Buzzing the stand-up contest

What’s it like to make an audience laugh, under pressure? Ask François Fly, insect comedian

Keith Lowell Jensen as François: Like flies on sherbet?

Keith Lowell Jensen as François: Like flies on sherbet?

Photo By Jill Wagner

I perfected the fart noise at a young age. I memorized all of Steve Martin’s albums. I spent most of my youth in detention, suffering for my art. I went down to my local comedy club on open-mike night. I went there again … and again … and again. I am ready for the next step in my illustrious career: the comedy contest.

Starting out in comedy can hold the same frustrations as any other career. It seems you need to have work to get work. There are many different approaches to this problem, from schooling to brown-nosing to lying. The best approach I’ve come across for getting those first few gigs to start you on your way to superstardom is to win a comedy contest.

Laughs Unlimited in Old Sacramento has long hosted open-mike nights for beginning joke-jockeys wanting to practice their shtick. The club also features a great comedy class put on by two professional comedians, Del Van Dyke and Karen Anderson, who also put together “The Gold Rush Comedy Competition.” The contest spans three weeks and four cities, and features over 30 amateur comedians, as well as several pros who host and do guest spots. First place pays $500 and—more important—gets you bookings at several clubs. The nice mark on your résumé, from placing at all, would certainly sway almost any club owner to take a chance on you.

I decide to enter the contest. Truthfully, I decide to win it but, hey, entering comes first. I pay my $10, or promise to eventually, and my name’s added to the list. I ask for the needed evenings off at work and set about preparing my routine. Should I do some observational humor, some prop humor, perhaps a pantomime? Then it hits me—I’ll put two strainers on my head and perform as a fly, a French fly, François Fly! Actually, this bit is well tested. It’s a tad risky, having so far bombed as often as it has killed. I feel it’s my strongest, though, and so I place my comedic fate in François’ hands.

The night of the contest, I arrive at the club early, as instructed. The place is crawling with comedians, which is not as festive a sight as one might expect. We are a vile bunch. I join my funny friends in backstabbing, gossiping and smiling politely. “So-and-so stole their routine from listening to old Jonathan Winters albums.” “Can you believe what’s-his-name is still doing that cockroach gag.” “Oh, yeah, the audience loves him, but how far is he gonna go with big d*** jokes?”

We’re not bad people, really, but there’s only room for so many in this business, and competition breeds ferocity. Another jokester informs me that the crowd the week before wasn’t too hot. “Not very generous with the laughs at all,” he says. Well that certainly cheers me up. The caterpillars in my stomach begin to spin cocoons.

Anderson is running around saying “hi” to everyone. She’s much too young to be mother to any of us, but she seems to me a somewhat maternal figure. She gives encouraging words and last-minute instructions and, of course, she clowns—always, she clowns. Van Dyke is relaxing at the bar with the sign-in sheet. The audience is arriving and a line is forming. The caterpillars in my stomach have shed their cocoons and begun fluttering about as full-fledged butterflies. The audience is seated, drinks are being served. Anderson and Van Dyke gather us around to give us the details of how the event will work.

“Everyone gets the same introduction. You get a solid light at five minutes [a small red light faces the stage], it begins to blink at six, at seven minutes you lose a point and at eight you are disqualified. If you do less than five you are disqualified. Judging will be on originality, stage presence, delivery and audience response. Your points from three nights at three different clubs in three different cities are added up at the end of the week and the top seven will advance to the semifinals.”

A draw is held to determine the order in which we will perform. I am the first to be assigned a number. Dear God, please not number one. I’m lucky—I’m number 11. I breathe a huge sigh of relief. When Collin Burroughs gets the number-one slot, the remaining comedians break into applause. Poor sucker. The rest of the numbers are drawn. We all file into the club and Anderson takes the stage to warm up the crowd. The crowd seems plenty ready to laugh and I feel a little better. My butterflies’ flutter slows slightly.

Poor Burroughs takes the stage. His opening lines are met with silence and I get nervous for him. He starts his monologue and the crowd starts their laughing. He finds his rhythm and the contest is off to a good start. I head backstage to get into costume and character as well as to go over my routine. The time passes too quickly. Ten comedians come and go. I hear the laughs. I hear the names as they’re called. I count ’em down as my turn draws near. Anderson has made a running gag of the fact that she is introducing each comedian the same way. She points out the high number of female comedians. And now she is introducing me! I am at the stage door. Never mind butterflies, two 300-pound gorillas are performing Riverdance in my belly.

“The next comedian, is a very funny guy—please welcome François Fly.” I walk onstage, with giggles already triggered by my name. Once the costume is seen, I get a generous round of laughs. This is the way it’s meant to start. The audiences that have not enjoyed François have greeted him with silence right out the gate, with “Boy, you got strainers on your head!” written on their glaring faces. Not this audience. These folks are ready to play! I give the best François I’ve ever given, and get the best response I’ve ever gotten. An audience of full-grown adults chant “poop” with full enthusiasm! They catch the subtle jokes (yes, poop jokes can be subtle, too). An audience member notices out loud that my fly is open. Wham!—right into my trap.

I am backstage once again. The gorillas are sleeping peacefully. I am pumping my fist and feeling too good. I know at this moment why I do this. I go to the bathroom to remove my black makeup and change my clothes. I don’t like to be recognized as François, preferring to let him exist as his own fly. And I learned the hard way that white boys don’t wander around in blackface unless they want a black eye.

I sit with my friends who’ve come to support me, and watch as Jeff Cosgrave slaughters the audience with his manic comic style. The crocodile hunter meets the Rock meets Sean Connery. This kid’s too young to be so damn good, having just turned 18 last month.

The comedians finish and Anderson welcomes on a professional to keep the crowd happy while tonight’s scores are tallied. He mentions me. “You know, he looked to me like he had strainers on his head!” I’m flattered. The tallying is completed, and Anderson takes the stage again. The butterfly gorillas awaken as she explains that the top five comedians from this evening will be announced, but the contest depends on three nights of judging, so all the comedians are still in the running. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, get to the damn names” the gorillas yell in unison. The names are read: “Mark Yaffee, Michael Yager, Jeff Cosgrave, Grandma Betty and—” One name left and I feel it has to be mine.

She reads the name. It’s not mine. I am stunned. I felt sure I’d earned it.

I immediately start the task of telling myself I’m still in the running. It may have been a matter of one point. The other judges may like poop jokes better. I should have tried bribing them. I leave the club feeling great to have gotten such a positive response from the audience and wondering how I could’ve gotten a better response from the judges.

I’m in good shape for night two, though. I’m gonna kill ’em.