I hold up LPs of some household name comics
From back in the day.
. . . still kickin'
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 my two-page newspaper article
Reproduced on my web site 2/20/00 as it first appeared in 1979,
Now with period photos added 10/1/13
Please see "Update" at end of this article for my brief year 2013
Followed by 17 titles of "Comedy Reviews and Interviews 1977-1981"
Mike Davis and Marsha Warfield.
(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!"
Fox and the late Frank Kidder (? - December 20, 2012?)
"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.
Mark Miller and Robin Williams
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!"
Mort Sahl on the cover of Time Magazine
Check out who was on the Time's cover
The week before & after: August
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.
Lenny Bruce (October 13, 1925 – August 3, 1966)
Richard Pryor (December 1, 1940 – December 10, 2005) and George Carlin (May 12, 1937 – June 22, 2008)
Steve Martin and Robin Williams
"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!
Mike Davis juggling a bowling ball, tomato and . . . that egg!
"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.
Intelligent, classical standup comic
"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 that 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!
I haven't read this review in years.
exception of Lewis Black, Richard Jeni, and a few others, sadly the national
comedy scene has failed in living up to it's late 1970's potential.
Who was light-years ahead of their contemporaries in the 1970's San Francisco
I'm talking just before SF became mecca for young stand-up comics
coming out to the city from
all over the USA in the 1980's.
Back in the day, it was clearly these three:
Robin Williams, Bill Rafferty and Jim Giovanni.
then, the best of the "first wave" new breed were emulating
the great premise routine comedians from the 1950's and 1960's.
Robin, Bill and Jim . . . just did it better.
However, the so-called "second wave" of comics who came later were largely lowly
more in the 1940's and earlier comedian traditions
before the radical breakthroughs
that announced modern stand-up comedy.
You've head their names, the ones who introduced the biggest changes in comedy
character creating and comedy writing:
Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters and Mort Sahl began what would immediately be taken
up by Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Jackie Mason, etc.
second wave retrograde action remains a totally weird, backwards movement,
. . .
an artistic history in the unmaking.
That is great news for up-and-coming stand-up comics and for seasoned professionals
to add a more literate twist to their own acts.
The dream lives on!
Back to top
If you would like to read more of my "Comedy Reviews and Interviews
you can order the collection for $25, plus tax and shipping & handling:
Coaching Order Form
(June 17, 1944 - August 11, 2102)
2/11/77: Bill Rafferty: Bright New Comic Personality
3/25/77: Mitch Krug, Electronic Comic—now deceased electrical engineer
Robin Williams as Mork, pointing up at his fearless leader from another planet . . . far away.
9/30/78: "Funniest Stand-Up Comedian" Stars in "Mork and Mindy"—Robin Williams
Rafferty, Dana Carvey and Darryl Henriques
11/10/78: Stand-Up Comedy Night: Turn away Crowd at The Laguna—Bill
Rafferty, Dana Carvey and Darryl Henriques
Jim Giovanni as Rocky Marciano, as Columbo and as himself.
2/22/78: Laguna's Stand-Up Comedy Nights Still Selling Out—Jim Giovanni, Lorenzo
Mark Miler, now a Hollywood sitcom writer.
1/19/79: Slick Traditionalists Win the Audience at The Laguna—Mark Miller, Bill Farley
Mark McCollum with his guitar slung behind him.
1/26/79: Double Encore with Standing Ovations for McCollum—Mark
McCollum, S.O.S. Improv Group
Jack Marion and Bob Sarlatte
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
Franklyn Ajaye and Charlie Hill
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
Jim Richardson as Jimmy Two-Jokes, Marsha Warfield, Dana Carvey, Michael Winslow,
A. Whitney Brown
and Art Buchwald (October 20, 1925 – January 17, 2007) typing up his next column.
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
1980 Sonoma State University poster:
Johnny Carson (October 23, 1925 – January 23, 2005) in bed,
surrounded by comics
who had appeared
"The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson." (1962 to 1992)
10/79: Setting the Standards for Comedy—Jim's suggestions for improving
the Comedy Competition
Mort Sahl was the MC at the SF Comedy Competition on
Finals night, September 2, 1979.
Sahl is here pictured in his trademark pose:
wearing red sweater, holding a newspaper that
he will soon open and
begin making fun of the news
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
Marsha Warfield, Ollie Joe Prater (? - November 25, 1991), Larry Miller, George
Wallace, Jerry Dye
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
Bobby Slayton, James Wesley Jackson playing a Jew's harp, Frank Sinatra shaking
Jim Giovanni's hand.
12/21/79: Comedy Alive and Well at Garbo's—Bobby
Slayton, James Wesley Jackson, Jim Giovanni and the first Best
Original Joke Contest
By September 1981, I had given up on the S.F. Comedy Competition ever reforming
my own Comedy
Marathon Contest which ran until
September 1983. I made the contest's rules along the lines of these 17
Following the artistic profile described in "How to WIN the Next San Francisco
the S. F. Comedy Competition producers claimed that using that profile, they
would have trouble:
filling 40 slots once a year
and that it was ok to
suffer contestants using the same 5 minutes year-after-year.
1) We filled 5-10 slots every 6 weeks for 3 years straight.
2) Were comics allowed to repeat jokes?
Sure, only I was the contest Marshal:
you lose 1 point for every repeated or stolen joke."
Do the math:
At a minimum
of 4 jokes/minute x 5 minutes = 20 jokes.
Plus, to win, you needed to enter 2 extra
mini-contests that night for an average overall total:
13 minutes x 4 jokes/minute
= 51 new jokes that night in a contest with a possible 110-120 points.
•In short, every lost point was another step toward losing.
As James Wesley Jackson jokes,
" Mistakes are just stepping stones to . . . failure!"
No general categories like in the S. F. Comedy Competition:
Every category in the Comedy Marathon Contests was deliberately specific and
taught a different writing or performing technique.
•Contestants were required to both learn the techniques,
they had masters each skill by writing a joke demonstrating their knowledge.
Skip some of the categories?
Only the professional media judges give you zero points in said skipped category,
so you almost automatically lose the contest.
Comedy contests can be done right, stick to artistic goals and be conducted with
So, we did it.
Has anyone else to date come . . . even close?
Ronn Lucas with three little friends on TV's"The Ronn Lucas Show"
Oh: and I still managed to coach the winner of the SF and National Competitions in
1981, sophisticated ventriloquist Ronn Lucas.
when you order the above 16 titles for "Comedy Reviews and Interviews
also include a 17th title, "Life as a Comedy Coach," which I
wrote September 10, 1981 as a reflection right after helping Ronn Lucas win those
the history of my "Editing Worksheet" which is now part
of my stand-alone audio/workbook package "The Fundamentals of Stand-Up
Comedy" that you can order by itself or as part of my entire "Home
Find out how
to order either option on my Coaching
Ronn Lucas was my first professional client.
•You can read about our work sessions in this issue of my newsletter “Coach
Says,” page 14-18.
Within a few months of working together:
•Ronn won the San Francisco Comedy
Competition, and blamed
me for his sudden success,
•going from lounge act to headlining comedy
clubs as a ventriloquist
•and becoming the feature act in the touring "Sugar
musical revue starring Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller.
•Within 6 months of winning the SF Contest, Ronn had his first of many
shots on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," "Late
Night with David Letterman," etc.
On this screen shot of page 14, you can see Ronn’s hand-written
endorsements of my article.
Page last updated: Friday,
October 18, 2013, 1 pm PST.
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