says to me as a judge that if they can’t follow a simple rule like this, they aren’t going to find much success being a full-time comedian. For those comics that went long when they knew there were already too many comics on the bill—Fuck you, selfish pricks.

Since there were only 4 comics in this competition and then my fellow judge B. T. was going to close the show, the only comic who was at any disadvantage was the first person who had to hit the stage while the crowd was still getting warmed up.  I tried to keep this in mind when I was judging his performance, especially since I should have done a better job of opening.  This first comic seemed like a lot of comics who get into comedy. Angry, white, and without much stage presence. I totally get why someone with these traits finds standup a place to vent their frustrations. Anyone who hits the stage has a case of look-at-me disease, so if you are person that is generally ignored by society, the stage is a therapeutic place.  Interestingly, this guy had the funniest bit I heard all night which discussed his disgust with baby corn. He has potential as a writer, but he is going to need to find some likability to continue to move-up in the business. I’m sure if he reads this he is going to say, where the fuck does this guy get off saying this about me? My response would be, I might be off—so prove me wrong.

The second comic was only 20 years old. He had crazy stage presence for being this young and his material was really solid as well. He would have won, except that he was way too gratuitous with his use of the word fuck and its other forms.  Here is a super important tip to newer comics.  Don’t use the word Fuck in your show, unless it is completely necessary.  Unless you are Italian or Black, it generally seems a little forced coming out of your mouth and their are still plenty of people who aren’t comfortable with the word.  Even when I do a 60 minute set, I doubt I use the word more than 4 or 5 times. When I do use it the word is used for alliteration or to really punch some frustration to the message I’m offering up.  To use it in a transitional way like Listen to this fucking thing or well I’m fucking driving to the show, it just wastes the value of the shock you are offering up. Now if you sound like Joe Pesci or Samuel Jackson, I have no problem with you using FUCK as much as you use the word AND, but otherwise, don’t waste it. Oh and as I’ve mentioned here previously, many clubs don’t allow you to the word at all as an opening act, especially when working with big name headliners who don’t want to follow a dirty act.

Now let me state that I thought this was the comedian with the most potential of any of the comics I saw that night, so I hope it doesn’t come off like I’m just slagging on the guy, but he had one other major problem; he was channeling Dane Cook.  Now, I didn’t notice that he was doing any Dane Cook material, but his mannerisms, both verbally and physically, were very similar to Dane. Unlike a lot of comics, I’m not a guy who is a Dane Cook-hater.  He has a lot of my respect for how he created a sensation through social media.  This is not to say Dane only used social media, as he has a rock star charisma on-stage and has done a lot of funny material.  I think his material got a little weaker towards the end of the Dane Cook hysteria period, but that had a lot to do with him trying to put together a whole new hour while doing movies and massive publicity.  I’m not cool with when he did bits too similar to Louis CK and a couple others, but I don’t think he’s a psychopathic thief like Carlos Mencia.  OK, back to my young comic friend.  He’s 20 years old and he has to be brand new to the game.  I’m sure he grew up idolizing Dane and if you are going to channel someone else’s style, Dane Cook would be a good place to start. Let’s be honest, at 20 you have no real idea who you are.  When I started at 25, I wanted to be Bill Hicks, so I dressed and tried to act like Dennis Leary, who was doing a great impression of Hicks at the time.  Eventually I found my voice, but even at this point of my career, I’m still trying to become even more the essence of who I really think I am inside. Wow, deep shit, mothafucka.

The 3rd comic to get up was a female comedian. (Btw, I don’t call women who do comedy, comediennes. It seems demeaning to me. If you have the ovaries to get up there and share your angst, you have my respect.) Like the second guy, she was young (26, but looks younger) and good-looking. I mention this because the days when not being good-looking was an advantage in the biz are over.  As soon as Friends came on and became a huge hit, things changed.  The big advantage of being good-looking is that you can get on the covers of Entertainment Weekly and People.  You are more likely to be the stalked by gossip-hounds like TMZ or Perez Hilton, which is great in gaining publicity.  I don’t think that is the best thing for laughter because I think the uglier you are generally, the more in-tune you become with the type of pathos in life which brings about the best comedy. It just isn’t going to change, though, because we live in a more looks conscience society.  This goes as much for the manager at Chili’s at it does standup comedy.  So young comedians, time to get in shape and look the best you can.  That goes also for all you reading this that dream of being a manager at Chilis. Lay off the Baby Back-Baby Back ribs.

Now back to the 3rd contestants act.  I really liked how she talked about things that were personal to her.  The best way to have unique material is to tell stories about your life. Her show seemed already built for a Largo-style comedy show in any city.  I have been critical of some elements of alternative comedy, but don’t think for a minute I don’t think there are some really funny people that have come out of it.  The problem with this style is that it usually doesn’t translate to the average audience. If you are as singularly good as Maria Bamford, you can grow your own audience, but she is completely the exception, not the rule.  The night of the contest it was a room consisting mainly of dudes, which I think hurt her audience response. A lack of audience response also hurts your rhythm and timing.  The toughest thing to do in comedy is being so funny that you will have people want to listen to you for an hour.  She is going to need to find more material that can get her to that place.  I think at this point, though, she is definitely on the right track.

The final comic is a guy I’ve known for a long time, who had stepped away from comedy for a few years. In some ways I thought it was a bit unfair that he was in this type of contest, because at one point he was doing a few weeks a year on the road, but there were no eligibility rules so he was doing nothing unethical in being part of it.  Right from the beginning you noticed his stage presence on-stage was of someone who was very comfortable with himself.  This type of presence makes the audience connect right from the start.  The material was solid, so there was nothing wrong to point to about his show. He was more polished than the 2 comics that came on before him.  He also was a better fit for opening for Donnie Baker than the other 2 acts, so I rated him number 1.  Now if the Grand Prize would have been for opening for someone else, I might have voted differently because there was only a difference of a point on my scorecard between the Top 3.  (Cue to Larry Merchant asking Harold Lederer his thoughts on the fight.)

Now I don’t know if this helps you have a better feel for what goes through a judge’s mind when you are in a contest. Considering that many contests pick the winner from the audience reaction or have official judges who understand comedy like I know ballet, it might not matter, but hopefully it gives you a few things to consider the next time you do one.

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