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Comedy $10K: First Lap a Breeze – Finish Line a Bitch

May 1-5: Diamond Jo Casino; Dubuque, IA. Last week I was happy to take part in the Comedy $10K. More than fifty comics gathered to compete for a share of $10,000 in prize money. It was also an opportunity to see old friends, network with other comedians and schmooze with comedy business VIPs. It cost $50 to enter, plus we had to pay for our own travel expenses. Comics got a discount rate for lodging, but I found a nice campground nearby and slept in my tent. That saved me a few bucks, plus added to the legend. The one where “I was homeless for awhile, but didn’t want people to know so I slept in front of a Ticketmaster.”

The Comedy $10K competition started on Tuesday. There were eight preliminary rounds. One comic per show advanced to the semi-finals and won a share of the prize money. Though all of the participants had dreams of winning, you didn’t need to take 1st place to make it worth your while. The Comedy $10K had assembled an impressive panel of judges. This was a great opportunity to be seen by people who could help make your career.

Judging the contest were: Bruce Ayers, of Stardome Comedy Club, Birmingham, AL; Brian Dorfman, of Zanies Comedy Club, Nashville; Chuck Johnson, of Summitt Comedy, NC; Chris DiPetta, of Punchline Comedy Club, Atlanta; Cyndi Nelson, of Zanies, Chicago; Brian Heffron, Heffron Talent and The Comedy Zone, Charlotte, NC and; John MacDonald, of MacDonald Entertainment and creator of The Blue Collar Comedy Tour. Also in attendance was festival producer Jeff Johnson, of USA Entertainment. And if you were fortunate enough to be one of the top three to reach the finals, Dave Coulier would also judge your set.

Although I assume the main reason for most who entered the Comedy $10K was the opportunity to be seen, there were some who were there strictly to win. These guys were seasoned professionals and had already been seen by the esteemed panel of judges. I called them the “heavy favorites” and if you were a betting man and wanted to wager on the outcome, there were a couple of guys you’d be smart to put your money on. In the end, all four of these comics finished ahead of me, but that was OK. I had a different agenda for the Comedy $10K. I just wanted to be funny.

Of course, I admit I too had dreams of finishing in 1st place and hoped that winning the Comedy $10K would orchestrate my big career break. But I have been dreaming for over twenty years and have learned not to pin much hope on dreams. Too many times, I’ve burned my hand on that hot stove. Instead of dreaming of how my career might take off, I was more thinking of how it might end. I don’t know how much longer I can stay in this crazy business and I’ve begun to consider my legacy. I hope it never happens, but should I have to quit comedy, I want to be well remembered.

For I do worry about how the people in the comedy industry think of me. Especially those who aren’t fans of what I do and don’t offer me work. Over the years, I’ve earned a reputation: York’s “hit or miss” and “not every crowd is going to get him.” Which I’m sure was a fair assessment at one point in time. But most of those opinions were forged a long time ago. I’ve been doing stand-up comedy for twenty-three years. In recent years, my shows are much more “hit” than “miss.” And although my stage persona is still on the dark side, I’ve learned to sell that character better. Being different is one of my strengths, after all. There is a reason I have stuck with my crazy look and unique style and there is a reason I’ve stayed in this business. And I want people to know why. Having a killer set in front of some of the people who’ve been – in effect – judging me for my entire career was worth more to me than money or future work. It was worth my self-respect and sanity.

My first show for the Comedy $10K was Friday night. It was the last preliminary round and everything I’d hoped it’d be. The place was packed and the crowd was fantastic. I had a choice spot in the line-up; second to last. I was able to get into my joke slinging rhythm, ride waves of laughter and in the end, I won my round. It was one of those happiest nights of my life occasions and it felt like, for once in my career, the pressure was off. That sense of calm lasted for about 18 hours.

I spent some time Saturday afternoon going over my jokes, but I didn’t decide on a definite set list. Instead I just relaxed. My plan was to trust my instincts and decide which jokes I’d do that night. I wanted to gauge the audience, see where I was in the line-up. And most importantly, I wanted to see if the other comics were going to repeat material or not. The judges for the semi-finals, for the most part, were the same as the preliminaries. That begged the question: Should I do different jokes this round? Or should I stick with the set that got me here? The set I did the night before was my “showcase” set and I’d been working on it for months (see Quest for TV Clean Video Put to Rest). My gut told me I should probably do some combination… but I wanted to wait and see, maybe ask around….  I did have two other concerns about the semi-finals. I didn’t want to go first and I didn’t want to follow Dale Jones (he was the clear “heavy favorite” to win). But I had no control over that and refused to let myself worry too much about “what ifs.” For some inexplicable reason, I felt that my luck was going to hold.

I arrived at the Mississippi Moon Bar about thirty minutes before showtime and ran into my old friend (another one of the “favorites”) Kevin Bozeman. Bozeman said he’d seen the line-up and I was going up after him and he was seventh. So much for thinking my luck was going to hold. Dead last. Following Bozeman. Damn it! That was almost as bad as going first or having to follow Dale Jones. But I didn’t worry too much, right away. I’d figured I’d have plenty of time for that type of angst once the show began. Or so I thought.

Although I didn’t relish the idea of following Kevin Bozeman, I felt a bit of relief in going last. At least I’d have plenty of time to judge the crowd and decide on which jokes to do. Plus I thought I had an ace up my sleeve when it came to following Bozeman. He likes to work edgy. I like to work edgy (but probably not for a contest). Following him would give me an excuse to pull out my crowd pleasing sex jokes. I decided I could follow Bozeman even if that set would not score well enough for me to join him in the finals (I was sure he’d make it). It was ten minutes before the show began and still not once, did the thought, “I might eat it tonight,” enter my head.

It also had not yet occurred to me that if my objective for this festival was to prove my act was no longer “hit or miss,” one bad set, regardless of how well I did the night before, wouldn’t change that perception. In fact, it would REINFORCE it. But I wouldn’t have much time to worry about that happening. Eighteen minutes was all the time I had to contemplate a catastrohpe of that epic proportion. Five minutes before showtime, the comics gathered in the green room. That’s when I found out Bozeman had been given bad information about the line-up. I wasn’t going last or following him, I was going second and I was following THE HEAVY FAVORITE Dale Jones. That’s when the horribly unbearable thought, “I might eat it tonight,” popped into my head.

I’ve never jumped out of an airplane, but if I was to, I assume I’d only be half as scared as I was standing behind the curtain waiting to follow Dale Jones. Not only is he out-of-this-world talented and insanely funny, but he’s also super high energy and has a rapid-fire delivery. AND if you can believe this: his act is more quirky/weird than mine. I really can’t describe how I was feeling in those eight minutes Jones was on stage because I don’t remember much. Too many thoughts were swirling around my head for me to be able to think straight.

I did not watch Jones’ set (I’d seen it before…) although I wanted to. It’d have been nice to see what he was doing and how the crowd was reacting. But I needed to decide which jokes I was going to do instead. Should I work clean? It was an early show and the crowd was older. But I used my most favorite clean/clever jokes the night before. I had tentatively planned to work a little bluer for Saturday night….. And what about my opener? I like to mug for the crowd before I say my first words. In a perfect night, that gets a laugh and is my opener. But Jones was killing (that much I knew) with his crazy facial expressions which are Olympic gold medal winning in proportion to mine (state fair blue ribbon). I had no idea how I was going to open my show until the moment I picked up the microphone. Then I just said what came off the top of my head. “Welcome to quirky guy night.” It didn’t get a laugh, but it allowed me to catch my breath and think. Then my first joke did OK and a catastrophe was avoided.

I guess I’d have to say I had a decent set, although I never got into a rhythm, nor did I ever feel like I had the crowd in my back pocket. I did a few jokes I’d done the night before, but mostly I did different ones. I was able to get laughs without seeming to offend the crowd and I scored well enough to place 5th. That’s a very respectable finish considering who scored ahead of me: Dale Jones 1st, Kevin Bozeman 2nd, Dan Chopin 3rd and People’s Choice Winner, Mark Sweeney finished 4th.

I don’t know if I would have done any better if I had a different spot in the line-up. I am going to guess that the judges would’ve scored me about the same. But I am pretty sure I would’ve gotten a better reaction from the crowd. But maybe that was only because I let where I was in the line-up mess with my head? Maybe how funny I did had nothing to do with who I followed or when I went up. Nobody wants to go first, but Dale Jones went first and he won the contest. Nobody wants to follow one of the “heavy favorites,” but Dan Chopin followed Kevin Bozeman and made it to the finals. I do know this for sure. I’d feel better about my luck, if I’d have drawn a better spot. I often curse my luck. But I guess, I should thank my lucky stars I did as well as I did and that I get to tell jokes for a “living.” Probably going forward I should work on feeling grateful instead of worrying about my luck. You can’t control luck. And wondering “what if” will only make you crazy. Besides and after all, being a positive guy in this brutal business would be a better way to be remembered than being bitter.

Thanks to everyone involved in the Comedy $10K: The producers, sponsors, judges, comics, and my new friends at Lafnjag.com. And thanks to the staff at the Diamond Jo Casino who made the festival such a success. You people are the best! And a very special thanks to everyone who came out to the shows and supported the Comedy $10K. I’ve done comedy in lots of places. Nowhere are the audiences better than Dubuque. That’s good news for me because I’m booked at Diamond Jo Casino, September 5. I know I’ll still be in the business at least until then. That paycheck will be guaranteed.

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