I just got back from a week in Austin and watching most of the Funniest Person in Austin contest semi-finals, and I have to say, I’m excited. I’m excited for how strong the future of the Austin comedy scene is.
People will always criticize comedy contests, and I totally understand why. If you showed me a list of 100 complaints about contests, I might agree with all one hundred. But that having been said, I think the FPIA contest does an incredible amount of good for the Austin comedy scene. A lot of the good it does is more subtle, but let’s start with the obvious:
To have bookers from Acme Comedy in Minneapolis and the Columbus Funny Bone come to Austin is phenomenal, and speaks to how much Cap City, its owners, and this scene are respected around the country. And keep in mind that anywhere else in the country, having the bookers of Cap City at a showcase would be equally big news. It’s easy for us to forget that the club down the street is one of the most sought-after spots for comics around the country. That credit has to go to Rich and Colleen and how much they’ve done to allow the great voices from Austin to represent it so well over the past decade, and to Margie for keeping a finger on the pulse of the scene and giving local comics opportunities so that they’re ready for those bigger opportunities down the road.
And then there’s Charlie Sotelo, the booker of South by Southwest’s comedy shows, who heroically watches every single set of the entire contest. Think about that. That means by the end of the contest, he’s watched about 230 sets - he sees about a dozen of them 3 times apiece, another 30 sets he has to watch twice, and even if we say there are 70 solid comics in town, that still means he’s had to practically Clockwork-Orange his eyes open and watch more than 100 bad sets over the course of the past two months.
Think about that for a minute. 10 prelim rounds, 3 semis, and 1 finals. No smoke breaks. 14 shows - and the judging afterward - means he’s putting in 50+ hours of work on this contest every spring. Which is ironic, because that’s how much time the average Austin comic spends working at their actual job every spring.
(I’m kidding, of course. Most Austin comics don’t have jobs)
I can mention a dozen ways the contest is good for our scene before I even get to the two connections that bring it the most exposure - the clear pipeline Cap City has to both Comedy Central and the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal. So let’s just agree that there are certainly some good things that come from the contest.
The problem with this contest - along with every other comedy contest - is that assessing a value to stand-up is an impossible goal. Its value can’t be defined, which is a big part of why most comics love it. It rebels against the whole idea of attaching labels and values to everything and reminds people to evaluate things for themselves.
Put simply, there’s no Blue Book for stand-up. So judges aren’t always going to see things as we see them. And it’s annoying to have to deal with that. It’s kind of like showing up at the UN with a ton of your country’s money, then being told it’s not worth anything unless it’s in the currency of four countries you’ve never heard of.
“But this is worth a ton where I come from!”
“Well, it’s worthless here,” the judges seem to reply.
It’s maddening, I admit. It’s bullshit. It’s not fair. But we need to understand that, by definition, it can’t be fair.
I see comedy contests like I see taxes. We love to bitch about taxes, because we don’t like giving up any of the money we earned. It’s especially frustrating when the money we give isn’t used efficiently. It’s maddening. I understand that knee-jerk reaction to taxes. In theory, would we have more money for ourselves if there were no taxes? Definitely.
But would any of us have a good reason - let alone the money - to build a system of roads by ourself? Would public education ever have gotten off the ground? Not a fan of crazy, socialist ideas like public schools? How about national defense? A part of the taxes some people give so begrudgingly helps protect us from those foreigners they’re so terrified of.
My point is that one of those over-simplified, 1+1=2 concepts we’ve been taught is that taxes = I have less money = fuck taxes. And while I fully admit taxes aren’t as simple as the previous paragraph suggests, I think we should think twice before we listen to the voice that tells us to think of the word “tax” as a bad thing.
When I fight past that preconceived notion, I start to think of “taxes” as something very positive. Taxes can build communities. Taxes can make all of our lives better.
Isn’t it weird how hard it is to take those sentences seriously? Isn’t it weird how much the word “tax” feels like it’s the boss you hate?
I’m not saying they’re always great, but I want to make it clear that I think a tax can be a great thing for a community.
In that sense, I feel like the Funniest Person in Austin contest is basically the tax for being a comic in Austin. Every spring, we have to deal with some extra stress. When we sign up, we do so knowing that as individuals, we are giving something up - whether it be our time, money, reputation, or potentially all three. We don’t like giving up any of those. And it’s especially maddening when we sense there is a lack of justice to how the rewards are handed out. Who wants to give up something when we don’t even know if we’ll get a fair shake from it?
But when we organize ourselves and what we have to offer, all of a sudden, great things show up. Would the bookers of the best clubs in the country come to Austin to see one 8-minute set? Would Comedy Central come to Austin if one of us sent them an e-mail? Do talent agencies ever fly here to check out an open-mic, just in case?
Of course not. But when we all make the sacrifice of buying into the FPIA contest and its imperfections? All of a sudden, a trip to Austin makes a lot of sense to anyone who cares about comedy. All of a sudden, watching two hours of comedy on a Monday night in Austin makes sense to about 100 more people than usual. We all get a set, and we all get a chance.
It’s an imperfect system, and it’s true that sometimes a deserving comic may not make it through to the next round. But when six or seven comics have a great set, I can’t say I envy the judges who have to pick only four of them. And think about it - even if the judges get a comic wrong every single round, that still means that over the past three nights, 80 percent of the comics in the semis deserved to be there, and 80 percent of the finalists were the best possible choice, as well.
Now, when something isn’t perfect, we kind of have two choices. We can either try to find ways to make it better, or we can just get frustrated and say, “Ahh, forget it.”
When it comes to taxes and anything relating to politics, I think I tend to say “forget it,” because I get it in my head that the system is so screwed up, I might as well not bother. Why would I want to root for a team that’s going to lose, anyway?
But I think sometimes we’re too quick to adopt that defeatist attitude. In the case of the FPIA contest, it really does make an effort to reward unique voices and people that take chances. One of my favorite comics in Austin right now is Ryan Cownie because of the chances he’s willing to take onstage. I thought his semi-final set was brilliant, and it rightfully got him into the finals - but if he was in just about any other contest around the country, he wouldn’t have had a prayer.
The contest being so good is what makes me think it can be even better. The one suggestion I would have for the FPIA contest is to do everything we can to make sure that those unique, risk-taking voices - the ones that are what Austin is all about - get rewarded.
In order to do so, I think Matt Bearden should join Charlie and be an ongoing judge throughout the contest next year. Normally, if a former winner were going to judge, I’d worry about him or her having friends in the contest or that their judging might be biased in some way. But from what I’ve seen in the three years I’ve been around Austin comedy, it seems obvious to me that nobody would be more objective than Matt. His love of the scene - and of seeing good comedy rewarded - would far outweigh any bias he might have toward a particular outcome. I also feel like after all he’s done (and continues to do) to help define this scene - and honestly, the city - there could be no better eye for what it means to be the “Funniest Person in Austin."
Those are my humble thoughts on this year’s contest, and a thought on how we could tweak it to make it even better next year. What complicates things is that if we gained Bearden as a judge next year, we’d be losing the best host I’ve ever seen. So maybe it’s actually better the way it is now than the way I’m suggesting.
I don’t know. I guess all I know is that I was really inspired by what I saw while I was watching the contest this past week - both from those who advanced, and from those who didn’t. And I wanted to say that from my perspective, Cap City’s contest is honestly one of the best in the country, and that I think every Austin comic should appreciate that having it benefits all of us.