It takes a lot of work to make an audience of strangers burst into laughter. Like the time stand-up legend Paul Mooney compared Barbara Bush to the guy on the Quaker Oats box. That’s funny.
But it takes time for newbie comics to get to that Mooney-level and perfect a solid, natural delivery. Keeping your ego in check is essential, especially in competitions among your peers.
Stu McCallister has hosted the Funniest Person in Grand Rapids competition for eight years now. At this point, he’s always frank with the newcomers taking the stage for the first time.
“I’m completely honest. I say, ‘You’re not going to win,’” McCallister said. “So many people have this thing where they come in like, ‘I’m gonna f*ckin’ win,’ and I tell them, ‘There are 90 people in this contest. One person wins. You’re not going to be that person.’”
McCallister said few comics involved in the Funniest Person in Grand Rapids contest are career comedians. The handful of competitors who are regular stand-up performers have typically only been at it for four or five years, but think it’s a great way for funny people to stretch their legs in front of a live audience and take stand-up for a spin.
While it started with 90-some original contestants in the 13-week event, preliminary rounds wrapped up last month. Now, it’s down to 10 comedians. The chosen few will perform in each of the remaining two semi-finals, eight advancing on to the final round on April 29. The winner takes home $1,500.
Judging for the 10 preliminary and two semi-final rounds is based on audience applause and cheering. The level of crowd noise is determined by McCallister and two other judges at the end of the performances.
It’s a bit unscientific, McCallister admits, but it’s the most convenient and cost-effective method.
“The applause thing scares (comedians) away,” he says, “but I keep telling everyone, ‘If you’re funny, you’re going to move on. It’s going to happen.’”
For the final round, audiences are given ballots and asked to vote for first, second and third place: worth three, two and one points, respectively. Those points are averaged out to determine who wins Funniest Person in Grand Rapids. He says the point system helps prevent those who made it to semi-finals because they brought the loudest, largest entourage from advancing to the final round.
“It evens everything out because, if you’re bad, the only people voting for you at all are your friends,” McCallister said. “The woman who won the first year was from Lansing, she didn’t bring anybody and she wasn’t first place on anyone’s vote, but she was second or third on almost every vote so she won. Her humor had a mass appeal.”
“I’ve never felt like, ‘Yeah, that person didn’t deserve it, they only won because they brought the most people,’” McCallister said. “Everyone who has won has always been a person who didn’t bring a whole lot of people. They won because they’re funny.”
His advice? Be relatable, be genuine, plan your jokes and appreciate the opportunity.
“Forget that it’s a contest,” McCallister said.“You’re getting eight minutes at a comedy club in front of people who have paid to come see you.”
Funniest Person in Grand Rapids
Semifinals: April 8 and 15, Finals: April 29. Shows at 9 p.m., tickets $10
Dr. Grins Comedy Club (inside The B.O.B.), Grand Rapids