Livermore's Bankhead part of 40th San Francisco comedy contest
By Lou Fancher
Promenading on the standup comedian stage, 10 comics will strut their stuff Friday in a semifinal elimination round of the 40th Annual San Francisco Comedy Competition. The four-week competition has 32 comedians selected from 400 to 500 applicants from all over the country participating in a four-week, bucking bronco of an experience: Preliminary rounds consist of 3- to 7-minute sets performed in six shows in six venues over six nights. A revolving cast of three to five judges evaluates the comics using a seven-part rubric. During the semifinals weeks, another six shows (including its inaugural visit to Livermore) have the surviving comedians performing 8- to 12-minute sets. Winnowed to 10 finalists, the 12- to 15-minute long sets reveal a winner, and all finalists will receive cash prizes from $600 to $6,000.
The best thing about this game of numbers is that winning is nothing about the numbers. Evaluated based on material, stage presence, delivery, audience response, rapport with the crowd and the judges' gut feelings -- plus a potential encore point determined by 10 seconds of audience applause, Executive Producer Jonathan Fox says it all boils down to stage presence.
"There's a certain charisma you can't teach yourself," he says. "Our winners have a likability, a magnetism that would be there no matter what they did for a career. You can work on delivery, material, the way you get your laughs, but the most important ingredient is charisma."
That and luck. Two comedians banging the same drum -- about politics, relationships, technology or whatnot -- is a killer. "One of them won't advance. Uniqueness will help the five who do advance," Fox says.
The longtime promoter has played a role in launching comics including Williams (Williams placed second in the competition's first year), Carvey (1977 champion), DeGeneres (first runner up, 1985) and others. Booking the talent at the Punchline comedy club in San Francisco during the 1970s and at about the same time establishing "The Big Laff-Off," a show he says was the first cable television comedy show, Fox also is executive director of the Seattle International Comedy Competition.
"The competitions are similar in structure. Here in the Bay Area, (talent director) Peter Greyy selects the comedians from submitted videos. It's a competition, but also a show that entertains the audience. We try for variety in gender, ethnicity, how they get their laughs."
Of the 16 competitors in week one of the prelims, four were women. Kate Anderson (a New York resident) advanced; Krista Fatka, Oakland, was eliminated but was so strong the organizers put her into Seattle's November competition. Fox says female comics aren't as absent as they used to be, but the bigger changes are in the audience. "The attention span has shortened dramatically. When we started this, it was a novelty. People got over the strident protest of the Vietnam War, and they wanted to have laughs and couldn't get enough of it. Now, when we approach three hours, people don't want to be involved, especially if we were to tell them to turn their phones off." (Fox is thinking about doing so in the future.)
Kabir Singh won the competition in 2014 and will emcee the Bankhead show. The 30-year-old comic grew up in Fremont and now lives in Los Angeles. He got his start by "winging it" due to "peer pressure, it was all peer pressure," at an open mic night. He says the competition fine-tunes a comedian with its ever-changing venues including comedy clubs, casinos, theaters, college campuses and senior living communities.
"You have to look at the crowd and know what will work. If you can't do that, it'll be tough. With a college crowd, you talk about being broke or high school culture. Casino or retirement home communities, you talk about marriage, kids, growing up. Comedy clubs want a combination and straight, punchline jokes."
Immediate feedback from audiences -- who either laugh or don't -- is his favorite tool for honing his act. "I don't do group writing sessions. I go home, write it, tangle the jokes to make it funny for everybody."
With a "Family Guy" voice-over job, Bay Area Outsourced Comedy Tour stops this fall and the on-the-road life of a comedian, Singh works full-time. Fox says the San Francisco Comedy Competition is like a workshop, obstacle course and proving ground -- won by numbers and the comedian with that special something you can spot but rarely name.