My friend ordered a 60 oz. margarita for himself Wednesday night’s at Madison’s Funniest Comic competition, and after finishing the drink he drunkenly and brilliantly told me to write about the “science of laughter.”
At first this seemed like a “Theory of Everything”-based drunk thought— could there really be an equation that explains why every good comedian is a good one? Proving or disproving this notion quickly became my goal for the night.
On Wednesday night at the Comedy Club on State, Round 2 of the competition featured twenty comics. Ten of them will continue to the next round: Antonio Aguilar, David Freeburg, Esteban Touma, Genna Gephart, Geoffrey Asmus, Jackson Jones, Max Giles, Niamh O’Neill Culhane, Sammy Arechar and Toler Wolfe.
Why did these comics make it and not the others? Was there some sort of pattern? Obviously there an art to comedy— it’s very much based off performance and developing an onstage persona. But what about the science?
Maybe I was just overanalyzing a drunk suggestion, but after making observations and talking to a few of the judges Wednesday night, I came up with something.
“I want to get a sense of their essence,” guest judge Mike Lebovitz said about comedians. “The content— I don’t know— there’s the what, and there’s the how. And I care more about the how.”
Lebovitz, who warmed up the audience Wednesday night with his own routine, is a Chicago-based comedian who has been doing standup for eight years. He believes that good comedians aren’t just good joke-writers: they’re true to themselves and connect with the audience. They can talk about anything and still be funny, he said, as long as they have that authentic persona.
Judge Jen Borowski, the manager of a comedy club in Milwaukee, agreed that a good comic must have good stage presence. She also said that many of the comics who made it to round three have been doing comedy for a long time.
Judge Roger Ash had similar answers when I asked what makes a comic funny. Practice and experience shows when it comes to comedy, he said. Also, he said, it’s important to seem natural on stage.
“I heard some stuff [tonight] that I thought was funny, but it was more like reciting, giving a speech, than an actual connection.”
From these interviews, it seems like the equation for a good comedian is authenticity plus experience plus connecting with the audience.
I asked some judges and comics about who has been strong in the competition, and some popular answers were Asmus, Jones, and Wolfe. These three comics also happen to have great stage presences, to practice comedy often, and to click with the audience.
Geoffrey Asmus is a good example of a comic who has an authentic stage presence. His nervous persona has been constantly funny throughout this competition.
In his routine last night, he began one joke by saying that he prefers big talk to small talk.
“I’ll talk about death until everyone leaves Jamba Juice,” he said. “Nice way to cut in line.”
Another highlight of his routine began with a cousin who always cheated in freeze tag as a kid and ended with a police brutality joke.
“I wasn’t surprised when I heard he was shot by the cops,” Asmus said, then added. “Maybe that joke’s a little outdated because cops don’t say ‘Freeze!’ before they shoot anymore.”
Toler Wolfe also has a very developed persona. He has a dry, dark sense of humor and a deadpan voice, like a male Audrey Plaza. He did very well Wednesday night making the audience love him and his routine.
He began a joke by mentioning that he was hanging out with some buds.
“So, we were smoking some—“
He acted uncomfortable, like he was trying to think of a politically correct way to explain what he was smoking. Then he hopped off the stage into the audience and whispered to probably a dozen people, “It was pot!” “It was pot!” “It was weed!”
Finally, he stepped back on stage and very bluntly said, “So, we were smoking some pot…” and continued to tell a very amusing high story.
The audience loved him.
Jackson Jones has reddish-brown shaggy hair, a beard and a mustache.
“I do get accused of being racist a lot because of the way I look—” he said to begin his routine. “at black people.”
He continued his routine with the same type of anti -people jokes. He advised the young, college age audience to never have kids because “kids are awful people.” He said he he’d rather date young, naïve girls than women his own age.
“I’m not looking for someone who’s been crushed by life!” he said. That’s already happened to him!
Asmus, Jones, Wolfe and the seven other contestants will perform in Round 3 next Wednesday at the Comedy Club on State, and on Thursday the top three will compete in the finals.