What’s with all the competitions?

by Brian McKim & Traci Skene on April 9th, 2012

We’re noticing a disturbing trend. Comedy competitions have been sprouting up like mushrooms all over the comedy landscape. (We’re not talking curated, structured competitions like The World Series of Comedy or the San Francisco International Comedy Competition. Those have been with us for quite a while and they serve a purpose and largely cater to a more experienced, seasoned performer.)

We’re talking about a profusion of macho posturing, in the form of competitions or contest, most often down at the open-mike level. They’re frequently loosely structured and offer no prizes– monetary or otherwise– other than bragging rights. Is this something to be concerned about? Is it indicative of some sort of shift in priorities among aspiring or “up-and-coming” comedians?

As we recall, when we were at that level, the “competition” was almost always exclusively between the comic and the audience. Or, if we stretch the meaning of the word, the competition was between yourself and your old self– there was a striving to be better, but comparing ourselves to others was pointless. Or, if such comparisons were made, they were covert.

But when the average open mike is turned into a weekly steel cage death match or when roving bands of market-identifying comics travel to nearby cities to challenge the indigenous comedy population, things have taken a strange turn.

Of course, we’ve spent some time wondering why. Why does this generation of novice, fledgling, apprentice comics feel the need to flex their still-developing comedy muscles on such a regular basis?

There was a similar (and not unrelated) trend back a few years ago– that of playing to the comics in the back of the house. Open mikes became a rat’s nest of inside jokes, internecine heckling and one-upsmanship that benefited few. The inevitable result of such preening and self-congratulation was the formation of cliques, stunted comic development and, more often than not, confusion on the part of audiences.

Now comics that are in the trenches (comics still aspiring to gather that ten or fifteen minutes that will allow them to break through to paying gigs), are in the often unforgiving position of competing– overtly and coarsely– not only with audiences, but with their fellow comedians. Can it have any effect other than to stunt the creative process? Can anyone imagine any positive effects? If you’re hitting the stage once or twice a week and the object is not so much to hone material or sharpen and focus a particular bit, but to “win,” what does that do to a comic’s mission to craft a memorable, tightly-constructed act that conveys a point of view and an individual sensibility?

We’ve been wondering why this is happening.

The Male Half thinks that it is perhaps an indication that this cohort currently working its way through the comedy system is feeling impotent. That they feel powerless. The maturation of the business– with its tsunami of Comedy Central Presents and Half-Hour Comedy Hours and digital DVD downloads and theatrical-released concert films– perhaps presents a seemingly insurmountable obstacle for one just starting out. He posits the theory that the competition is just one way of coping with the impotence, a way of collecting small victories along the way.

The Female Half theorizes that just the opposite is occurring– that the trend is driven by a sense of entitlement. That young comics’ inflated egos demand a trophy for everything they do. That laboring quietly and diligently on a joke or an act or 15 minutes of solid material isn’t viewed as exciting or virtuous. As evidence of such a mindset, she cites the number of newbies who will do a set at a club on a weekend (or during a regular show), then won’t stick around to watch the headliner (or the other acts on the show). Or, worse yet, the newbie who will stick around, but only to sell his CD or other merchandise! The number of newbies who steadfastly refuse to emcee also bolsters her theory.

This may sound like a “these kids today…” rant. We would hope our readers know us better than that. We like to think that any of our rants are a bit more subtle that those of past generations of oldsters who criticized any who came after. We love the new comics. We even wrote a book that endeavors to subtly guide them through the process that we went through so long ago.

But we worry about the future of the business. Today’s newbies are tomorrow’s headliners. (Trouble is, many of them think that they will actually be headliners tomorrow!) We suppose that we’re counselling a little humility. We all have a bit of an ego in order to have attempted this crazy thing called comedy in the first place. We suppose that it would be helpful to temper that ego just a bit with some modesty and respect for the craft.