Comedy Competitions: Hurrahed Yet Flawed (Editorial)

With 2014’s two major comedy competitions in Vancouver complete, and a big congratulations to James Kennedy for winning both the Yuk Off and People’s Champ, I have decided to write an editorial about competitions. Before I begin though I would like to state for the record that I’m regularly a finalist in large competitions (except this year), and tend to win one-offs. So it’s not like I get bounced early on (except this year) and I’m like, “Competitions are the worst.” I actually have reasons beyond not winning competitions to not like them.

My main gripe with comedy competitions is the problems that arise. The cattiness, the egos, the colluding, the heartbreak. Having nights where the person with the best set not only doesn’t win, but they don’t even place. These are problems that arise when you take a subjective art form and try to make it objective. Do I think there are ways to do such a thing? Short answer: not entirely, but it can be possible. That’s the nature of the business though. Not to mention the fact that there are two types of comedy competitions, crowd voted and judged, and both have their own set of problems.

Most comedy competitions are crowd voted, which really means the person with the most friends will win. This doesn’t always happen, but more often than not it will. The biggest contest I was a competitor in resulted in me getting bounced in the preliminaries strictly because the three that moved on were all colluding to vote for each other. The quality of their sets didn’t matter, because the comics filled out the ballots and not the actual audience. It was all about blocking anyone more talented than them. Personally, whenever I do these types of competitions, and I have people come out, I tell them to vote for who they thought was the best, and only vote for me if they thought I truly deserved it. In a way, their colluding was like entering the Konami code, and as former Chicago Cubs first baseman Mark Grace said, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying hard enough.” Was I upset by this? Of course I was, but I also realised that was how that game was played. Aside from looking into these matters and killing ballots, there really is no way to police this behaviour.

What about when it’s not crowd voted? What about when a few people are judging you? There is an old saying, and it’s usually said by someone who wouldn’t know a punchline if it slapped them in the face, and it goes something like this, “Comedy is subjective.” Needless to say, they are right, to an extent. Sure, someone may like me better than another act even though I bombed and they killed. That absolutely without question can happen, but only rarely. A while back I was doing a competition that was judged by four people. The first act went up, and had one of the better sets that night. As he was getting offstage one of the judges turned to another and said, “He can’t win; he’s too dirty.” That judge’s subjectivity effectively influenced the other judges from not only not, at the very least, placing this act in the top three where he belonged, but they ended up giving the title to an act who arguably had the weakest set that night. Not to say the comic who won isn’t talented; he just might be one of the brightest comedians in the world. However, that night was not a stellar performance, and he ended the night winning a considerable amount of money. This is an issue that I think could be addressed.

How do you turn subjectivity into objectivity? How do you ensure the comedian who had the set of the night wins? First off, their sets should be judged on two things alone, audience response and originality. Technically speaking originality is subjective in it’s own right. I have a bunch of jokes about being short, which could be considered an unoriginal avenue of humor. However, audience response is 100% objective. Now, if you were to weigh audience response contingent on originality you can pretty much objectively pick who was the best comic that night. Stage presence, and subject matter would mean nothing, preventing such things as being “too dirty” from costing someone a well deserved victory. Also you need more than 4 judges. I figure you need 7-9 judges, and then you get rid of the top and bottom scores. What this does is remove any potential nepotism. With four judges the difference between winning and not even placing is just one judge not liking you. Everyone has different tastes, but a small sample size to poll from isn’t a fair representation of the majority. This is how it works with figure skating, diving, ballroom dancing, gymnastics, etc. Furthermore, accountability should be put on the judges for approaching with an objective mindset over their own subjectivity. They need to know that even though they may not have liked a comedians subject matter, or like them personally, they still need to respect the kill.

Those last three paragraphs were my long answer. A judged competition, with a large amount of judges, removing the top and bottom scores, and the focus being on crowd response contingent on originality may just be the most fair way to look at comedy objectively in a competition. In all honesty, my fear is that people will look at this editorial as sour grapes. I cannot prevent that. However, I can say that from the bottom of my heart, I have never been upset to lose to someone specifically. This is just my thoughts on how to make a competition fair. Fair for the dirty comic who may offend someone but have the rest of the crowd in stitches. Fair for the booker who no longer has the burden of knowing that one of their appointed judges ruined it for the comedian with the set of the night just because they didn’t like them. Last but not least, fair for the patron that feels as if they witnessed an injustice, because without them, there is no us.

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