Preparing to judge the Madison’s Funniest Comic Competition

The annual stand-up contest and beautiful shitshow returns this Wednesday.

The annual stand-up contest and beautiful shitshow returns this Wednesday.


I’ve been invited to be a guest judge at the first two weeks of the Comedy Club on State’s annual Madison’s Funniest Comic Competition. So has Tone Madison contributor Chris Lay. This Wednesday and next, the competition will begin to rip through an initial slate of 69 entrants, down from last year’s record of 82. Now, I think awards are silly, and I especially think local-level entertainment awards are silly, and I especially think we can’t kid ourselves about the silliness of applying superlatives in an art form that depends on constant, grueling development and change in front of a fickle and volatile audience. Also, if memory serves, all but two previous winners of this competition have since left town.

As little as I care about the end result of such a competition, every year I find myself drawn to the beginning of the process. The preliminary rounds play like an exploded version of the club’s usual Wednesday-night open mic, with the more experienced regulars spread throughout the lineup, lending structure to what might otherwise be an unruly river of comedic gruel. Yet the gruel is what I’m there for, as much as if not more than the pleasant surprise of watching people actually find a strong comedic voice. All of this put together is exhausting and a shitshow, and somehow that makes it rewarding. And if you’re not willing to take 30-odd brutal gambles in one night, on short sets that will span from charming to terrifying, I question how much you actually like stand-up comedy.

Because stand-up is very hard to separate from a wild spectrum of quality. I even tried it once for a very brief and out-of-my-tree period of my life. One of the few times I tried it at the Comedy Club open mic, host/manager Joe Buettner referred to me as “awkward Jason Biggs,” which I’m not even sure how to take. (PS if you have video of any of this, please get in touch with me so I can murder you.) I’m a journalist and I know a thing or two about having all your mistakes be public mistakes, but I reserve a higher tier of respect for someone who actually attempts stand-up over and over again, and especially people who can endure through that liminal zone where you think you have something worthwhile to say but it’s not quite connecting in the way that you’d like.

So what can you expect?

-At these first two rounds, definitely some randos who should not ever be allowed access to a microphone. Such is the magic of the open mic, I guess.

-People who’ve been at it long enough to be safe bets, which isn’t necessarily bad.

-People who’ve been at it equally long and are doing something interesting with it.

-People who’ve been at it pretty long too and are kind of unimaginative/not especially compelling but end up KILLING ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

-People who aren’t terrifying randos but still probably shouldn’t be allowed near a microphone because they lack self-awareness and the hope of developing self-awareness

-People who came out of nowhere and haven’t done a lot of comedy before but turn out to be actually pretty good, and hopefully are emboldened enough by the experience to keep at it

-People who are just doing so-so but will keep at it and either become better or keep being so-so, or keep being so-so and also kill

-People who are terrifying randos but inexplicably kill

But the point is, they are all children of the chaos, and we should embrace them. And when it comes to people like 2012 competition winner David Fisher, at times something truly beautiful emerges.

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