Art of the joke
Future comedy stars do battle in annual San Francisco Stand-Up Comedy Competition
“Times were so hard, after dinner we didn’t even get dessert. We got a Flintstone vitamin—dessert and nutrition rolled into one. You get some dessert, you take your time. You eat it slow. You chew the legs off, chew the arms, chew the head, manicure, pedicure. … You take your time with the Flintstone vitamins.”
So, what’s the score? On a scale from zero to 10, what would you give that joke?
I gave it a 9. That’s based on my gut response. Judging the material on its originality and creativity: maybe just a solid 8.
But why give a joke a numerical score?
For one, that joke (told by Sadiki Fuller) was part of a night of stand-up comedy that was taking place in the number-focused environment of a casino (Colusa Casino and Bingo). More important, though, that night of stand-up comedy was actually a semi-final round of the annual San Francisco Stand-Up Comedy Competition, a traveling competitive event that for 29 years has been a springboard for some of the biggest names in the entertainment world. The five semi-finals winners would then go on to the Sierra Nevada Big Room in Chico, site of the second of five finals competitions.
Robin Williams, Ellen DeGeneres, Dana Carvey, Sinbad and 1995’s winner, Doug Stanhope, who recently became co-host of Comedy Central’s The Man Show, make up an impressive roster of former competitors who built resumes on the strength of winning or making it to the competition’s finals.
Of course, TV’s popular Last Comic Standing is king right now, but its format is lifted directly from what’s become—along with its sister competition, the Seattle Stand-Up Comedy Competition, and the Super Bowl of comedy events, the Aspen Comedy Festival—one of the most important showcases of elite comedy talent in the world.
So, “What’s that joke worth?” might be a better question to ask than “what’s the score,” with the immediate reward for out-yukking your peers being a $5,000 grand prize. But just making it to the semi-finals of the competition, let alone winning, might lead to a talk show appearance, a gig on Comedy Central or even a chance to become immortalized on Saturday Night Live.
You have to pass through the main gaming room and its maze of card tables and video slots, packed on a Saturday night and blinking, ringing and spinning in all its overstimulated glory, before you get to the entrance to Colusa Casino’s expansive bingo/entertainment hall.
On this night, the fancy computer-screen bingo stations were tucked away behind black-cloth partitions that transformed the room into an enormous black-box theater for staging this semi-final for the S.F. Stand-up Comedy Competition.
As part of the tradition of having one promoter (or “talent buyer"), one professional comedian and one media representative act as judges, this humble reporter cautiously accepted an invitation to be part of the process on this night, joined by the casino’s entertainment director, Pete Adams, and local comedian Bob Fernandez.
Scorekeeper/co-organizer Tony Modica gave us, the three “experts,” a list of categories and an explanation of the scoring system ("Just numbers … You can’t enter ‘He’s great’ into the computer"), and the careers of the 10 semi-finalists were in our hands.
There are five more categories in addition to “judge’s response” and “material"—"audience rapport,” “audience response,” “delivery,” “stage presence” and “technique"—and former Golden State Warriors mascot Sadiki Fuller’s hyperbolic memories of growing up poor, having chewable vitamins for dessert and eating generic cereal (not Corn Flakes, just “Flakes") scored high with the Colusa crowd. With an engaging, energetic and endearingly lispy delivery, Fuller racked up the points in the “audience” categories, and four nights later he was one of five finalists hitting the Sierra Nevada Big Room stage.
Only the second of 10 comedians in Colusa, the energetic Fuller set a high mark, and every one of the road-sharpened performers met his standard and even pushed the bar higher at times, making the task of handing out scores as difficult as measuring degrees of change in the brightness of the sun.
The best of the night (though my co-judges must not have agreed, since he didn’t make the cut) was the gangly, bug-eyed Alex Nussbaum, whose nervous voice warbled like a puberty stricken pre-teen: “Did a show in Reno. … There’s a lot of hookers [there]. Some of them are transvestites too: Consumer alert! You’re not getting the product as advertised. I think they should have to wear underpants that clearly state: ‘Caution. May contain nuts.’ Personally, I’m severely allergic. Even trace amounts send me into shock.”
“At some point, it just becomes a big party,” explained Eric Schwartz backstage, after placing fifth at the Sierra Nevada show, about what it’s like to tour and perform with so many comedians. “I’m just here to have a great time,” he continued, evoking the spirit of his excited, puppy dog of a character, Smooth E, the nerdy, Jewish rapper ("…because ‘Oy’ is just ‘Yo’ backwards") who did a hilariously provocative rendition of “The Hokey Pokey” in both Colusa and Chico.
“We get a lot of snap,” said competition promoter Jon Fox about the how the comedians really begin to hone their skills as the tour progresses.
After a stint booking entertainment for the San Francisco Press Club, Jon and his wife Anne joined comedy writer Frank Kidder as promoters beginning with the second year of the competition in 1977. Dana Carvey (who took first place) and fellow Saturday Night Live cast member A. Whitney Brown both made the finals that year, and in 1978 Showtime cable channel aired the competition, dubbing it The Big Laff Off.
“We’re also very, very happy about returning to the Sierra Nevada Brewery,” Fox said, explaining that he’d held a semi-final round of the competition there two years ago. “The finals are perfect for [the] venue.”
Relieved of my judging duties for this segment of the finals (three more would follow, in Sacramento, Napa and, finally, at Caesars Tahoe), I was able to sink into an audience full of dress-up Hawaiian shirts with a fresh Pale Ale in my hand, and take in a night of comedy free of numbers.
The comedians had 15-20 minute sets for the final rounds (nearly double the semi-final allotment), and the margin of difference between them was so negligible that, when the bespectacled, nerdy-looking Nathan Trenholm kicked things off ("Have you ever noticed how a lot of the really bad presidents have George Bush in their name?"), he elicited a sustained howl from the relaxed crowd that didn’t let up all the way through to the end of Joe-New-Yorker Tommy Savitt’s closing set: “I’m not like other men. When you women walk into bars, these men, they start hitting on you. These men, they’re like predators. I’m not like that. … I’m more of a parasite.”
Talking with the comedians afterward, the big word was “exposure,” with the hope being that the competition would lead each to an even wider audience. Attachment to this event will undoubtedly help each comedian’s career, but the devotion to comedy as an “art” (the second big word backstage) would seem to bode well for comedy in general.
“I’d like for my stuff to be funny," said third-place finisher Jim Short, a transplanted Australian whose pointed jabs at George Bush and gay-bashers elicited the largest roars of approval from the presumably all-liberal Sierra Nevada crowd, "but I’d like there to be some merit as well."