Where the Funny Matters: Seattle Int’l Comedy Competition

by Corbett Cummins and Heather Christianson
photos by Peter Greyy

One of the joys of living in a city with a vibrant arts scene is the opportunity to see big named artists before they are stars, while they are still struggling with rent and crappy jobs. One day, you are at the open mic, listening to a guy from the coffee shop playing the same song and wearing the same shirt as last week, and the next thing you know, he is on he cover of Rolling Stone, surrounded by models wearing a stunned grin and the same shirt. And just like that, you never look at baristas the same way again.

The Seattle International Comedy Competition has been working to guarantee that experience for Seattle’s comedy crowd for the last 30 years. The competition is spearheaded by the paternal figure of Seattle’s comedy scene, Ron Reed.

Ron once got a laugh thiiiiis big

Ron once got a laugh thiiiiis big

Ron has been part of the Comedy Competition since 1994. He says the event helps to keep Seattle viable on the national comedy scene.

“Last year’s winner, Marcus, got a lot of exposure on NBC’s Last Comic Standing,” he said in an e-mail interview. “When stuff like that happens it adds to Seattle’s reputation in a business where reputation is very important. Which in turn gives us credibility with the local media, which then helps us to continue to have a scene. It’s all a big circle, don’t ya see?”

Over the past few decades, the competition has attracted a wide range of talented, struggling comedians, people like Brain Posehn, Mitch Hedberg and Patton Oswalt, whose names have since became synonymous with contemporary comedy. Once they arrive, the 32 contestants are whittled down to one by smiling crowds and frowning judges during a death march tour through the region that takes them from places like Seattle’s Re-Bar to the Admiral Theater in Bremerton.

The stakes are pretty high. The winner gets $5,000 and a recording contract with Uproar Entertainment, a national comedy record label who represents people like Dana Gould (you know, from The Simpsons).

Tommy does an unflattering impersonation of himself

Tommy does an unflattering impersonation of himself

Now, even venerable institutions are prone to poor decision making, and the Seattle International Comedy Competition is no exception. That is only possible explanation of how WFTM found itself at the Comedy Underground on the night of November 30, 2008, to watch the five finalists -- Todd Johnson, Lars Callieou, Tommy Savitt, Nate Jackson, and Justin Rupple -- enter a room, knowing that only one would make enough money to cover his bar tab.

We caught up with them before the show to see how they were holding up and how they felt about their chances going into the last round.

The first two comedians we met were Tommy Savitt and Lars Callieou. Tommy has been doing comedy for members of the armed forces for about a decade. He has worked in places like Guantanamo Bay (we don’t think he was an inmate), Afghanistan, and Japan he is also the winner of 2007 Boston Comedy Festival. Lars comes from the land of International (read Canadian) Radio where he is featured on XM Radio, CBC Radio and CJSR 88.5 and was voted Alberta’s funniest new comedian (though in Canada I think they pronounce it “most funny”)

Lars scopes it out

Lars scopes it out

They immediately ruined any chance of getting a juicy “behind the scenes drama” story by being extremely friendly and supportive of each other. Lars said that he was just proud to be sharing the stage with Tommy. Tommy, on the other hand, said, “I’ve got my second wind right now.” He then added along with a huge laugh, “And I’m about to take control of my life.”

Todd Johnson, a 10 year comedy veteran from a small town in Idaho and finalist of the Rocky Mountain Laugh Off, was definitely feeling the grind. He said that all he wanted was to go home, win or lose (though he preferred to win).

Todd explains to the cop that its the cars fault

Todd explains to the cop that its the cars fault

Nate Jackson, originally from Olympia and winner of the 2008 California Comedy Festival, was completely Zen. We caught up with him as he was checking out the audience. He said that he was elated to be at the competition. “We got a lot of vibrant young faces and a lot of vibrant old faces.”

Historians will remember this as Nates Reign of Terror Over the Stage

Historians will remember this as Nate's Reign of Terror Over the Stage

Issaquah native and winner of both the 2006 Northwest Laugh-Off Competition and the 2008 Giggles Laugh-Off, Justin Rupple was demure. “I feel like the Jamaican Bobsled Team.” he said. “I’m just happy to be running.”

Justin did get extra points for effective use of facial expressions

Justin did get extra points for "effective use of facial expressions"

The show was hosted by Derrick Cameron, who opened the show with a burst of energy and proceeded to introduce each of the comedians as a good friend who “still owes me money.”

Though not officially a contestant Derrick still won the Largest Smile award

Though not officially a contestant, Derrick still won the "Largest Smile" award

Before they got started, Ron came over and explained to us that this year was unique in that it was a dead heat with no clear winner. This meant that even though the competition would take into account the scores for the past judges, our decision would be the one to actually tip the scales. No pressure; it’s just a recession and the careers of five people were now in our hands. He asked if we had any questions and we asked him when the drinks would arrive.

All five of their 15 minute performances were professional grade. There was no real variation in their skills and none of them had an off night. The only thing to judge them by was their stage personality and their actual artistic decisions which are really hazy things to judge people on.

To make matters worse, none of them were jerks. I was hoping to be able cut at least one of them on the grounds of being a dillweed, but no such luck!

Todd Johnson had a great good ol’ boy set with stories about driving junked up cars while looking and acting like he was mentally challenged. Lars Callieou delivered a pitch perfect goofball commentary about finding his toys form the 80’s on the Antique Roadshow and watching a Teletubbie beat up Batman on Halloween. Tommy Savitt came on stage as a hilariously idiotic used car salesman spouting phrases like “I understand you, I watch the Oxygen Channel.” Nate Jackson brought a high energy, tightly packed set where he tossed the mic stand around like a rag doll while showing us why he couldn’t do Barack Obama’s job. And Justin Rupple made everybody feel old with his extensive Marijuana stories and truly spot-on Dave Matthews and Bonobo Chimps impersonation.

It was difficult see any crack through all of the professionalism. But in the end, one of the comedians did manage to stand about a half inch above the rest with just a slightly easier command of the audience, a mildly stronger stage presence and just a few more big hard laughs. And he was confirmed by our secret ballots.

If laugher is medicine, then Ty was the overdose

If laugher is medicine, then Ty was the overdose

However, before our decision was announced Derrik brought out the headliner for the evening, the immaculate Ty Barnett to wring out every possible laugh from the exhausted, demolished audience. Once he was done, Ron announced that the winner of the 2008 Seattle International Comedy Competition was none other than Tommy Savitt!

Finishing second place (worth $2,000)was Olympia resident Nate Jackson. Third place (worth $1500) went to Idaho’s Todd Johnson, 4th place ($1300)was Justin Rupple from Issaquah and placing 5th ($1200) was Canadian representative Lars Callieou.

Despite warnings, Tommy spent all of his money in one place

Despite warnings, Tommy spent all of his winnings in one place

Congratulations to all of you! By now, you have all hopefully enjoyed the shower and clean pair of underwear you’ve been pining for.

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