The 27th Annual Seattle International Comedy Festival began on November 1, with 32 comics competing to earn $5,000 and a hilarious name for themselves. Roughly 6,000 people from all over Washington caught the competition during its month-long parade around the state. I was 12 of those 6,000 people.
"We want you to see an entire month of comedy," my editors pitched to me on November 1.
"Is this an Our Worst Enemy™ assignment?" I asked.
"Whatever," they replied. "Just come back weeping."
At the time, I was unfazed. My family raised me to define humor through personal suffering. Seeing a month's worth of amateur comedy could, at worst, only make me more hilarious.
This was faulty logic.
"I want a girl like a good case of genital herpes—doesn't bother me most of the time, but when she does, she's all over my crotch," quipped comedian Tyler Boeh from Bellingham to Ellensburg. Imagine digesting that joke six nights a week—while spending an involuntary Saturday night in Ellensburg—and then pity me. Pity me hard.
My first two shows took me to the preliminaries in Puyallup and Seattle where I became familiar with the comedy competition formula: Three to five judges in the audience evaluate each competitor on a scale of 1 to 10 in seven subjective categories, including "stage performance," "technique," and "audience rapport." Each night, a fresh set of judges in a new locale critiques the comedians, who are ranked for that evening's performance and whose cumulative scores are tallied to see who'll make it to the semifinals and finals. Judges included local casting directors and national scouting agents from E!, CBS, and NBC, as well as celebrity judges such as a former Tibetan monk, the voice of Lois from Family Guy, and her actor-husband from Gilmore Girls.
By the following Thursday, the competition had been whittled down to 10 semifinalists and I was driving 80 miles to the Skagit Valley Casino in Bow, Washington, to see my 12th hour of repetitive comedy in under a week. I pulled over to weep just a bit, which made me late for the show.
I ended up in the back of the casino's theater, sandwiched between a man holding his own oxygen tank and an overweight couple out on a blind date.
"This better not be some sort of fag party," the man on my left remarked to his date. "If I have to watch gay men prance about on stage, I'm leaving."
I was deeply offended.
"Excuse me," I interrupted, "but gay men are inherently funny." This is not a stereotype, but a goddamn fact. Oppressed homos bleed comedy. Bonus points if they were chubby and tortured as teenagers.
"I suppose they are funny," he replied. "Funny looking."
His name was Brad, and he was from "around." The only comedy show he had ever seen had been a drag show his brother had participated in.
"He asked me to wax his shoulders for him before his show," Brad said. I thought that was very funny. Brad disagreed.
"Is your brother chubby?" I asked.
"And he grew up a closeted gay man in rural Washington?"
"Then maybe you just have an underdeveloped sense of humor," I said.
My family strongly believes in the adage that comedy is the fruit of seasoned suffering. Consequently, everyone is competitively hilarious. In 1985, my uncle Chris became the family comedian after he was run over by a speeding jeep in Mexico, which left him with faint tire marks across his chest and a mouthful of false teeth. My mother previously held the title simply for marrying my father. On his deathbed two years ago, my grandfather took the title, because he had a defective heart and kept shitting himself.
After his death, the crown passed to me when my grandmother ordered me to find my dead grandfather's secret porn stash "somewhere in the basement" and dispose of it. Soon after, my cousin cleverly checked himself into rehab and ended my reign.
By November 19, I'd witnessed a full 24 hours of comedy, and the 10 semifinalists I'd been following—including several tepidly funny females and a number of minorities—were narrowed down to five young, straight white guys. Finalist Dylan Mandlsohn is tall, thin, and has "the face of Mad magazine grown up." He describes his comedy as a cross between Jim Carrey and Bill Maher, and relies heavily on physical humor and exaggerated facial ticks to amuse his audience. Mandlsohn started his standup career nine years ago, at age 17. "I've had to live my life for my father—because he financed it," cracks Mandlsohn nightly onstage. After digesting this punch line for several weeks, I found myself wondering if Mandlsohn's family was competitively funny, like mine. After his set one night, I cornered him backstage.
"Is your family hilarious?" I asked.
"No, they're real-estate agents."
My hopes were dashed.
"So your sense of humor wasn't tortured into you from a young age?"
"I grew up knowing I wanted to do comedy," he said, "because all of my heroes were comedians."
My childhood heroes were overweight gay men and rodeo clowns. I grew up knowing I was an unfunny burden to my mother and if I wanted to make her proud, I had some large, garish shoes to fill.
After nine nights of comedy, I was a puddle of self-pity. I called my mother to brag, but she beat me to the punch. "Your cousin Jay Morgan just got a portrait of grandma tattooed on his chest," she announced, "Life size!"
"Isn't he still in prison?"
"Yes, but he sent photos!" My mother was busy turning them into family Christmas cards.
Not one of the finalists could pinpoint the origins of their humor when I interviewed them. They were five guys from stable families who turned a party trick into a life calling. "I'm like the guy who just shows up in your kitchen, grabs a beer, and starts telling stories," explained finalist Damonde Tschritter, whose sets featured virtually seamless weavings of fantastical and hilarious stories about being a volunteer fireman, playing baseball while stoned, and living "where crack meets smack." Tschritter was favored to win the competition—every finalist I spoke with named him as their personal favorite. "It'll be kind of embarrassing if I don't win," he admitted with a grin, "since I'm the only comedian in the competition who currently headlines at the Comedy Underground."
Despite having heard all their jokes half a dozen times, I really liked all the comedians. They were nice, young, hard-working guys and though I resented them for stealing my youth night after night, I admired their talent. I have never attempted standup comedy, nor will I ever. It takes more than a sense of humor to get onstage and woo a crowd. There is charm involved. Delivery. Guts. Finalist Paul Myrehaug refers to the package as "likeability." "People tell me I bring likeability to the stage," he says. "It's my goal in the first 15 seconds to get my audience completely comfortable with me."
The Alberta native's "likeability" is a tactful label for his extreme good looks—neatly trimmed beard, mushy doe eyes, 6' 4" ex-hockey-player frame, etc. Myrehaug is so handsome, in fact, that he can make jokes in Puyallup about how efficient terrorists are compared to Americans ("At 7:15 a.m., I'd still be trying to get my dick out of the hooker") and the entire audience coos and collectively wishes they were on hand to take pictures.
Myrehaug's likeability may cause women—especially Tacoma women—to loudly chant "I want to fuck him!" in my ear for two hours straight, but his routine, which runs from wooing "cougars" (as he refers to older women) to feeding his fictional daughter Happy Meals to preemptively ward off male suitors ("That's daddy's little sea donkey!" he brays) is hilarious enough to stand alone.
But half the joys of humor spring from its spontaneity—a spontaneity that is difficult to recreate when performing a carefully constructed comedy routine in a competitive environment night after night.
This was not a problem for finalist Rory Scovel. Every night he stepped onstage his set was remarkably different, thanks to Scovel's near-genius improvisational skill. When a couple left their front-row table during his set to refill their drinks at the bar, Scovel dragged their chairs and jackets onstage, forcing them to interact with him and successfully incorporating them into the rest of his routine.
By contrast, finalist Boeh was often an audience favorite, but I quickly tired of hearing him replicate the beatboxed sounds of fucking a cancer patient and her "neck kazoo." After about a minute of beatboxing, he would add the rhythmic moaning sounds of a black woman, and beatbox the sounds of fucking the cancer patient and black woman simultaneously. After a week of this, my cringes were both audible and uncontrollable.
On Thanksgiving weekend, with only one performance to go, I showed up on my editor's front porch and begged for clemency. "The Seattle Weekly just covered this competition," I argued. "Can't we end this?"
"No one reads the Seattle Weekly," he rebutted. "Happy Thanksgiving!"
On Sunday, November 26, I trudged through the snow to the Comedy Underground in Pioneer Square for my final night of comedy. The basement venue was packed with spectators and proud family members. I was seated next to one of the competitor's girlfriends.
Tschritter opened the show with an amusing but slightly rambly story about his recent vacation in Mexico. He was rudely heckled, which threw off his game. The judges placed him last for the evening.
I noticed the girlfriend seated to my right was overtly reading my performance notes. This annoyed me.
Next up was Scovel. His audience interaction and rapport was amazing, I wrote on my notepad. You have horse teeth, I added for the nosy girlfriend. Scovel took first place for the evening.
Beatboxing champ Boeh followed Scovel. And my tits are bigger than yours. Boeh came in fourth.
Myrehaug took second.
Also, you are the punch line to your boyfriend's worst joke.
Mandlsohn came in third.
Yes, I am a child.
After a brief recess, host and comedian Brad Upton took the stage to announce the overall champion of the 27th Annual Seattle International Comedy Competition, based on five nights of cumulative scores.
In fifth place was Mandlsohn, preceded by Boeh in fourth place, Scovel in third, and Myrehaug in second. Taking first place: Tschritter, marking the first Canadian victory in 27 years of competition. Tschritter celebrated his victory by singing the opening bars of "O Canada" to a chagrined but cheering crowd, who had pegged him dead last for the evening. The discrepancy reminded me of a story he told me after one of his sets.
"I had just landed a spot on national television, so I thought I was hot stuff," Tschritter explained. "And I had a gig the night my spot aired, but the crowd was having none of me. Finally I got fed up and shouted, 'Hey, I'm a really funny guy. I've got a spot on the TV and everything! It's on right now. Go ahead and turn it on!' And someone at the back of the bar did. Pretty soon everyone was watching the TV and laughing. The real me was being crushed by the TV me."
Tschritter will be celebrating his victory with three nights of standup at the Comedy Underground on December 7 at 8:30 p.m. and December 8–9 at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.
I celebrated his victory by ducking out an emergency exit and hailing a cab.