John Cantu doing the door at the Zoo John doing the door at the Holy City Zoo

Spotted at the Comedy Competition Finals: A New Trend in Comedy

by John Cantu ©

After being a judge for one of the preliminary nights of the San Francisco International Stand Up Comedy Competition I went to the finals. I did my handicapping and I was both pleased and surprised with the final rankings of my first and second choices. I also made a significant observation about a new direction in which I think comedy is heading.

I realize that if you are not from the San Francisco Bay Area, you may not realize the significance of the competition. Let me backtrack a moment to 1976, the first year of the "Comedy Competition."   Bill Farley took first place. Bob Sarlatte, currently the on-field Master of Ceremonies for the San Francisco 49ers at 3Com Park, finished third. Robin Williams came in second.

Now over the years, many more talented comedians have emerged from the rounds of the competition to achieve success and stardom. 1977 Comedy champ Dana Carvey went onto Saturday Night Live, Marsha Warfield won in1979 then starred as everybody's favorite Night Court bailiff. A couple of first runners' up, Ellen DeGeneres and Mark Curry, landed their own TV series. And another runner up Patton Oswalt keeps the laughs going on the King of Queens.

Comedy competition winners and finalists have made their presence known in virtually every entertainment genre of which you can think. In commercials: 1991 winner Don McMillan enjoyed a long ride as Gus the Bus driver. Carlos Alazraqui, head of the class of 1993, was the voice of the Taco Bell Chihuahua.

On Broadway: Mike Davis, 1979 finalist, starred in Sugar Babies. In 1987 Rick Reynolds and Rob Becker finished second and third respectively. Reynolds went on to produce and star in Only the Truth is Funny, his one-man show which made it to Broadway. Rob Becker still tours nationally with his one-man show, Defending the Caveman (which also plays on Broadway with another actor in the title role).

On the big screen: Michael Winslow sounded out in the Police Academy movies. Kevin Pollak, Sinbad and Rob Schneider have become successful movie stars. And many others have made their mark by writing for the living room screen. Carrie Snow, Barry Weintraub, and Mike Dugan write your favorite sitcom scripts.

And Rosanne Barr, Janeane Garofalo, Steven Wright, Bobcat Goldthwait, and Christopher Titus, all competed in the San Francisco Stand Up Comedy Competition and NEVER EVEN MADE IT to the finals!

So back to the San Francisco International Stand Up Comedy Competition.

Here's my observation for comedy at this first year of the new millennium. I saw something that I have only seen a couple of times before in a comedy club setting - - - comedy with a very serious message; comedy - almost with a moral.

Mark McCollum (1978 comedy competition winner) used to do it in his act years ago at the Holy City Zoo. And Michael Pritchard (1980 winner) used to do it also, but Piritchard has left the comedy world and gone strictly into motivation speaking.

Rick Reynolds took his act out of the comedy club arena club, then added his message and then presented his message as a one man show. Rob Becker essentially did the same by putting his message on stage in a full theatrical presentation.

So this was the first time I saw comedy competition acts saturated with serious content. The fact that two such comics made it to the finals leads me to this observation: I think this is a sign of a new direction in comedy.

For about a year now, I have started to hear it bandied about in the speaking world that people are hungry for meaning in their life and that requests for speakers who deal with spirituality and/or having a life purpose is going to increase.

Of course, by and large for a comedy club, spirituality is probably inappropriate. But at the finals, I heard comedy material that had a purpose. I witnessed comedy observations that had a strong moral base, and I heard this material be accepted very well by the audience.

Due to time and space constraints I won't quote any material at this point. But I must say, one comedian who simply blew me away was Darryl Lenox, a black comic from Canada who had great color-blind material. Daryl Lenox is the first comic for whom I have ever given a standing ovation. And I was pleased to see that after I made the first move to stand other audience members (not in the business) joined me, so it wasn't just over exuberance on my part.

As I said at the beginning of this essay, I was both pleased and surprised at the judging results. I was pleased that my first two choices were the first two choices of the night. And I was surprised that they came in reverse order from my ranking.

My choice for first place (Darryl Lenox) came in second and my choice for second place Danny Bevins came in first. But I could accept that because Bevins also did more than just jokes.

Both of them had a message to the material. A message so strong you could put them into a professional speaker's environment and called them motivation humorists. Bevins was a bit more of the comedy/joke mode, but still I see it as the start of a new trend. Comedians who present with commentary - - - mirth that encapsules a message.

The finals were taped and aired UPN network. On the web site there was a vote for the best comic and this was the final tally (unlike the Democrats, the contestants didn't ask for recount after recount hoping for a total they liked): Darryl Lenox 68%; Danny Bevins 13%; Dave Russo 11%; Ron Osborne 5%; and Rick D'elia 0%.

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