The Seattle International Comedy Competition kicks off it's 35th year tonight at the Columbia City Theater. Over the course of November, it'll makes stops in venues around the Seattle area (and even head to Spokane and Vancouver, WA) as it whittles down its crop of standup comedians. What’s the secret to the event's consistency? Brevity. The performers go through rounds of vetting before ever taking the stage to compete, and when they do they only get five- or 10-minute sets (until the finals), so they’re forced to do their best material.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Seattle International Comedy Competition's longtime producer Ron Reid about selecting the performers, the greatness of Dave Chappelle, and former SICC winner Mitch Hedberg.
What is the process of selecting the comedians that compete in the Seattle International Comedy Competition?
My talent director Peter Greyy and I seek out people who we already know around the country. And then we also open it up for video submissions. This year more and more we’ve been doing live auditions. This year we saw almost 300 people live via regional talent showcases in Seattle, Portland, Spokane, Bellingham, and Vancouver, BC.
We like to bring people from all over. Traditionally, we have people come from Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, and Kansas City. We always have a handful of Canadians and usually a couple foreign comedians. This year we actually had a woman coming from Japan, a comedian from Australia, and the Alien Warrior Comedian. I keep saying he’s from a galaxy far, far away, but he’s listed as being from Las Vegas. Which is probably the same thing. (Laughs) Plus, we try to support the local scene, not only in Seattle, but in the region. So we want to make sure that Portland is represented and Seattle is represented, and we invited one comedian from Spokane to be in this. So that’s kind of the process.
How big is the total pool of comedians from which you select the 33 competitors?
Last year we had almost 1,300 submissions This year we had something over 500. Usually we have a top 100 and rank them. We try to have some balance, some diversity, whether that’s gender or ethnicity. Comedy in general is male dominated. So we’re always encouraging and would love to see more women in comedy. And I think there’re strides being made, but still they are terribly outnumbered. So we make an effort to have as much diversity as we can get and still have the people be qualified.
I kind of explain to the comics every year: to them it’s a contest, to me, as the producer, it’s a show. And so, I like for it to have dynamics. Where not everything is the same and it’s really interesting and there is variety. I love when people have other skills. Whether it’s movement, or something to do with their voice, or music… to me, that enhances the show. I’m putting on a show. That’s my job: entertain audiences.
Over the course of your time producing the competition, are there any moments that stick out?
Well there was a guy who has kind of became a comedy legend, and that is Mitch Hedberg. He was the 1997 winner of this competition. He was, even at that time, clearly something special. We all knew him—he was claimed by various cities, but he really was a Seattle comedian. I had seen him go from an amateur open micer to this really undeniable force in comedy; somebody with a rare original voice. You could sense the electricity around that; you knew something special was going on with him.
Do you have a favorite standup set you’ve seen over the past year or so?
I've been fortunate enough to see Dave Chappelle twice in roughly the past year. I saw him in (October 2013) at the Moore Theatre and then I just saw him again last month at the Neptune. And the time when he was at the Moore, I actually said to people, “That was the best comedy show I've ever seen in my entire life,” and that he was probably the greatest living American comedian. I thought it was up there with people like Richard Prior and George Carlin and those comic legends that I had seen at some point in my life.
Are there any up-and-coming local comedians that people should make sure to check out?
Emmett Montgomery. I've known him for ten years, because that's how long he's been doing it. He's an example of somebody that's becoming an overnight sensation after ten years. He's really someone who has a voice. That's what brings you success in comedy—having a voice, finding your voice. He's a guy who found his voice early and then has built up the performing skills to match it. It's all coming together for him right now. He's completely original, completely true to himself, and yet commercial at the same time.
If you weren't involved in comedy is there any other line of work you think you might’ve wanted to pursue?
Like becoming Ben Affleck or selling insurance?
Seattle International Comedy Competition
Nov 5–30, Various venues, $10–$75