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...
The Boston Comedy Festival kicked off with its ever-random charm last night, a stand-out stand-up show off the comedy club grid, a well-attended gay-themed show (last year’s had to be canceled) and two equally unpredictable preliminaries in the comedy contest.
I’ve told people this before. As both a former participant (Seattle, 1998) and judge (Seattle, 2000; Boston, 2005) in stand-up comedy contests, you really need to take it all in with the proverbial grain of salt, throw caution to the wind, je ne sais quoi, devil-may-care attitude. Because — brace yourselves — comedy contests, more often than not, never determine who the funnies person in the room really is. There’s politics involved. Lots of BS. Your look might sway people as much as your 5-7 minute set. What’s the crowd like? Who are the judges? Have the judges seen your act before? What’s the scoring system? Where are you in the lineup? Who’s in your preliminary? And Boston adds another layer of madness, since it tries to fit the entire contest into one week. At least San Francisco and Seattle have full weeks of prelims and semifinal competitions — several nights in several different cities and venues — to weed out the flukes and let the premier comics rise to the top. Boston’s contest offers no such luck. Or rather, it’s often about luck. The funniest person in the entire contest might not even survive a prelim.
With that, here are last night’s results.
Prelim 1 winners: Logan Jacobson and Matt Malley
Prelim 2 winners: Frank G, Chris Tabb and Russell Bell
Which, of course, means some of last year’s finalists and semifinalists (Rob O’Reilly, J-L Cauvin) didn’t make the first cut. EJ Murphy, who was in the first prelim, told me he thought everyone in his group “crushed,” so it was hard to tell who’d advance. Chris Tabb, meanwhile, said he was unsure how he’d fare, since he often relies on crowd work and longer stories. “I don’t do five minutes!” he said. Last night, he must’ve figured out something. Also talked last night with Darryl Lenox (that’s the official spelling, despite all of the variations you may have seen elsewhere), who I had the privilege to open for back in the day (and no, that day was not a Wednesday, but a weekend back in 1999, or was it 2000, in Seattle and Bellingham) and can verify his funniness. Of course, Lenox also has won the Seattle contest, finished runner-up in San Francisco and Boston, and appeared this summer on Comedy Central’s Live At Gotham. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll win — last year he got bounced out of the prelims. This year, he says he’s focused on putting that behind him. But he’s in a prelim tonight with fellow Seattle contest winner Floyd J. Phillips and fellow Boston finalist Ira Proctor, among others. Something’s gotta give.
But first, a report from the Abbey Lounge, where Doug Stanhope found fans aplenty to pack the hot room last night for the “Cruel and Unusual” show. Stanhope took the mic at 9:18 p.m. when no one else would, and with his voice hoarse, brought up Brian Joyce, a guy originally from Somerville who had spent a year in Ireland. Naturally that led into material about alcoholism and not letting the terrorists win by backing off of that, somehow transitioning into prison rape (which reminds me of another pet peeve of mine, which I won’t get into here) and gay marriage. Joyce brought up Esther Ku, who dazzled the crowd into revered silence. They were afraid to laugh at Ku’s racially realistic observations, but showed their approval by giving her rousing applause at the end of her 7-minute set. Tom Dustin followed by ripping on both Ku and the Abbey. Dustin also delivered a killer bit about HPV, which I won’t repeat here. Next up, Spike Tobin. Tobin provided the old-school Boston comic set mentality, and even received interference from Annette Pollack, which should tell you something. But Tobin turned Pollack’s heckle around right quick, making her scarf out to be her panties. A final unadvertised set from Norman Wilkerson and then, finally, Stanhope.
Over the course of 57 minutes, Stanhope, despite the hoarse voice (and the weirdness of performing with family and friends nearby, since he was born in Worcester and had a gig there the night before) covered familiar territory and offered new insights on life. Yes, his first request was for liquor: “Do you have any clear tequila?” But the shot was for his girlfriend, suffering with flu-like symptoms. I hadn’t seen Stanhope in close to four years, back when I lived in Arizona and he was coming off an Aspen appearance and about to get married and famous. Now he lives in Arizona and is unmarried, still flirting with fame. Anyhow. Back to his set.
Stanhope reflected briefly on his month in Scotland, where he got lumped into a media report on anti-Semitic comedians, which led him off on a wild tangent about Jew-hating material. “I hate Jews?” he pondered. “You hate cats, but you don’t want them all put on trains and gassed!” Eventually, he came back to a oft-repeated premise of his, that religion causes too much nonsense and too many wars. No wonder some critics try to compare Stanhope to the late Bill Hicks. Stanhope isn’t a comedian in the traditional, stereotypical, set-up punch, jokey joke vein. Rather, he’s more of a truth-seeker, soapbox kind of comic. Is that like Hicks? A bit. But it’s also court jester, too. The kind of guy who can say the most outrageous things and get away with it, because, well, there’s quite a bit of truth to what he’s saying, and because, well, look at how foolish he looks. It’s not as if we have to worry about this guy, do we? That’s what makes the whole Stanhope for President in 2008 idea — on the Libertarian ticket — so intriguing. Is he serious? Outside, after the show, Stanhope told a fan that he doesn’t really want to the rule the country. “I don’t want anyone to rule the country,” he insisted, which is a Libertarian way to go.
Some other highlights of Stanhope’s performance last night: Noting that guilt has nothing to do with being Jewish, using man’s evolutionary relationship with apes as an obscene example. Noting that nationalism only teaches people to hate other countries and to take pride in things they’ve never accomplished (Example: Bailing out the French?). A funny aside about Boston: “There’s an awful lot of history in this town, but not a lot of future.” Some candid reflections about turning 39 and not being able to keep up his wild lifestyle. Wondering why the only new drugs are prescription medications designed not to expand our consciousness, but close up our thinking so we forget our depressing and dull our lives truly are. Noting how the world revolves around women, and particularly, sex with them, which is why the government and religion tries so desperately to make sex seem shameful. At one point, Stanhope engaged the audience in a discussion on monogamy, wondering if it’s instinctual or learned, and what that might say about love. He said he loves MySpace for its marketing efficiency, and joked about comedians who make fun of MySpace, wondering where the comics are who first made fun of cell phones and e-mail in the early 90s are now. But Stanhope hates the idea that the media makes MySpace out to be full of pedophiles — which led to a prolonged routine on pedophilia. Don’t worry, parents, he said. For one thing, online pedophiles are far less dangerous than the old-fashioned real-life pervs. And for another thing, “odds are, no one wants to f— your child!” This riled up him to a killer closing routine about child pornography, describing how it cannot be rampant as people think it is, how it’s the only crime you can be nabbed for simply by looking at it, and then wildly figured out a way to use child porn as a way to attack an anti-abortion campaigner. Never have you heard the phrase “pre-term necrophiliac child molesters,” or so I’m guessing. I’m also guessing many of the people in the crowd hadn’t seen Stanhope perform before. Who knows what they were expecting? They didn’t get an out-of-control, ranting lunatic alcoholic (if that’s what they were expecting). All in all, they heard thought-provoking and funny stuff.