Grand Prize: One Year of Work
by Rebecca Schoenkopf
By Saturday night, most of the people lurking on the patio had been at Alexis Park a full week. They’d gone across the street to the Hard Rock, sometimes, to change their scenery to night-lit daytime, to drink $7 beers, to see long-legged girls tripping over their wedgies, and to get pumped on the music that somehow always sounded like Creed.
On the patio, they were waiting, sluggish with a week’s worth of hangover, to find out who the winner would be.
The World Series of Comedy. There had been six regional competitions, in places like Iowa. They’d pared the hundreds of contestants down to the 101 performing here in the Alexis Park theater all week, going head to head, eliminations winnowing them mercilessly, until only eight were left to advance to Saturday’s back-to-back semifinals and finals.
So—and this is the part that’s really sort of goddamned brilliant—the contestants were competing at the World Series of Comedy not for prize money or a TV shot. They were doing it for a chance to “feature”—that half hour slot between the MC and the headliner you actually bought tickets to see. It’s comedy contest as Top Sous Chef, and after successfully brunoising the prettiest onions, the prize is a job being the Top Chef’s enforcer, screaming at the saucier. Which actually would make it Hell’s Kitchen, if anyone ever believed for a second that Gordon Ramsay was going to hire the whiny idiot who least often ruined his precious beef Wellington or who least often had his garbage risotto thrown in the trash.
Work! Sweet, merciful work! Paying gigs, to put food on your family, so they will not leave you, and you will not die! Joe Lowers, the festival’s producer, had brought together enough club bookers to guarantee a year’s worth of gigs, a half-hour at a time, for one lucky road dog to put a million miles on his ’98 Camry, traveling through the night from Chuckle Palace to Ha Ha Hut, a year’s worth of rot-gut fast food and bedbugs and loneliness, 12 months of awkwardly hanging out afterwards at the bar, eying the females with a mix of social anxiety disorder and veiled rage.
A feature act might make $100 or $175 per far-flung night, and everybody wants the chance. A sweet Vegas local, sort of Danny DeVito-ish, stands at the Alexis Park bar, merrily reciting his act at the few girls present, until one breaks through to the sad him, the real him, the reason he is a goddamn comedian, and he admits that the jokes he was telling about being invited back to the trailer for a crystal meth party weren’t jokes at all (but the girl knew that already), and the soft, gooey insides of the comic pour out weepy and viscous, and the other comics see it, and are filled with contempt.
In the theater, the middle-aged crowd takes too long to get drunk, except for a brassy lady behind us who laughs long and lustily at every mention of penis, and the early contestants bear the brunt of sobriety. Performing order is very much a factor as the night wears on and the vodka kicks in and the audience uncrosses its arms and its legs and gets generous. (The bartenders at Alexis Park have real nice pours.) To a man, the earliest contestants will not move on to the finals. The Alien Comedian starts things off with Trekkie and single-mama jokes; later he’ll tell me his Vegas day job is Klingon. Denise Ramsden, the sole chick to make it through to Saturday night, is from Chicago and hates babies and likes to drink. The crowd likes Denise Ramsden a lot!
There’s so many comics in one place, and the regional differences in style are glaring. Guess what? Miami’s sort of cocky/Dane Cook-y! Guess what? Atlanta and Charlotte are pretty cosmopolitan/hung up on race! (I’m not saying they shouldn’t still be hung up on race; we should all still be hung up race; especially when white comics are still imitating black guys and pronouncing “earth” “urf.”) Guess what? Mild-mannered dudes in Dockers from LA are gay sometimes! Guess what? Comics from the Rust Belt are sort of world-weary! Guess what? PEOPLE FROM MINNESOTA ARE NICE!
After the Alien Comedian and the one woman and the three human dudes fail to advance from semi- to finals, finalists Kevin Williamson (Miami), Ryan Dalton (Cleveland), and Landry (Atlanta by way of Canada) take the stage a second time, expanding the truncated bits from their 10-minute sets to fill 30. Crowd favorite Landry discusses being a “negro redneck,” his dimples popping. He happily tells us his Jamaican dad and redneck mama got together through the services of weed and meth. “I know the saying, and you know the saying,” he tells us. “Once you go black ... you’re a single mom!” “It’s okay,” he tells a white man, “the black people are laughing!” Before he closes, he does a tight five on the prescription-strength laxatives that will murder you before your GI exam. The middle-aged crowd has felt just this pain.
Kevin Williamson, a young dad, does a long, pleasant bit about baby boners, and mild acts of suburban transgression, and smelling like a rose through his DUIs.
It’s Ryan Dalton from Cleveland who wins—he’s aggressive, looks a little like Jeremy Piven, and there’s an edge to him that crosses frequently into meanness. One joke starts promisingly; he’s in an elevator with two girls and two black guys, and when the first girl leaves the elevator, she leans back in and tells the other to call her when she gets to her car, so she’ll know she made it back all right. Excited, we wait for her rightful comeuppance. But Dalton tells her not to worry, he wouldn’t rape her ... drum roll ... because she’s disgusting. It’s like watching Andrew Dice Clay call someone a fat pig—or like watching Gordon Ramsay, anytime. Then he slides into a black-guy impression—with a basis in the reality that black people are either terrified of dogs or have the meanest dog sons of bitches in the universe. This is a true thing! (Also true of Latinos.) But his punch line here is a black dude saying “urf”—and that’s not racial transcendence! Sometimes the meanness is the exact right amount of meanness, though—when Dalton sees a man with a black eye, he wants to know what happened. When he sees a woman with one ... he doesn’t want to get involved. “Don’t look in her good eye,” he whimpers. “That’s where the tears come from.” And it’s awful, and you laugh and laugh.
For the next 50 weeks, Dalton will be a lucky one, making a living—and hopefully sending that money home to his wife, like all the best migrant workers do. Maybe he’ll laugh all the way to the bank.
Check out World Series of Comedy winner Ryan Dalton at theryandalton.com.
Wanna see runner-up Landry? Go to comedianlandry.com.