The second annual Laughing Skull Comedy Festival kicked off its four day stand-up contest on April 6 in Atlanta. What started in November with nearly 700 comedians from more than 25 cities, had been whittled down to just 72 comics. At stake: what could possibly amount to six months of steady work, representation from Jus’ Wiggin’ entertainment and a thousand bucks for first place. What was really funny: most of the comics I spoke to weren’t even sure what the prize was, they just came for the exposure and the experience.
Skullfest (for short) spanned several venues aside from the Laughing Skull Lounge; headliners like Christopher Titus, Gary Gulman and Robert Kelly could be found performing at the same time as many of the contestants. Even the comics who didn’t make it to the quarter finals were given the option to play at different shows in town– like the “King David’s of Comedy” which focused on Jewish comedians or the self-explanatory “Storytellers.”
Coming into the last night of the quarter-finals on Friday, I found a room full of comedians in the modestly sized Laughing Skull Lounge desperately seeking someone to register them. One by one they would enter, some recognizing each other from the cities they’d won or performed in, all full of questions about what to do next. During the wait, a rousing discussion began on what “clean” meant for some of the taped performances at The Funny Farm. A consensus determined that while you could say “butthole,” you could NOT mention a finger entering a butthole.
The quarter-finals were spread out over two shows that night and played host to 25 comedians, each doing seven minute sets. The judges included Michael Cox from Chelsea Lately, Josh Lieberman with 3 Arts, TJ Markwalter from the Gersh Agency and Jeff Singer, executive consultant with Just for Laughs. Our host for the first show at 8:30 was last year’s winner Josh Gondelman. It was instantly obvious why Josh had won with his hilarious jokes about being a preschool teacher and his sly introductions of each comic “Our next performer…well I think they’re going to win this whole thing.”
Over the next hour and a half, it was a virtual machine gun of comedy as each performer tried to deliver the best jokes from their arsenal given the time allotted. Many of them that I’d done research on, thinking they were going to kill, actually had weak sets.
Some that I thought didn’t have a chance prior to the show ended up having extremely impressive material. Goes to show, every time you’re on stage, it’s all about the variables, the comic’s energy, if the crowd likes them, you just never know.
While the scores were being tabulated a special guest was brought out to keep the audience bubbling. The tiny place went bananas when new Atlanta resident Margaret Cho hit the mic. Cho’s story about being kicked off Dancing With The Stars was especially gut busting. “People say I was robbed and I’m like yeah if you consider someone breaking into your house and leaving $200,000 in your drawer being robbed.” She continued with the regret that she still harbors for not joining The Situation in his trailer to do coke with him after her loss and her utter hatred for Bristol Palin. Cho hasn’t lost a step, just continues to evolve into one of the most remarkable and brutally honest female comics EVER.
The winner of the round was Ricarlo Flanagan. Moving on with him would be Marcus Combs, Erin Jackson, Tom Simmons, Kareem Green and Brandon Vestal. There was a three way tie for fourth place so some of the comics would be in a Wild Card round that took place at The Basement Theater the next night at the same time as the semi-finals at the Laughing Skull. If that sounds confusing, well, even Gondelman had a hard time working it out in his head while he announced it. I must admit, I was a little shocked the ultra quirky Jennifer Murphy didn’t advance, but Kevin De La Pena from Next Round Entertainment told me the lineup was the toughest show he’d seen all week. There really wasn’t a shaky one in the bunch. Several of the comics I spoke with afterwards said they were surprised Collin Moulton didn’t get a spot either.
I truly understood what Kevin meant during the next show as only a few of the comedians got the kind of laughs that most received in prior one. Not to mention it was a drunker, rowdier crowd by 10:30 and new host (comic Trey Toler) let them know sternly they would be given no warning, just removed if they didn’t keep it zipped. Big standouts were Exiene Lofgren and Joe Zimmerman who closed the show and destroyed the crowd with an audience participation bit that caused howling fits. “Let’s have all of the people who like cats clap. Alright, now all of the dog people. Ok, so I see we have a lot of dog people. Now, all the folks who like white people.”
Zimmerman would go on to win that round being joined by Lofgren, A.J. Finney, and Frank Liotti.
Festival creator, comic and club owner Marshall Chiles told me he was even more pleased with the show this year than last. “It’s bigger but it still has that “family feel.” Most of the comics seemed to agree. What with the poker tournament, a kickball game on Saturday at Piedmont Park dividing the comedians into teams fit for the Atlanta location (North VS. South) and parties all week, many of them commented that it was one of best festivals they’d ever participated in.
The Semi-Finals proved to be much more brutal than the quarters. One of the only two females left in the competition (Andy Erikson) opened the show, hosted by the awesome Josh Gondelman again. Erikson….didn’t do so hot. Her gimmicky delivery didn’t seem to woo most people. In fact many of the comics who were extremely well received even the night before encountered trouble. For some reason, Joe Zimmerman just didn’t catch fire with that audience. I can’t imagine how tough it is trying to bring the same energy to every set though. Even being the absolute pro that she is, Cho delivered the same material differently in all three of her sets in the course of those two nights. It was always funny, just more or less so depending on how she delivered it at the time.
Exiene Lofgren, Anton Shuford and Sam Morril all did extremely well but Ari Shaffir’s set was so solid, he won the round. They would be joined in the finals by Ricarlo Flanigan along with Leo Flowers, Erin Jackson and Tom Simmons who were ushered back over from the Basement Theater where they competed.
Going into the finals I’d overheard an industry professional along with a few comedians say they felt that Ari Shaffir had it in the bag. A Comedy Story regular in L.A. who tours with Joe Rogan, Shaffir almost seemed like a ringer to some festival attendees. I myself thought it would come down to he and Exiene Lofgren after the semi’s but then Sam Morril came out with what I’d been told was the best set he’d had the entire festival. His joke about recently meeting his father for the first time and giving him a card that said “Happy Father’s Day…I guess…technically” went over big.
Shaffir seemingly put everything he had into a story about coating fellow comic Bobby Lee’s car with his own excrement; the audience seemed to (pardon the expression) eat it up. I personally came close to wetting my pants. Exiene who’d been nothing short of magical the first two times was wearing down a bit. His story about his husband having bladder cancer, while amusing and uplifting, seemed to be kind of a bummer to some of the audience. Flanigan did well but seemed tired Simmons was boiling like it was his first time up all weekend.
Anton Shuford told a great story about stealing a foul ball from a disabled kid at a Yankees game, Erin Jackson gave a hilarious recount of one of the worst dates she’d ever had and Leo Flowers held his own. When the judges went back, I don’t think anyone was quite sure of how it was all gonna shake out.
AND THE WINNER IS…
In fourth place was Ricarlo Flanigan who couldn’t be found when Marshall Chiles announced his name. Marshall being the understanding soul that he is just said “F*%k him” and moved on. Ha! Third place went to Exiene Lofgren, second went to Tom Simmons then low and behold somebody found Ricarlo before our winner was announced. Sam Morril seemed to be in disbelief as he took the stage to claim the crystal microphone. He held it tight in his hands and couldn’t have been more appreciative.
One of the judges (Michael Cox) asked my thoughts on the decisions afterwards and I confessed that while I thought Sam deserved to win, it was a bit dumbfounding as to why Ari Shaffir didn’t even place. Cox explained that they just felt Shaffir’s story about Bobby Lee (while funny) took nearly six minutes just to get the climax. It just wasn’t what they were looking for.
As far as picking Morril as the winner, they felt he had the strongest set in the Finals, and for the purposes of this competition, a very marketable appeal. Not to be discounted, while Tom Simmons took second place, he will also receive 500 bucks and as much steady work that can be found for him as well.