2014 World Series of Comedy – How I Rocked It Then Screwed Up

Phil Johnson WSOCI should have written about this a week ago.  The weird thing about being in full creative and marketing mode for my filming coming up is that I don’t have time to write or think about anything else.  But some interesting things happened at this festival.  So better late than never. 🙂

I recently returned from the World Series of Comedy in Las Vegas where I took 5th place out of 101 comedians. Definitely the best I’ve done in the 5 years this festival has existed.  But I could have done better and I know how.

Love to Hate Competitive Comedy

I really don’t like the idea of competitive comedy.  Or music or painting or any other art.  But the competition aspect is what brings in the crowds. Would you watch American Idol if the pitch was simply “Here are a dozen amazing singers you’ve never heard of to sing for you.”?  Probably not.

But it does have its pros too.  In the book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing
the authors talk about a variety of scientific experiments that prove that, in many people but not all, competition makes them work harder and perform at a higher level than they normally would.

And competition comedy is a lot different from a regular comedy gig.

Let’s get deep and geeky into the art of standup comedy…

First, some background. I’ve performed in the WSOC all five years and I also work on the staff. Usually counting votes (except in shows I’m performing in…darn.). This year I also ran sound and did some ticket collecting at the door. Because I’m on the staff I see every single comic. About 140 sets over the whole week.  When I get back I don’t want to hear any jokes for about a week.

The fest starts with comics submitting 5 minute videos to be scored by a panel of judges. The top 101 are admitted to the festival with the top 56 of those going to the preliminary rounds. The other 45 go into Monday’s 3 Wildcard rounds where the comics do 5 minute sets.

The top 3 from the Wildcard rounds get distributed into the regular preliminaries which are 8 minute sets. In the prelims, the top 2 get to move on. All the first place finishers go into one semi-final. All the second place finishers into another semi. Those second place finishers are battling it out for one spot in the first place semi-final.

Then the top 3 are chosen from that semi-final and battle it out for 1st, 2nd, 3rd in a final round that has them doing 25 minute sets.

The shows are judged both by the audience and a panel of booking agents from around the country that we all want to work for.  The audience scores each comic on a scale of 1 to 5. The booker judges give three scores of up to 10 points for Originality, Performance, and Overall.

The judge scores are added up and bonus points are added for the top audience vote getters. 5 points for the top, 4 for 2nd, etc.

And the prize? Work. 1st place gets 50 weeks of work at clubs around the country.  2nd and 3rd get lesser amounts of prize work.  It’s all feature bookings. That’s the spot between the MC and headliner.  All told it’s about $15,000 worth of work.  Before taxes.  And before travel costs. You’re lucky to end up with about $5000 in profit at the end of all those gigs.
We’re that dumb and committed to our art that we’ll work for far below poverty level wages in order to get on stage and work our way up.

Now you know why I sell merchandise.

My history of suckage…

My personal history in the competition puts me solidly in those Wildcard rounds for the first 3 years. I think I advanced out of them in two of those years. Either through winning or for being on the bubble when one of the winners couldn’t stay for further rounds. I would get bumped up.

Last year my video got me into the regular prelims which was great. I proceeded to have a highly mediocre set and break my one rule of competitions: Don’t come in last. That’s exactly where I was.

A better strategy…

This year I was determined to not let that happen again. I spent the month before the competition in my hometown doing short sets to prepare.  I reviewed the videos of last year’s semi-finals and made notes of which of my jokes I thought would work.

In years past I did full bits.  Maybe 3-4 bits in an 8 minute set.  And no music. Just standup. This year I edited down the best parts from a variety of bits and added a song at the end. I created a set that was tight and punchy and really shows a good amount of what I do as a performer.

Here’s the tough part.  I was taking little bits of larger bits and stringing them together. I had to relearn them so as not to go on auto-pilot into the longer version. I also had to construct a through line and transitions for things that I don’t normally put right next to each other. You’d be surprised how hard it is to transition smoothly from one bit to the next.

I did that 8 minute set about 14 times on stage and dozens and dozens of times in my living room at home. In the past I had strung stuff together, but hadn’t gotten enough rehearsal with it to make it really gel as a set. I knew it inside and out this time.

The Fest Begins…

Monday and Tuesday of the event was catching up with friends from all over the country and doing staff stuff.  None of the judging panel, many of whom I know from past years, mentioned my video, which I wasn’t terribly happy with either. It landed me in a Wildcard round again, but I was on the bubble when someone cancelled and I got bumped up to a regular prelim round.

I kept running my set in my hotel room during down times.  Besides the shows, the fest also has workshops, a poker tournament, a bowling night. It’s pretty busy.

My first shot at the stage…

Wednesday 6pm was my first show. And I was on last.  That’s a tricky spot.  The audience and judges are getting a little tired after seeing 7 other comics. Plus I have to level up to whatever bar the performers before me set.

Plus I’d been knocked down twice earlier in the day. Once by not getting rebooked for next year at a club I was really hoping for.  Then I went to a workshop with a manager that was mostly depressing from a career point of view.  So I skipped the next workshop and went back to my hotel room to rehearse a few more times and spend some time in quiet meditation followed by an early dinner of comforting Mexican food.

I was stacked against some of the most talented comedians in the whole event.  And the audience was amazing.  A dream audience.  The kind of audience that laughs so long and hard that it can screw with your timing.  Especially when you only have 8 minutes and you’re watching for that red light that tells you time is up.  Every single comic had an amazing set.  Not a dud in the bunch.

But I brought my A-game. It wasn’t a perfect set by any means.  But it was strong. Applause breaks.  Loooong laughs.  It was like riding a series of waves and having to time each one exactly right to keep the momentum going.  I stepped in too early on a couple of them. But better than letting the momentum die before the next joke.  The laughter took so long that I only had time to get through half a song.  Fortunately I’d planned for that possibility, so it didn’t throw me too bad.

It was by far the best audience and the most competitive show of the week.  The definite high point.

I only really know what happened because I watched the video afterward. I never remember most of a great set.  It just happens and I walk offstage.  If I remember the show, chances are it wasn’t that great.  And we’ll get to that one…

Normally I wouldn’t show you this video because a lot of this material is going to be in my new special we’re filming on Nov 8th. So do me a favor and don’t share this video please. Though you’re welcome to share this blog post.

They announced Jon Stringer as the 2nd place finisher and I figured I was out. I thought he had a way better set than I did.  Then they announced my name as 1st place. So excited!  I had wanted to do something memorable when I got on stage.  And since I have a history of blatant promotion as humor (see Buy My Shit), I decided to jump on stage and immediately start handing my business cards to the front row.  Goofy.


The timing of all this was fortuitous.  The next morning we were having a meet and greet with all the bookers.  My big win was fresh in their minds.  Lots of people were talking about me.

Now I had a Thursday and Friday to bask in my 1st place-ness.  My semi-final was 8pm on Saturday.  I would be up 7th out of 9 comics.  I decided not to worry about putting together a 25 minute set for my possible move to the finals until Saturday. I did a little pondering of it, but mostly just returned to staff duties and enjoying the fest.

Back to Work…

On Saturday afternoon I’d convinced myself that I had a shot at the final 3 and I sat down to work out a 25 minute set. If my strategy worked for the 8, the same thing would probably work for 25. Rather than doing my normal feature length set I was going to cram the best of my hour show into 25 minutes.

I picked out the best jokes and added two more songs.  Imagine you’ve memorized an hour long speech.  Then someone tells you to take just the best parts and cut it down to 25 minutes. And you only have a few hours to relearn the whole thing.  I spent 3 hours rehearsing and got it pretty solid.

Saturday’s shows roll around.  The audience at the first show for all the 2nd placers was decent, but not super energetic.  My friend Dave Williamson took the top spot and joined our lineup for the second show.

Saturday 8pm = Comedy Heaven (or…)

Now, every comic lives for the Saturday 8pm show at any club.  It’s always the best audience.  And this one was… totally an exception.

One after another, these amazing performers who had all wowed audiences earlier in the week, lofted their jokes in the air only to have this braindead audience let them hit the ground with a resounding silence.  There were laughs here and there, but it was by far the absolute worst audience of the week.  And that includes the audiences that came for the late night shows that featured comics that didn’t make it into the competition at all.

Side note: A couple years ago someone sent me a really great video of an interview with Jonathan Winters discussing the intricacies of audience chemistry. Now I can’t find it. But if I do, I’ll post it here. It goes a long way towards explaining why an audience has such a large effect on the quality of a show.

I waited in the wings while Joe Caliz hit the stage.  Let me say this… I think Joe is hilarious.  He is dark, edgy, and utterly offensive.  And he finally broke this dead audience open.  One of his biggest laughs was on this joke:

“I’m taking a women’s self defense class… So I know what moves to expect.  Now I’m all set to go out rapin'”.

Character counts….

Here’s where we get into a discussion of a comedians stage persona.  Joe Caliz looks like an accountant.  So when a joke like that comes of his face, the audience is stunned, and then laughs.  He commits and plays against type, becoming the “he was always so quiet and shy” serial killer/weirdo that ends up on the news.  It’s a tough persona to pull off and you really have to commit to it.

In real life, Joe is quiet and shy.  But, as far as I know, not a weird serial killer.

But this audience found their groove on his set.  That meant one of two things for me going on right after him.  Either they were now warmed up and I’d also have a great set, or they were really locked into Joe’s style and my completely opposite persona would shut them down again.

My stage persona is a really silly, but totally self-aware character.  Every comic’s persona is an amplified element of their personality.  Self-awareness is at the core of what I do and it’s amplified with cartoonishly large act-outs like that ridiculous prat fall.  I use those tools to show how the rest of the world is often lacking in self-awareness.

Because of that, there are jokes I can’t get away with.  I could never do Joe’s joke that I noted above. His character says things that are shocking, but also completely matter of fact thoughts to him.  Like an old man who uses an old ethnic slur, not out of hatred, but because that’s the way he’s always done it.

A few weeks ago I tried a joke after the “golden age of medical advice line” in the Weed bit that went, “Back then, Web MD only had like 8 pages.”  And that joke bombed both times I tried it.  Because the self-awareness wasn’t there.  My persona wouldn’t make an ignorant statement that assumed Web MD existed in the 1800’s.  And the audience didn’t buy it.  I crossed that one off long before I got to Vegas.

Where it all went wrong(er)…

So that dichotomy between our styles didn’t sit well with the audience when I got up there. I got some mild laughs on the Las Vegas and Weed bits.  Enough where I thought I might be able to still pull a finals spot.

Then I got to the joke about female bees and the audience gave an offended groan.  My basic plan whenever a joke doesn’t fly is “just keep talking”.  Move on and bring them back on something else.  I finished the two tags and moved into the Hawaii stuff.  Back to mild laughter.  I even got all the way through the song this time.  Which meant there was a full minute less laughter than in the prelim set.

And I didn’t get to the finals.  I ended up in 5th place.  10 more points from the 9 judges would have pulled me up to 3rd.  But I belonged in 5th because it took me nearly 24 hours to realize how I should have reacted to that groan.  I wasn’t nearly quick enough.  I wasn’t in the moment enough to get off-script and address the situation.

Here’s the way it should have played out.

(Insert groan…)
“Really? 10 minutes ago you were totally on board with Joe going rapin’, but I mention that maybe ladies stay mad for a long while and you’re like ‘Hold on Sparky, that’s inappropriate.”

“I’ll probably get an email next week from some lady saying ‘I was very offended by that bee joke,’ and I will respond, “I told that joke 3-5 days ago.”

“That’s ok. I’m man enough to admit when you’re wrong.”

And I think that would have brought them back around because I would have pointed out their own lack of self-awareness, which is exactly what my character would do.

Whether or not it brought the crowd back, I think the judges would have been more impressed than me just blowing by the dud and moving on because I would have made the attempt with a couple good lines.

The final round…

Joe Caliz made the finals in 3rd, Spencer James in 1st, and Jeff Shein in 2nd.  All 3 very talented.  They came out of the finals in the same order.  But after watching their 25 minute sets I’m convinced I had the goods to maybe have taken the whole thing.  Their pace was much slower, lots more dead time between bits.  I’d planned on pummeling the audience with punchlines for a solid 25 minutes.

I’m still happy with 5th place.  It’s by far the best I’ve done there.  And I’ll be getting quite a few new bookings because of it.  But I’m pretty sure my shot in the finals hinged on that one 30-second joke.

There’s always next year.

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