On Monday, the first of more than 200 stand-up comics will grab the microphone at Cap City Comedy Club and compete in the annual Funniest Person in Austin contest. Some will be seasoned veterans and/or former runners-up in the competition (which may or may not celebrate a milestone 30th anniversary this year, depending on whom you ask) and others will be trying out stand-up comedy for the very first time.
Good or bad, it’s bound to be entertaining.
“I love the contest,” says Matt Bearden, former FPIA winner. “I’m a huge comedy fan. I love stand-up, and in a different way than other people. I really like watching my friends do their best. And then the flip side is there’s nothing I enjoy more — because I’m jaded and I’ve seen so much stand-up now, so much stand-up — I love horrible stand-up more than anybody in this city, I believe.
“When it gets silent in that room, you’ll always hear my laughter the loudest. ’Cause I love those moments. It’s the best, the best.”
Read on for more thoughts from Bearden and other comics, as well as organizers and judges, about the history, experience and legacy of the event.
ON THE BEGINNING
Margie Coyle (Cap City co-owner, manager): I’m sure the first thing Kerry will say is that he wasn’t the first winner; we do this every year.
Kerry Awn (previous winner): She doesn’t want me to expose the truth (he laughs). They’re claiming that this is the 30th and I was the first. But there were actually two people before me that they’re not even counting because it doesn’t fit in their plan. It was at the Comedy Workshop, right next to the Chili Parlor — ’83 must have been the first one. I was in the first year and I won second place. So I thought, well, next year I’ll win. So the next year, I came in third. I was like, I’m going backwards (he laughs heartily). There was like a dozen people the first time. And it was just one night, 12 people; it didn’t go on for three months like it does now. Then they didn’t have it the next year, for whatever reason. I was like, what? That was going to be my year to win! They brought it back in ’86 and I won it that year.
Coyle: I tell Kerry that if they didn’t win at 2180 Research Blvd., then they’re not a Funniest Person in Austin. And he says, “Well, I didn’t win at 8120 Research Blvd.” And I say, “Well, OK, you get a pass.”
Matt Bearden (previous FPIA winner): The thing is that the first kind of official one, where there was an awarding and I think that someone said, “This is an official event,” I think everyone kind of considers Kerry to win it. Kerry doesn’t want to be (suspended NBC News anchor) Brian Williams and tell you that his set got hit by an RPG. So he’s not going to call himself the first. But everybody else in the community will.
Awn: The Comedy Workshop, they started it and for whatever reason they did it — I’m sure it was just for publicity or to try to get more people in on a Sunday night or whatever.
Bearden: Brian Williams was at the first one, though. He was at the first FPIA.
Awn: Then, the next year I think the Laff Stop (now Cap City Comedy Club) opened like right in that period and the Comedy Workshop closed. So they moved it out there.
Coyle: I didn’t start working here until ’87, but this club opened in ’85. I worked here as a server; I waited tables through college here. Angela Davis and Ross Jackson opened this club (as the Laff Stop). They’re the ones that picked up where Comedy Workshop dropped off and moved forward with the contest. There were around 40 comedians in the first year here.
Awn: Back when I was doing it, you’d be lucky if your own girlfriend showed up. It was no big deal (he laughs). It was just kind of a deal where you could brag to your friends. “OK, Howard Beecher, you’re next. Tom Hester, you’re next year,” you know. The first few years it just kinda went down the list of the people that were (he laughs) … Nancy Reed, this is your year. Do you know J.C. Shakespeare? He was destined to win — it was his turn one year. And he didn’t win; Megan Mooney won instead. It was like we were the Mafia or something, y’know? It was the people from the Velveeta Room that were winning every year, ’cause you could go up there all the time and get plenty of practice. The Velveeta Room was kind of like the minor leagues for the contest. It was where you’d train. There were not a bunch of open mics. So, it was always kind of the Velveeta Room people. Then one year it broke, and after that it was wide open. It was, “Who knows who’s going to win now?”
ON THE EVOLUTION
Bearden: Something changed in about 2004, 2005, somewhere around there — it’s just a different monster altogether. It used to be four nights of prelims and then a night of finals. And I remember the tough thing was always if you were on that last night of prelims — if you advanced out of that night into the finals, you advanced to Tuesday night and those judges saw you two nights in a row. You always felt like you were at a disadvantage. Because everybody else was getting seen for the first time, but the judges just saw you last night. So you felt kind of like, well, if you’re in that last night and you advance, you kind of have to do a brand new set the next night. That was always a tough and a weird thing. But then at some point it went to having a semifinals night and now it’s this gigantic monster.
Coyle: There’s definitely been steady growth, which has been massaged by a lot of different things. The fact that industry comes here — festival people, talent agents, people that are vested in comedy that are trying to pluck the newest, the hottest and the best — that, I think, has kept the rhythm and the momentum and made it a substantial, impactful contest. I mean, we’ve had people — five or six — go to the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival (in Montreal). Back when I started working here, if you went to that festival, you were going to be a star. I know Jim Carrey got discovered at Just for Laughs. If you could go to that, you made it, and if you got invited to be on New Faces at Just for Laughs … that’s where a lot of these guys are headed, or are hoping to. Last year we had 217 (in FPIA), I think; maybe this year we’ll have 225, 230. It’s smart growth, which I had nothing to do with.
Maggie Maye (comic): We’ve all got to do (FPIA) every year. Yeah, I’ve paid my comedy tax, and I’m in.
Awn: People move here just to do comedy now. That’s always amazed me.
Coyle: On the contest app, it says (you have to live in zip codes) 786, 789 or 787. Every year, I’m like, why is 789 in there? (She laughs.) I think Smithville is 789; that’s not Austin. I live in San Marcos — 786. That’ll be my downfall. I’ll be busted because they really lived in San Marcos; they’re not the Funniest Person in Austin. Maybe that’s already happened, for all I know. The rules are loose.
ON WHO’S WINNING
Awn: One thing I don’t understand is how come no women are winning anymore? No women have won in, like, 15 years or something. There’s a bunch of real talented women here. I think Lashonda Lester won second last year. I keep thinking this is going to be their year. I keep thinking Maggie Maye is going to win it.
Maye: The furthest I’ve thought about (this year’s) contest is, early today as I was driving up, that I am definitely going to wear this lip gloss. This lip gloss is poppin’ and you know it (she laughs). With comedy, it’s kind of like, “Worry about what’s going on today and tomorrow.” If I worry about everything that’s coming up, my head will explode.
Awn: It seems like you got to be a guy with a beard to win now.
Bearden: The back story for me is that my electricity had been turned off in my house for three weeks. (My roommate and I) lived in a house that was filled with rats. It was dilapidated and falling down. Rent was $500 a month. We owed $730 some odd dollars and the prize that year was $750 if you won first place. I’m not embellishing here. My scheme I had concocted was, “I’m going to win this stand-up contest and we’ll get electricity.” There were 12 people, I think, in the finals. And at about No. 5, Matt Sadler murdered the room. And I quickly started rewriting my set. Because I was like, I cannot compete with his energy and what an incredible set he put together. But I knew there were some judges there from Comedy Central. I knew they were from New York; I knew that they dealt with a different style of stand-up. At that time in Austin, we still tended to do a little more of what might be considered by the hipsters to be a little more pedestrian. And I thought, well, I’m just going to rewrite my jokes to be hip and aloof, and the gamble paid off, though I will still concede that Matt Sadler had the best set that night. They called out third place and then, when they called out second place, they called out “Matt” and there was this long, long pause and then they just held, held, held. When they called out “Sadler,” I just remember that the loudest thing I heard was not applause or cheering, it was my roommate standing up in the middle of the building yelling, “Electricity!” So the victory was I got this check, I had to deposit it and I immediately went and paid to get my electricity turned back on. It was the shortest-lived money I ever owned. And then I became a superstar! I do think that it directly led to me getting a spot on Comedy Central about two years later. But it started a pretty open relationship with these talent scouts — at the time they were assistants to the vice president of talent. Since then these two women, JoAnn Grigioni and Anne Harris, have gone on and now they’re big-time execs.
ON HOW THEY WIN
JoAnn Grigioni (vice president, talent and specials, Comedy Central): Matt Bearden won in 2002 and that was the first time I had ever gone out there. It was just the greatest experience. I was friends with (comedian) Eddie Gossling, and Eddie said, “Hey, my friend at the club is always looking for judges. It’s a really fun thing; you should call.” I remember that Margie had built me up as sort of, um, doing all these things in terms of having the authority in booking and all that, that I didn’t quite have at the time. It’s funny, because now I do, so I kind of grew into the job, and I really owe it all to Margie.
Coyle: JoAnn’s put so many (Austin) people on Comedy Central.
Grigioni: Looking at a list of the winners, we’ve put 11 of them on — Matt Bearden, Lucas Molandes, Brendon Walsh, Martha Kelly. … What’s really beneficial is that I get to see them first, before they move to New York, before they move to L.A., before they do Montreal or some other festivals. So I kind of feel like I have a first look at some really great talent. In this business, it’s always good to see people first.
Coyle: I do try really hard to make sure that people who are sitting back there have at least a sense of humor.
Anne Harris (senior director, talent, Comedy Central): We usually go for the semifinals so we can see three days and the most amount of comedians.
T.J. Markwalter (personal appearance agent at the Gersh Agency, Beverly Hills): You see all the comics, and then the judges gather in the back office there and we compare notes.
Grigioni: We have a conversation: “Everyone say your top three or four.” Because you’re looking for a consensus.
Markwalter: If there’s only one judge who liked a particular comic, you politely move on and say, “Well, glad that you liked that person that much, but none of the rest of us saw it that way.” It’s a lot of back and forth between the judges.
Grigioni: We’re cognizant that the host is onstage filling time, so we’re not rushing. There have been a couple of years where we’re in there, like, way long. And someone from the club comes in and checks on us, checking if we’re really deliberating (she laughs).
Markwalter: You have to figure a lot of different things out as part of the process: How well are they doing with the crowd? How original is their material? Is there anybody that they’re similar to? A lot of things get factored in when you’re judging a comedy contest because it’s such a subjective thing.
Harris: It’s usually a pretty easy conversation — no overturned tables. I mean, it can be hard because there are a lot of people who are great. But it’s never, in my experience, been too contentious.
ON WHERE IT LEADS
Bearden: I think the biggest thing (winning) led to was me having some validation for what I was doing. The last couple of years, the winner has gone on to New Faces at Montreal, and one of the scouts from Montreal has been a judge. I think if you’re winning that contest, you’ve really helped your chances of going to Montreal. And you’ve helped your chances of building a trust with the Moontower people, with Rich Miller, who books some places, with Margie, you know what I mean? I think it can help you that way. But, as far as is it a direct feeder to your career? Immediately? It’s not that at all.
Mac Blake (previous FPIA winner): It made me “a thing.” It gives you a credit that opens you up to a wider audience. What else it does is, during shows when you get introduced as winner of the Funniest Person in Austin, there’s usually two reactions. People are just like, “Oh, OK. Whatever, I don’t care.” And then the second reaction is that they fold their arms — either physically or mentally — and then it’s like, “OK, prove it.” So sometimes it’s a hole that you have to dig yourself out of.
Awn: I was one of the people that wanted to try to make it living here. I was like, why do you want to live in L.A.? Sure, you might make it big, but most people don’t. Then I had children and the next thing you know, it’s 30 years later. My role model was always, like, Joe Ely. “Hey, Joe Ely can do it; he can play all over the country and the world and he still lives in Austin, so I’m going to do what Joe does,” (he laughs). He still lives here and I do, too.
Markwalter: I think the contest is important because I believe Austin is an important market. In the world of comedy clubs, there aren’t a lot of comedy clubs that can celebrate a 30th year anniversary of providing good, solid, high-level entertainment.
Awn: I’m just glad they’ve kept it going. I really like Cap City and what they’re doing, and they really help people out. There’s no downside. Except for the poor people that enter thinking they’re going to win and they lose and they’re devastated for the whole year. I mean, there’s a lot of people that really, really get their hopes up that probably shouldn’t, and they’re really wounded and hurt and they’re mad.
Bearden: One of the saddest things, but it’s also one of the reasons I really like the contest, is people do put so much weight into it. It’s very privileged to have won it and then talk about the people that haven’t; I won at a time when it was, frankly, less competitive. It’s gotta be heart-wrenching. I could make a documentary on just the amount of comics who, on their way out that door at Cap City, punch those panic bars and are furious. And I get that feeling. I’ve had that feeling before — when you have a bad set, especially when you’ve put so much weight into it. I know, from being on the other side of it, that the contest is not important enough to put that much of your self-value into, do you know what I mean?
Blake: The times I did not advance, it made me hate that set. I didn’t want to do any of those jokes for, like, the next six months.
Coyle: The comics all know it’s competitive. But I do hear that people think this scene is very supportive. I don’t think it’s a divisive, backstabbing, hateful, bitter scene, but I don’t hang out with the comedians. I know they keep coming back, and wisely — they should.
Bearden: I think it’s because this town has never fully embraced stand-up that it’s not a bigger thing than it is, because I don’t know why Free Week receives the attention that it does and it’s such a thing and this contest isn’t, because it’s just as much fun.
Coyle: I wish it was viewed more by the city of Austin as a community event. The Austin Food Bank gets thousands of cans of food from the contest and we’ve given Austin’s Children’s Shelter more than $10,000 from the local comedy tickets and such. I’m not sure people would name the Funniest Person in Austin as a SXSW contender, but it’s not going away.
Funniest Person in Austin contest
When: April 6-May 18
Where: Cap City Comedy Club, 8120 Research Blvd.
Cost: Preliminary rounds, $6 (April 6-7, 12-14, 19-21, 26-28, May 3-5); semifinals, $8 (May 10-12); final night, $15 (May 18)
Information: 512-467-2333, capcitycomedy.com
Find an interactive presentation of previous FPIA winners with this story online at austin360.com.