I’m back in Boston this week for the 2008 Boston Comedy Festival, which began last night and runs through Saturday, culminating in awards honoring The Smothers Brothers for 50 years together in comedy, local Steve Sweeney for his contribution to Boston comedy, and of course, the ninth annual winner of the Boston comedy contest. Because if you look at the schedule, the contest dominates the framework of this fest.

Festival head Jim McCue has tweaked the format for the contest this year, allowing four comics to advance each night to a semifinal round, as opposed to two comics in previous years. That seems much fairer, considering some of these brackets are stacked and in past years, picking only two out of 12 to advance could seem quite arbitrary. McCue asked me to judge the first two rounds of preliminary action last night, so instead of dishing my own personal opinion on each and every stand-up who took the stage, let’s take a look at who advanced from Prelims 1-2 and offer insight into why they had that something extra to get them into the semis.

Prelim 1 winners: Sean Sullivan, J-L Cauvin, Patrick Bulger, David Foster.

Sullivan didn’t let his physical size become too cliche in terms of fat jokes, instead turning the audience’s impression into laughs by talking about his fiancee, a clever way of replying to all of the questions about his upcoming wedding, and how the house they bought got broken into. Though he did explain the difference between fat and "too fat for Disney World." His bit about his first date with his future wife, miniature golfing, also manages to be both sweet and funny.

Cauvin notes right upfront that, at 6-foot-7, he is a giant. He has a fresher take on an Obama joke, offering that Obama seems like he’s in such a hurry because being the first black president is much better than being the second one, using the comparison of white presidents to good effect. Cauvin, too, is biracial, which allows him to joke about why his mother supported Hillary Clinton over Obama.

Bulger opened with a quick, simple one-liner answering the question of whatever floats your boat: "It’s water." It lets you know right away that he’s a joke guy. Bang, bang, bang. He acts out the worst time to be stabbed, and yes, turns out, there is one time that’s worse than others. Wants to open a bar called ‘Nam to explain alcohol troubles. Closes with an equally simple yet strong observation about Alien vs. Predator.

Foster got a demerit in my book for wearing shorts. I know stand-up comedians have gotten more and more casual over the years, but shorts? Really? Even in a competition with $10,000 in prize money? Anyhow. He wants to be a tattoo artist without tattoos, to screw with customers. His MySpace page tells me he also goes by the name, "Sauce." Um, ok. Glad he didn’t mention that last night. Instead, he had a cheery stage presence, and wondered what Hawaiians do for vacation.

Honorable mentions in my book also go to Dale Jones and Danielle Stewart. Jones, from Nashville, made it past initial judging on TV this year’s edition of Last Comic Standing. Live, you get a better sense of his manic energy and physicality. Two years ago, I summarized him simply as Ernest Goes to Jim Carrey Camp. It does give you a picture of how much he has going on onstage, along with that accent. I thought he served himself well last night, though, starting slowly with a bit questioning why homeless people don’t like to spoon, then ramping it up several notches. I can see how audiences might be overwhelmed, particularly in a contest like this. Even Jones acknowledged it, saying in self-deprecation: "I don’t know. I think this might be his Make-A-Wish." Stewart, who grew up around Boston but lives in Los Angeles,
had a saucy and sassy set. About premartial sex: "It’s not premarital sex if there’s no chance I’m going to marry you." She also points out shrewdly how Barbie really is her role model. And as the only woman in this prelim, it made her stand out even more.

Prelim 2 winners: Dan Hirshon, Geoff Brousseau, E.J. Murphy, Mike Whitman.

As opposed to the early show audience last night, which took too long to warm up, the late show was ready from the get-go to laugh. Maybe that’s a Sunday night function. Maybe it had to do with the Patriots-Jets game, which could have impacted who went to the earlier show. At any rate.

Dan Hirshon didn’t have to worry about biting the proverbial bullet by going up first. In fact, Hirshon used his own joke about college to segue smoothly from the host’s warm-up to his own set, joking about failing his audition to be an extra in The Departed because he was "too Jewish?" Had great stage presence, even better reactions from the audience. Also clever enough to offer his own slogan for Las Vegas (and thank goodness, because that city’s ad campaign has been beaten into the ground by comedians in this century!). A strong start.

Geoff Brousseau, from Seattle, went last, and also didn’t have to worry about the crowd being too flat or fatigued for the finish. A nice bit about how he hates poetry slams, but thinks they may have a place in greeting cards. His set also revolved around his daughters, his younger one he named "Dream Killer."

EJ Murphy, like Hirshon, a recent transplant to NYC from Boston, had an interesting start. When Murphy grabbed the microphone from the stand, it made an awkward and quite audible fart sound, and the comic simply said, "Aw right!" It made me laugh, anyhow. Murphy had a strong presence, questioned the local students at MIT and their intelligence by going to a mostly-male school, talked about looking for work on Craiglist, how his co-worker Mohammed got stuck with a tough name for "a non-practicing Muslim." Went local again for his closer, about a neighborhood conversation that includes the phrase "when Mikey got stabbed" but is not about Mikey at all.

Mike Whitman presented a quirkier side to himself (at least for me,
since I hadn’t seen him in a while) by choosing to close with a long,
rambling joke that he wrote, with the joke being in the rambling. His
thoughts about warm change and theories on family reunion photos —
don’t end up in the middle! — also met with many laughs from the
audience.

I also thought Cash Levy had a solid set worthy of advancing, offering tips on dating as well as getting your clothes at the lost and found, and railing against tall people. His closing bit, about an old lady singing at a Notre Dame football game, seemed to win over much of the crowd, too. And I wonder where Victor Varnado was, since he was listed on the tally sheets for this prelim. His absence certainly opened a door for one of these four to move on.