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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sitting in judgment

Comedy competition season is upon us. Yuk Yuk's is in the midst of their yearly showdown. Every Tuesday in February ten or so comics take to the stage to perform six minutes of their best material in the hopes of winning $3000 and a trip to Toronto to compete at nationals (or whatever they call it) for the chance to take home $25,000. Last year, Vancouver's own Graham Clark was the big winner. More on him later.

I was one of four judges last night. I don't enjoy judging. It's so arbitrary, so hard to compare one comic against the other. I've done lots over the years and only do them because I'm asked. I'd much rather just watch. Competitions are artificial. It's like figure skating. When everyone's doing something different, how do you compare? You should just enjoy each one for its artistry without assigning a grade to it. But everyone loves a competition.

Who make the best judges? I don't have an answer to that. Should it be someone like me, who sees a lot of the comics year round and knows their act and what they're capable of? Should it be someone who hardly ever goes to comedy and comes in with a clean slate? Should it be a fellow comic? There are pros and cons to each one.

Each one of those groups has biases, so that evens out. If I have a bias towards individual comics, someone who doesn't go to a lot of live comedy will have a bias towards (or against) certain styles or ages or whatever. It's just so personal. It's ridiculous to think everyone will have the same tastes. Just take any famous comic and ask your friends. Half of them will think Robin Williams is the funniest guy on earth, and half will hate him. Some love Bill Hicks; others think he's highly over-rated.

Someone like me as a judge would be able to recognize borrowed material or overused bits because I've been going to live comedy for 29 years... What the--? My good God I'm old... On the other hand a "celebrity" or lay judge who rarely sees live comedy brings a fresh perspective and maybe represents the common audience member better.

So I think the best way to go is to have judges of various backgrounds. I think the organizers should also go for other comedy performers who don't do standup. For example, the worlds of standup and improv rarely meet. Why not bring in a veteran improv or sketch performer who's not familiar with the individual standup comics in the competition but knows funny?

Something else I'd love to see is an open scoring system like they have in the Seattle competition. The comics, and public, should see exactly who scored what. In all the competitions I've judged, I've rarely sided with the end result. Last year, one of the three winners wasn't on three of the four judges' top three. How did that happen? We don't know so we just have to trust that the organizers aren't just putting through who they want.

Some comics think they know my biases and don't like to see me at the judge's table. Fair enough. But I try to judge solely on that night's performance and no other factors. And whether I know and like them personally or not has no bearing on the score I give them. I've voted for comics I don't know or may not like all that well personally just as often as I've voted for someone I know and like as a person. It makes no difference to me.

Which brings me to Graham Clark, who also happens to be a great guy. For years I've heard from various comics that I have some sort of man-crush on Graham, like I favour him over all others. Where this comes from, I have no idea. Graham is one of the top comics in the city (and the country, as witnessed by his victory at "nationals" last year). I've only judged him in two or three competitions. The first time was at a Just For Laughs Homegrown competition at Lafflines when he was just starting out. Even though he was nervous as hell and very raw, I liked what I saw and scored him relatively high. But I didn't have him winning and, in fact, he didn't win. The next time was at a competition at the old Urban Well. He was one of the five finalists. On that particular night, I had him 5th out of five. That's no knock on him. I just felt that on that night the other four were better. But the other judges (or organizers) liked him well enough that he won the thing. And I honestly can't remember if I judged him in last year's Yuk Yuk's competition or not, but obviously I had nothing to do with his win in Toronto.

Maybe it's because I've written about him a few times. Here's the thing: I rarely if ever get to choose who I write about. I don't have a column where I get to write whatever I want. I'm either given assignments or I pitch an idea. The ultimate decision is with editors. And let's just say I've pitched way more stories than I've ever written. If there's no hook there, or editors haven't heard of the person, they're often reluctant to give up space to them.

But let's look at this dispassionately. I don't have exact records, but here's an incomplete list of locals I've written about over the years, many of them on more than one occasion:

Vancouver TheatreSports League
!nstant Theatre Company
John Beuhler
Morgan Brayton
Brent Butt
Jason Bryden
Tom Chin
Cheech & Chong (c'mon, they were local at one time!)
Tommy Chong (see point above)
Roman Danylo
David C. Jones
Sean Devlin & Kevin Lee
Ellie Harvie
Erica Sigurdson
Giggle Dam
JP Mass
Phil Hanley
Kevin Foxx
Peter Kelamis
Irwin Barker
Ivan Decker
Jeffery Yu
Sam Easton
Billy Mitchell
Graham Clark
Nathan Clark
Bob Robertson & Linda Cullen
Ryan Stiles
Tanyalee Davis
Damonde Tschritter
Darcy Michael

If you go by sheer number of articles, Vancouver TheatreSports League wins in a landslide but I don't hear anyone saying they're my favourite.

I guess what I'm saying is this: Don't assume. Because when you assume you make a ssum out of e.

UPDATE: Come to think of it, I'm not even sure I judged the final at Urban Well. Maybe it was just in my head that I ranked the finalists. I honestly don't remember. But the point holds.

FURTHER UPDATE: Forgot to mention who came through in last night's competition. The three to advance, in the order they were announced, were A.J. McKenzie, Jeffery Yu and Ben McGinnis, all worthy of advancing, too.


Escarius said...

you're talking about my comment i made aren't you?
too funny. I was just bugging you, i think you're always pretty fair and a great balance to the other judges. i think you're over-thinking stuff.

Guy MacPherson said...

You mean the Graham comment? If I only ever heard it from one person, I wouldn't have said anything. That night, I think I heard it three times from three different people. I expect bugging and like it, but maybe there's something to it. I mean, the perception that I favour a particular comic. Maybe I'm over-thinking. It's been known to happen. Bottom line (and something every comic needs to remember in competitions): comedy is subjective and it's almost impossible to judge one over another. And there are so many variables it's almost a crapshoot.

Thanks for the clarification, Mr. Escarius. And congrats on your success in Moncton!

Anonymous said...

Ah, I shall never forget the time I was at the Rio Theatre on Commercial and Graham Clark bumped past me to get to someone across the seat. I was playing my Nintendo DS during the break between comedy shows and then all of a sudden, there he was! My brush with fame... No need to make apologies for the man crush for I too have felt his fearful charisma brief though it may have been.