Photo of Mort Sahl holding newspaper, his topical comedy trademark
Social Commentator
Mort Sahl

How to Win the Next
San Francisco Comedy Competition

How did a small event grow so quickly?
The Rules and Realities of the Contest
Taking an informed look back
At the year 1979
Mid-way in stand-up comedy's early evolution

Via a two-page newspaper article by Jim Richardson
Reproduced here 2/20/00 as it first appeared in 1979
Please see "Update" at end of article for my year 2000 reflections

(SAN FRANCISCO SUNDAY EXAMINER AND CHRONICLE DATEBOOK, 11/11/79) Irate juggler and ex-clown Mike Davis sounded off after finishing second in the Fourth Annual San Francisco International Open Stand-Up Comedy Competition at the Old Waldorf September 2, 1979:"Marsha Warfield won because a black woman comic would help the Competition this year. They didn't want another singer, or a vaudeville act like mine, to win.

"They don't announce the judges until the last minute. How come they let Hut Landon, who voted against me in the Semi-Finals, judge again in the Finals? If I don't have a chance of winning, they shouldn't let me enter in the first place!"

"They" are Competition producers Anne and Jon Fox and Frank Kidder, the originator of the event. Since Landon only gave Warfield a four point spread, and Davis lost by an average of two points per judge, Davis' accusation could be marked off as mere post-performance hysteria.

The rules for the Competition seem to indicate that any kind of act can win as long as it gets laughs and goes over well with the crowd. However, on interviewing the three producers, a profile emerges of an ideal stand-up comic which they would like to see win the contest. It is a profile I happen to agree with, which is probably the reason I was chosen to be a "last minute" judge at Finals this year.

To understand the distance between the rules and the realities of Competition politics, a history lesson is necessary. The precursor of the Competition was the 1976 April Round Robin Contest. It was a one-evening exercise which challenged a dozen amateur stand-up comics to meet a professional standard: getting four to five laughs per minute. A "laugh" was defined as three seconds of sustained laughter and/or applause. Lorenzo won the $50 First Prize. There was a three-way tie for Second Place between Robin Williams, Mark Miller and Mitch Krug.

Kidder remembers, "It was a silly contest because the comics stacked the audience with their friends. So I decided to have the first Comedy Competition in September 1976. I spread it over nine nights at four different clubs. There were 18 judges who were given seven categories with which to judge the quality, rather than the quantity of laughs."

This year the Competition involved 40 contestants, after 100 more aspirants were rejected at auditions. It took place over 15 nights at eight clubs and involved 50 judges. The purse was $6,750 with $3,000 going to the winner. Finals were taped by censor-free Showtime cable television for broadcast to its two million subscribers throughout the country.

Similar Competitions were held for the first time this year in Chicago, New York, Houston and Fort Lauderdale. The winners of these five contests will face off in the Fox-Kidder sponsored American International Stand-Up Comedy Competition at the Old Waldorf November 24 and 25. The results will be on Showtime cable TV in late spring.

How did such a small event grow so quickly? Kidder explains, "I originally opened up the contest to vaudeville acts so we would have the necessary 15-20 entrants, then later decided to keep it open for excitement value. Since the Foxes joined me in '77, we've promoted the Competition commercially. But what we want to do next year is get more artistry into it and really get a more valid method of determining who the winner should be. It's a lot easier for a clown to get laughs than a pure stand-up. All he's got to do is fall all over the stage!"

Anne Fox draws a more specific profile of what the producers are looking for: "We had Mort Sahl emcee the last night of Finals this year to give a dignity to the event. I prefer the pure stand-up without props. . . . the inner giggle, incisive material, the heavier comics. Topical material about daily events in the news and improvisation are risky, but necessary to prevent boredom in hour-long sets. This is what the comic does that we have hired consistently to headline here at The Punch Line. But if we changed the rules for judging the 15-20 minute sets in the Competition to favor the kind of comic we preferred, we couldn't fill the opening 40 slots!"

Jon Fox is critical of local comics who enter the Competition every year with substantially the same act. "If they do that, it's going to work against them, it's not good thinking. Franklyn Ajaye was our emcee the first night of Finals this year. I've hired him six times over the past year to headline at The Punch Line. He can give completely different performances three shows a night. He has the material. That's the guy who's closest to what we're talking about.

"But really what we're talking about isn't there . . . somebody like a great novelist but in the form of a stand-up comedian. Somebody who has tremendous observation. In the '50's, it was Lenny Bruce. In the '60's, it was Richard Pryor and George Carlin. Now we've got Steve Martin and Robin Williams . . . I guess they give the illusion of being geniuses.

"If you compare the audience who comes to see Mark McCollum (who won the Competition last year with his guitar playing) to the people who come to see Ajaye, . . . it's pseudo idealists vs. free-thinkers!

"Gimmicks make for more easily obtained laughter. My tastes tend toward the guy who's just standing there talking to you. He uses nothing but the microphone, his body movements, his delivery and his material to get you laughing!

"I mean, Christ! Davis ended his set by smashing an egg into his face!?! You cannot deny that Marsha Warfield is on a higher level. She uses material about women you've never heard before!"

All three producers believe that creating a dialogue between judges and comics would be a better way of improving the Competition than making the rules more restrictive. They hope to create a pool of judges who will be the same people year after year. Next August, Jon Fox plans "a barbecue with comics, producers and judges who have been lined up in advance. This will be an orientation, just before the Competition begins, during which viewpoints can be freely exchanged. Media people tend to remain aloof when they are just reviewers. When they are judges, they take sides and get emotionally involved in the event!"

He sees the Competition expanding each year. "The money's only going to get bigger and more talented people will enter. The sense of it being an amateur event will be eliminated." Because of this increased commercialization, do performers take less risks? "Yes, but I think that's a tactical error. They should wade into the audience and play off them, using true improvisation. A lot of them use pseudo improvisation where they have set lines for typical heckles, etc. The judges are going to get hip to those tricks as time goes on. Then the kind of comic we want will naturally come to the fore.

"There is a very strong school of comedy that is anti-intellectual. The kind of nice, simple sophomoric message that McCollum gives along with his excellent musical impressions. As long as people relate to it, key into it and feel good about it, I'll have to respect it. But new and original material always has more impact and it's up to the judges to recognize it. The highest form is the intelligent classical stand-up. That's why Warfield won this year!"

Kidder feels that "Improvisation is what comedy's all about: thinking on your feet. More gutsy. There are new presentation techniques still to be discovered. A comic must find the style which fits his individual mind.

"The Competition has somewhat inhibited local comics from trying out new material. They want to go with what they know works, hone it down, polish it. Sometimes they fall into that trap where they're doing the same material and they get sloppy with it. They stop listening to themselves.

"I respect Ajaye because he's always trying new material. When Ajaye goes on TV, he's always got something original. But TV is both the hero and the culprit because it gobbles up talent and spits it out.

"I would love to see comedians come into the Competition with stuff that they've tested out maybe only a few times. Comedians should also take pot shots at each other, roast-like lines that get laughs."

It would seem, now the producers are confident of the Competition's future, that they are taking a serious look back at the roots of the stand-up comedy scene in San Francisco during the '50's. The Foxes and Kidder are still leaving room in the Competition for the vaudeville acts which have provided a support base since its inception. But they are nonetheless consciously looking forward to a day when the Competition will become a serious literary and cultural event.

The well-read, aspiring social commentator who wants to launch a career by winning the S.F. Comedy Competition next year will need a technical proficiency equal to the more entertainment oriented acts around. But when that comic appears, he or she will be welcomed with open arms. In the meantime, getting laughs is still what it's all about!

Update: I haven't read this review in years. It may be the national comedy scene's failure in living up to it's potential that has driven me to adopt the monicker, "Social Commentator for the New Millennium."

If you would like to read more of my 250 film, stage and stand-up comedy reviews, then please get on my e-mailing list at: jim@jimrichardson.com

Still in the comedy review vault:
2/11/77: Bill Rafferty: Bright New Comic Personality
3/25/77: Mitch Krug, Electronic Comic--now deceased electrical engineer
9/30/78: "Funniest Stand-Up Comedian" Stars in "Mork and Mindy"--Robin Williams
11/10/78: Stand-Up Comedy Night: Turnaway Crowd at The Laguna--Bill Rafferty, Dana Carvey and Darryl Henriques
12/22/78: Laguna's Stand-Up Comedy Nights Still Selling Out--Jim Giovanni, Lorenzo
1/19/79: Slick Traditionalists Win the Audience at The Laguna--Mark Miller, Bill Farley
1/26/79: Double Encore with Standing Ovations for McCollum--Mark McCollum, S.O.S Improv Group
2/24/79: Stand-Up Comedy at Laguna--Marion Murders 'em, Sarlatte Wins 'em--Jack Marion, Bob Sarlatte
3/24/79: Paul Krassner: Keeping The Art of Satire Alive in America, The Revivification of Paul Krassner--Paul Krassner
6/6/79: Ajaye wows 'em--Franklyn Ajaye, Charlie Hill
9/5/79: Makin' 'em laugh at the Plaza, A Retrospective: S.F. Comedy Competition
9/19/79: Jim Richardson's "Life as a Comedy Judge"--Jim on Jim's insights: Mort Sahl attacks the state of contemporary comedy; plus, Marsha Warfield, Mike Davis, Dana Carvey, Michael Winslow, A. Whitney Brown, Art Buchwald
10/79: Setting the Standards for Comedy--Jim's suggestions for improving the Comedy Competition
11/11/79: The Rules and Realities of the S.F. Comedy Competition, How did a small event grow so quickly, How to Win the Next S.F. Comedy Competition--reprinted on this web page
12/5/79: First International Stand-Up Comedy Competition; Marsha Warfield stood heads above the rest of the pack--Marsha Warfield, Ollie Joe Prater, Larry Miller, George Wallace, Jerry Dye
12/21/79: Comedy Alive and Well at Garbo's--Jim Giovanni, Bobby Slayton, James Wesley Jackson and the first Best Original Joke Contest

By 9/80, I had given up on the S.F. Comedy Competition ever reforming and started my own Comedy Marathon contest which ran until 9/83. I made the rules along the lines of these articles.

Oh: and I still managed to coach the winner of the SF and National Competitions in 1981, sophisticated ventriloquist Ronn Lucas.

Stay tuned.

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