There are many famous comedians who’ve been doing stand-up comedy for years who admit they still occasionally get nervous before a show.
So – imagine you’re a nervous, new performer, still unsure if you are any good. You’re about to do a show and deal with all the nerves that can come with that. There’s a room full of strangers, bright lights and big expectations.
Now, let’s add an additional layer of pressure – you are competing in a comedy contest, with a dozen or so other comedians who also want to win. There may be big prizes ($1,000 or more, a featured gig at a major comedy club, etc.) on the line. The nerves affect some, but not others.
Well, grab your antacids and come along for the ride. This happens with hundreds of comedians every year who compete in comedy competitions across the United States (and other parts of the world). We’re going to talk to a few who have been through it – some more than once.
Comedy competitions usually feature newer comics; most people who enter contests have at least been doing open mics and maybe showcased or did a guest spot at a club.
Once a newer comedian has a solid five minutes of material, they may work up the courage to enter a competition. But you will also find a few more seasoned comedians in some contests – especially if the contest has a healthy payout for the winner and the rules allow veteran comics.
Many contests have restrictions: Acme Comedy Co’s contest requires that you have never received payment for performing comedy. If you want to perform at the House of Comedy’s contest at the Mall of America, you cannot be a full-time comic (thus the title, “Funniest Person with a Day Job”).
Veteran Twin Cities comedian Linda Aarons competed in Acme Comedy Company’s Funniest Person in the Twin Cities contest in 2006, after only being in comedy for a few months performing her material at open mics.
She’s pretty sure she didn’t have much confidence that year and did not last beyond the first round.
In 2007, she tried again with more confidence and new material – and finished second overall. Her strong performance definitely boosted her confidence – she started performing regularly at open mics and became more visible to bookers and the rest of the comedy community. Eventually, this led to becoming a regular paid performer at Acme.
Calvin Murata, winner of the 2022 Funniest Person with a Day Job contest at the House of Comedy, entered the contest in 2021 and exited in the first round.
When he entered in 2022, he wasn’t really nervous or lacking confidence.
“I just wanted to improve on the year before,” Murata says. When he performed in the finals in 2022, he felt like he had a good set but tried not to listen to how well the other comedians were doing. “I didn’t want to overthink my rank,” he says.
After developing her comedy chops for about six months, Khadijah Cooper decided to enter the House of Comedy’s contest and performed well enough to make it to the finals in 2018.
“I was excited and nervous,” she explains. “I finished first in the first round, and that gave me the confidence to go out and be my authentic self for the rest of the competition.”
Rick Logan won Acme’s contest in 2008. The night of the finals he was very nervous.
“I was backstage in the green room, pacing back and forth, trying to calm myself down,” says Logan. “Then I reminded myself that this was something I dreamed about and wanted to do – stand-up comedy – it calmed me down because I realized I’m doing this because I want to.”
Winning the title has made landing comedy gigs easier – even though the first feature set he got booked for ended up being canceled when the entire restaurant chain he was to perform at went bankrupt.
“I was devastated,” says Logan. “I remember thinking they would rather go out of business than have me perform there.”
Malory Manderfield won Acme’s contest in the fall of 2021, and admits she had been pretty erratic in the years prior to that.
“I started stand-up in March 2019, but was very inconsistent,” says Manderfield. “In eight months I had only done 10 open mics. Then COVID happened, did some virtual shows, but started hitting the mics harder starting December 2020.”
Like Logan, Manderfield was nervous the night of the finals.
“I had lost in the preliminary round and the semi-finals,” she says. “But I rehearsed so much before the final I felt like I had done everything under my control to win.” (Note: Acme’s contest awards you points if you perform and score well in preliminary rounds, even if you don’t win first place in those rounds. Comedians with enough points can qualify for the final, as Manderfield did.)
Manderfield’s win has paid off for her, too. “I’ve gotten more paid gigs,” she says. “Winning the contest gave me confidence and validation for my comedy writing and performing. I was fairly new in comedy and I also loved my set that night so it will always be one of my favorite memories on stage.”
Logan’s advice to aspiring comedians interested in trying a contest: “Don’t take them too seriously; they are not the ‘be all and end all.’ They are great for furthering your career and getting better. Keep writing and expanding your material.”
Aarons’ advice to comedy contest competitors is to get out and test your material at open mics long before the contest.
“When putting together your set, work to get a big laugh very early in the set and end on your best joke,” she advises. “And don’t go over your time! If you have three minutes to perform, time it out to 2:30 or 2:40 – you need room for laughs, hopefully, or other unexpected things. The most common mistake I see in contests is people going over their time.”
Upcoming stand-up comedy shows in the west and southwest suburbs:
Feb. 24, Fat Pants Brewing, Eden Prairie (www.yellowbrickcomedy.com) Stand-up comedy with Linda Aarons, Rick Logan and Khadijah Cooper
March 2, Mystic Lake Casino, Prior Lake Stand-up comedy with Kevin James
March 4, River House Kitchen and Drinks, Hutchinson Stand-up comedy with Jackie Kashian
March 25, Hutchinson High School, Hutchinson Stand-up comedy taping with Sam Ellefson and Ben Marcotte
Editor’s Note: This is the sixth installment of a monthly comedy-focused column, Little Joke on the Prairie, by Eden Prairie resident Pat LaVone. He is a writer, speaker, stand-up comic and storyteller. During the original comedy boom, Pat began performing stand-up and sketch comedy in the mid-1980s. After a brief 30-year hiatus, he returned to the stage to perform stand-up and storytelling shows as well as humorous keynote presentations. He currently produces shows for YellowBrick Comedy and performs at various theaters and clubs around Minnesota.
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