In real life, maybe you audition a few months ago for a comedy competition that's going to be televised everywhere in America and beyond. Maybe your audition goes well. Maybe it goes well enough that you get asked to perform again at a live audience showcase, and then that goes well enough that you receive a red-ticket envelope to perform again in Hollywood. So maybe, just maybe, you're excited to see yourself on television and so are your friends, family and loved ones. So what happens when you and they turn on the TV and, an hour later, are wondering, did we and they blink and miss you? Hold that thought.
Because we're living by TV producers' rules. And in Last Comic Standing's seventh season, even when they say it's not business as usual, it's still show business. Last week, they edited the New York City auditions together to allow some comedians to get better treatment than they should have, while putting others in the background to tease you. What's doing for round two in NYC?
Well, first, host Craig Robinson tells us what happened previously on LCS, which was that nine comedians received tickets to the semifinals. Wait a minute! Nine??? That cannot be right, no matter how you edit it, because they let 12 people through on the night I watched live and in person, and apparently another 12 in the other showcase, so already, you and I know that there are going to be some comedians who were happy a few months ago, but who are going to be much less happy tonight.
Cue the actual and the artificial tension!
Brian McKim -- for people born before the Y2K bug wiped out the first version of the Internet, you may know him as "The Male Half" of Shecky Magazine -- gets the first uncredited one-liner of the evening, followed by a montage of comedians we should expect to be seeing later in the hour. By the way, if anyone has been watching all of the pre-season promos, Robinson is sneaking in his proposed catchphrase mantra for the season: "Be about it!"
We officially start the night off with Jerry Rocha, from Dallas, who says he has been a professional stand-up for eight years, and vows to hug anyone and everyone if he doesn't advance. He jokes with the judges about his racist uncle who doesn't quite get racial jokes. Our judges are given the superimposed title of "Comedy Jurist" this evening, which sounds much more foreboding than before, when they were judges. Now they're judges and jury? Me no get it. But me still likey Andy Kindler, Natasha Leggero and Greg Giraldo, so me no stop recapping. Calise Hawkins apparently is from Illinois (I know her as a Jersey girl, where she lives now, while you simply know her as a single mother with a big Afro!), and she takes us into her home with her daughter, and how adorable are they? Kindler isn't a big fan of her material about a homeless guy on the subway, but he and Giraldo both think she's a good performer, and Leggero enjoyed it, so Hawkins gets another chance to perform. Mike Vecchione jokes about his New York City cop look, and I know and you know and we know that he is funny, and even Leggero, who happened to see Vecchione the other night at the Comedy Cellar agrees. Who wants a pretzel?
Zed is the future of stand-up comedy? Somebody better tell Ron Lynch about this competing comedy robot. "Is this a character you're doing?" Giraldo asks. A woman has a whip on the sidewalk. For some reason. Kindler talks about clowns and jugglers, and jokes about all comedians starting out as novelty acts. You remember Lenny Bruce the sword swallower, right? Kindler prefers seeing a comedian sweat. Take that, deodorant ad!
Kyle Grooms doesn't have to worry about that. He did an Obama impersonation in the early TV ads for this season, and he does it for the judges, too. Giraldo says he is not a fan of impersonations but knows that that's not a big part of Grooms' act, so no worries. He's through.
Here were your final results from the 2008 Boston Comedy Festival contest, decided last weekend...
1. Dwight Slade ($5,000); 2. Andrew Norelli ($2,500); 3. Myq Kaplan ($1,000); 4. Dave Waite ($300); 5. Baron Vaughn ($300); 6. Joe List ($300); 7. Rob O'Reilly ($300); 8. Mario DiGiorgio ($300)
How did this happen? Well, let's examine the particulars. The Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston didn't have its usual packed audience -- my memory tells me that festival organizer Jim McCue (who hosted the finals) had a sure-fire headliner in past years with Lewis Black (whom McCue sometimes opens for on tour) to fill the seats, and without that (The Smothers Brothers were the biggest name on Saturday night), the venue didn't even open the balcony. So you've got comedians used to smaller, more intimate club stages moving up to a big theater stage, except they're playing to a half-house (essentially). So you're playing to the orchestra level and a mezzanine. How do you translate your jokes to a mezzanine? There's that to consider. Also, they put the judges in the Muppet seats (as judge/honoree Steve Sweeney remarked) above the stage and near the speakers, where the acoustics were, well, terrible.
As for the performances themselves, I'm not surprised in the slightest at the top three -- Slade, Norelli and Kaplan performed at a higher level than the other five finalists. Those three could have finished in any order and not surprised me. That's how close they were. In the end, however, Slade owned the stage in a way the others didn't, and that most likely gave him an edge on the judges' scorecards.
Lessons learned from last night at the 2008 Boston Comedy Festival: Sometimes a comic plays very well to the back of the room, but not so much to the judges table in the second row; and sometimes, a show is so stacked with talent that it's difficult to pick just two comedians to advance to the finals. It was that kind of night. But you want to know who advanced and why.
Semi #3 winners, advancing to Saturday's Finals at the Cutler Majestic Theatre and a share of $10,000 in prize money: Rob O'Reilly and Mario DiGiorgio!
Wow. Just. Wow. Another comedian turned to me during DiGiorgio's performance and said "a set like this will win the contest." Which sounds like a good omen for him on Saturday. What the comic meant, I believe, is that DiGiorgio structured his set in such a way as to have broad mass appeal, with well-thought out material and a heavily layered closing routine that would earn points from the judges -- and for those of you who haven't been at the contest finals in a while -- those judges often include veteran old-time acts, such as Bill Dana, Norm Crosby, Shelly Berman, and this year, most likely the Smothers Brothers. You might be the cat's meow to all the cool kids these days, but your sense of humor might fly right past some judges. Anyhow. Where was I? Right. You may hear DiGiorgio's lengthy discussion of "the s-word" again on Saturday, so why would I ruin it? He also had a very clever idea about why Star Wars fan geeks might be virgins. O'Reilly went up after both Jessi Campbell and Andy Peters had raised their volume and the audience's to about 11.5, and immediately changed gears, saying: "OK, let's calm it down a bit." With his added time (sets expanded from 5 minutes in the prelim round to 8 minutes in the semis), O'Reilly joked about waking up drunk in Colonial Williamsburg and acting out the story of an early gig following a rowdy guy in an "urban" club. Campbell and Peters had gotten plenty of laughs from the back of the room, and Campbell, in particular, had gotten two separate applause breaks. One comic not in competition whispered, "First woman in the finals...nice." But it was not to be. Some of the judges thought Campbell and Peters were a bit too loud and/or in-your-face and/or inconsistent and/or overcompensating and/or something else they didn't tell me.
Which left only two more spots for the finals...
Not all contest preliminary groups in the Boston Comedy Festival are created alike. That's the first thing that has to be said for prelims 3-4 last night. In the late show, you could make a case for at least eight of the 12 comedians to make it through to the semis, but there only were slots for four. As for the early show, well, that was a tougher show to grade, because quite a few comedians were off. Andrew Norelli, going up seventh in the order, used this as his opening remark to the audience at the Hard Rock Cafe: "I know we're making it look like it's not fun, but it's fun!" Also, each of the first four prelims has proved problematic for comedians attempting to deal with the wireless microphone -- grabbing it from the stand, at least one comic per group manages to turn the mic off, and thereby momentarily derailing their sets. Tech proficiency can be just as important in delivering and connecting with the audience. Please make a note of it. Thanks. With that, let's get to who advanced and why...
Norelli acknowledged the early roughgoing and proceeded to get the audience on his side by talking about steroids in baseball, and how other drugs might make it better. A routine on massages went from happy endings (predictable) to massage talkers and the inanity of the phrase, "Push the stress out your arms." He also has a good retort to porn stars who claim they don't know who he is as a comic, as well as people who claim they're broke but still have plenty of money.
Dustin opened with a passing remark to the stage: "Nice ramp. I would've brought my wheelchair if I had known." Tonight's show had plenty of comics noting their surroundings, by the way. But no one else in the contest had to deal with waitresses dropping the checks during their contest set. Dustin still managed to get their attention by talking about vibrators -- "OK, the lonely girl has spoken!" Dustin noted in reference to one shouty audience member -- and jokes about sex and work and things you don't want to hear in bed. I'd heard it all before. It still worked.
Hunter could have had a terrible set by opening rather loud on the mic, but once he focused his routine on one lengthy bit about the many enticements and redeeming qualities he offers the ladies -- namely, everything they tend to like and act like -- got his vocal delivery in a more appealing rhythm that worked. "I'll be by that instrument after the show," he said, in case you wanted to take him up on that offer. Good luck.
O'Reilly also overcame a mistaken gametime decision. For reasons only he can explain, he decided to stop his routine in the middle to engage in crowd work with retired women in the front table. Crowd work that didn't go anywhere. And this was in the middle of O'Reilly joking about sex. His jokes about being a bastard do provide him with a solid line, however, that he can use for callbacks and laughs.
Others in this group deserving mentions of one sort or another: Jono Zalay wore an American flag sweater but didn't explain it, instead delivering a routine about feeding cocaine to rats and monkeys (it's for his studies). Dustin Chafin was rough around the edges, which works better in NYC where he lives now than in the Hard Rock in Boston (especially with the retired ladies up front), and went with midgets, redneck jokes, Bush is dumb, and a good line about how Obama can look more patriotic (hint: Apollo Creed). "Yay!" may not be the most effective catchphrase to utter every 15 seconds. "Big" Alvin David and Kendra Cunningham both had a fun presence, and plenty of crowd support, but couldn't translate that into winning sets. Shawn Donovan picked his doctor just for the name and comedy premise alone, but needed to sell it better. I can see why Myq Kaplan liked Donovan's style (Donovan even borrowed Kaplan's phrase and inflection to deliver one punchline?!).
OK. Moving on...
Carolines closed out its second annual March Comedy Madness on Tuesday night with two very intriguing Final Four matchups. One half of the bracket pitted boyfriend against girlfriend, while the other half could best be described as the single white guys uncomfortable with the ladies division. Comedians performed with a scoreboard clock ticking behind them, as well as his or her competition sitting and/or standing on the side of the stage.
First semifinal: Boyfriend against girlfriend, aka Reese Waters vs. Liz Miele. Waters (pictured) went first and, after a hesitant first 30 seconds warming up to the crowd, he really delivered with a fresh and funny take on Obama vs. Hillary and picking between a black man and a white woman, spinning it in turn on the audience's choice between himself and Miele. Miele's best jokes, coincidentally, came late in her five-minute set with bits about dating a black guy (though she never name-checked Waters specifically).
Second semifinal: Single white guys uncomfortable with the ladies, aka Dan Hirshon vs. Rob O'Reilly. Hirshon went with awkward and insecure, while O'Reilly went with overcompensating overconfidence. Hirshon also talked about his Jewishness with bits about failing an audition for an extra in The Departed and working at Bertucci's. O'Reilly opened strong with an act-out joke about having sex and being farsighted, then kept talking about sex.
The finals: Waters vs. O'Reilly.
But first, 2007 March Comedy Madness champ Julian McCullough returned for a guest set while the semifinal votes were tallied. An odd decision for two reasons: 1) McCullough hit strong, making the finals a bit weird because the audience now would subconsciously be comparing the finalists to him, and 2) when the finals kicked off, O'Reilly and Waters would restart not only cold, but also without any of their better jokes from their earlier sets to use in a new 10-minute set.
That said, O'Reilly went dirty and racial, whereas Waters followed with a more personal approach talking about growing up black and poor. Waters made that connection with the audience (not that they were made up of poor, black people, but that he made audience members feel more comfortable about laughing, and therefore voting for him), and won. The Carolines contest format made me think about the San Francisco and Seattle comedy competitions, in that anyone can advance in an early round with a great joke or short set (for Carolines, the initial battles were decided by a 1-minute bit and a decibel reader!), but that comedian with a solid 4-5 can collapse in the finals (where in Seattle and SF, you've got to prove you have another solid 20 or more minutes).
So O'Reilly finishes second for the second year, and Waters, for his victory, gets a paid week opening at Carolines, a trophy and an interview with ABC.com and ABC News Now.
Earlier this month, ABC News Now featured McCullough. Here's a link to the video (embedding? anyone?). I'll upload the video with Waters when it becomes available. Also, fun to note in McCullough's performance that they have him play to such a small crowd in a TV studio. That's always a fun time, isn't it? But he does get them going eventually. And Caroline herself is there, too!
Last year's runner-up, Rob O'Reilly (pictured), makes a return trip to the Final Four tonight, and shared some insight with us about the process and the particular peculiarities:
"This year it's me versus Dan Hirshon on one side and Liz Miele vs. Reese Waters on the other side. Interesting side note is that those two are dating. Weirder side note is that so are me and Hirshon.
We do 5 minutes in the final 4 and 10 minutes if you make the finals."
The early rounds got judged by a laughometer (or laugh o'meter, or Laugh-O-Meter, depending upon your pronounciation preferences), while tonight's semifinals and finals decide winners by audience ballot. The showdowns begin tonight at 9:30 p.m. at Carolines. Will the fact that O'Reilly and Miele recently both taped Live At Gotham give them a competitive advantage? You'll just have to go and find out!