Stand up is arguably comedy at its most essential: One person, a microphone, and a handful of the best jokes they can come up with. Since September, comedians from around the region have been putting it all out there during the Charleston Comedy Festival Stand Up Competition's preliminary rounds. The six finalists will compete for a $1,000 grand prize on Tuesday night, appropriately kicking off five days of funny at the Charleston Comedy Festival.
Over the last few months, dozens of comics — most of them local, but some from as far away as Florida and Washington, D.C. — have paced backstage at Theatre 99 before facing the spotlight and a crowd of people expecting hilarity. Some, like Sarah Porter, never made it past the first round.
"At the time of my preliminary round back in October, I only had been doing stand up for about a month, just small open mics in the Charleston area," Porter says. "This was my first attempt in the competition."
Porter joked about working at Cinebarre, movies, and dating old men, and though she didn't move forward, she did manage to earn some chuckles from the crowd.
"So far I've never completely bombed on stage, but I'm never fully happy with my work," Porter says. "Being so new to the art of stand up means that everything is a learning experience. Bombing is just another way to become a stronger performer."
She adds, "The stand up and local comedy scene in Charleston is so welcoming. Stand up is very much a boys' club, and being a young girl means I have more to prove, but everyone in the comedy scene is so loving, supportive, and I'm very lucky to be a part of it."
Even the veterans have their tough days. Derek Humphrey is a regular on Charleston's comedy scene, performing at Theatre 99, Light, and the Tin Roof.
"I bomb horribly all the time," Humphrey admits. "Everyone does. Audiences are different everywhere and every night. I can do a killer set at the Tin Roof on Sunday and then use the same thing at Club Light on Thursday and not a soul will laugh. And you can't blame the audience, either. Unless they are deaf. In fact, the last time I did Club Light, I did terrible. Afterward, I had people consoling me as if I lost someone. The only thing I killed was the audience's expectations and my hopes to do more shows. You just have to stick with it and keep going. It is a rough business."
Humphrey reached the semifinals last weekend, but he didn't make the final cut.
"I had a lot of laughter but not enough audience support," Humphrey says. "Someone definitely brought a large crowd for support, but I still managed to get enough votes to be an alternate. The advantage that I have is that I know where most major vehicles' brake lines are located."
Humphrey didn't make it past the first round in last year's competition, and he learned a thing or two for this year.
"The main difference between last year and this year is that I am actually funny this year," he says. "I think that I really over-thought everything and didn't know what to expect previously. I've gone in with the mindset that this doesn't define me as a comedian. I am up there to have fun and express my views as an art. I have seen some of my really funny friends not do so well during this portion, and not advance, but they are still some of the funniest people I know."
Those who have made it to the final round include Jason Groce, Shon Kennedy, Tim Miller, Lee Pollard, Philip Cohen, and Quinton Green. About half of the finalists are local.
The competition has been tweaked several times since its inception in 2008. More preliminary rounds were added to give everyone a shot at competing, and the semifinals helped to whittle down the competitors. The comics were allotted more time as they advanced to each round — finalists will be given a full 10 minutes on stage. The finals will be held at Theatre 99 instead of the Music Farm. "It's a more pristine environment to hear the comics, which places the focus more on the quality of the material," says Theatre 99 co-owner Greg Tavares.
As soon as Charleston's new king or queen of stand up comedy is crowned, more established acts will be streaming in to give them someone to look up to. Todd Barry is headlining the Charleston Comedy Festival with performances Friday and Saturday nights. Charleston native Kenny Zimlinghaus returns for a set of shows with Indiana's Deon Curry and Nicholas Anthony. Additional acts include J. Reid, Nate Baratze, Andy Haynes, Gilson Lubin, and Tom Keller (who competed in the semifinals). The Stand Up Get-down and This Is Chucktown will highlight some of the city's brightest stand up stars, in case you missed them in the prelims.
Tavares says he was pleased to find that most of the people in the audience at the semifinals Saturday night didn't even know the comedians, i.e. they weren't just "there for their fucking friends."
He adds, "Slowly but surely, it's becoming something that attracts people who just want to see good comedy."