Seven hundred comedians applied to compete in the 35th annual Seattle International Comedy Competition; 33 have battled for laughs in local venues, from Seattle to Spokane, and the top 10 will be onstage when the semi-final round takes over Broadway Center’s Theatre on the Square on Saturday, Nov. 22.
In the end only one will reign supreme. Before we grabbed our scorecards, we caught up with long-time festival producer Ron Reid to get a better idea of what’s at stake and what we might see this weekend.
Tacoma Weekly: For starters, give us an idea about what this competition has grown into over the years.
Reid: Little by little, year by year, it’s been built up into this huge, prestigious event. I call it America’s largest touring comedy festival. In it’s current form, it’s 23 shows over 26 days in 19 different venues. It’s attended by between 7,000 and 8,000 people; and it attracts people from all over the world.
TW: Can you point to past competitors that have gone on to do big things?
A: Tom Cotter won the first year that I produced it (1994.) He was living in Boston at the time, and he and a bunch of friends from Boston came down, shared a hotel room. Of course, he’s the guy who lost to the dog act on (NBC-TV’s) “America’s Got Talent.”
Probably the most famous winner was Mitch Hedberg in ’97. Other famous people have been in it because we kind of catch them early in their careers. Aisha Tyler was a finalist (from) “Talk Soup,” and now she’s on “Archer.”
When Patton Oswalt came here with Brian Posehn they didn’t advance out of their round. They were at that stage of their career.
If you want to go back to the ‘80s, Bill Nye the Science Guy. He was a friend of mine, and if you had asked me at that time who among your friends would become the most famous person, I never would have guessed Bill Nye, before he was the Science Guy.
TW: So if you go this year you might be seeing the next big thing.
Reid: Absolutely, in fact one of our semi-finalists was on "Conan" two weeks ago. His name is Matt Donaher, and he’s from Boston; and another one of our semi-finalists, Guy Branum, is a regular and a writer for “Chelsea Lately.” So some of these people are already achieving on that level.
TW: So what’s in it for the winner?
Reid: The winner gets $5,000 cash plus a recording contract with a company called Uproar, which is probably America’s No. 1 all-comedy record label. Piece of trivia: the guy who owns that label is the person who first recorded Richard Pryor. And that comes with $1,000 cash advance on the deal. So the winner’s gonna get six grand up front, five from us and a thousand from the record label. But all 10 people at that show will have won a cash prize. Where they place will determine how much cash.
There’s five nights of finals, and the very last show is at the Comedy Underground in Seattle.”
TW: Are there any big changes to the competition this year?
Reid: Well, we went to Spokane this year. We don’t do that very often. We’re always concerned about crossing the mountains in the winter time. It’s not that we shun Eastern Washington ...
TW: You just don’t wanna die.
Reid: Yeah, yeah, we don’t want to die. Exactly right. (He laughs.) The show must go on to a certain point, but personal safety takes precedent. The Theatre on the Square show, that’s our only Pierce County show this year. That’s actually kind of rare. I love this theater. It’s just such a perfect spot for comedy. It’s just laid out so perfectly. It’s really intimate, yet it holds a fair amount of people.
TW: How unusual is your setup? I’d imagine most comedy competitions are held in a more condensed area.
Reid: Yes, and they rarely run more than a week, and a lot of times they’re in the same place every night. So this is unique in that ... we take the show to the people.
TW: What was the original thinking behind that?
Reid: It evolved that way. I don’t think it was a conscious process, but it became one. We’d go somewhere and go, ‘Hey! This went really good. These people were really appreciative that we brought this show to them. Some of the places we go it’s a huge deal that we came there. If we did all our shows in Seattle, we’d be competing with every entertainment opportunity in Seattle. So that’s why we take it other places.