If you were to ask me at the start of the 2008 New York’s Funniest Stand-Up contest, who I thought would win, well, someone did, and before I could say "John Mulaney" (whoops, he’s not even in the contest? wait, what? oh, right, Mulaney is headlining at the Punchline in San Francisco this week, so he already had plans), I thought, Julian McCullough was the only Carolines club comic returning from among the 2007 contest finalists, so, yeah, him. McCullough did win the $2,500 prize last night at Carolines, along with a week of gigs at the club and an additional spot opening for one of the New York Comedy Festival headliners.
"I’m going to move to Hoboken with this money," McCullough joked while holding the large cardboard fake-check, in between sincere sentiments about his fellow competitors. "I want to thank Carolines. They’ve changed my life over the past two years."
McCullough told me afterward that he already had a festival gig opening for Susie Essman at Carolines this weekend. Which makes me realize that picking the winner of this contest is simple! Last year, winner Wil Sylvince had a festival gig before the contest; this year, ’twas McCullough. So if you want to win in 2009, get yourself booked in the fest first!
As even McCullough pointed out when he opened his finals set, stand-up comedy contests don’t mesh well with stand-up comedy personalities. "Take the hardest job in the world and pit us against each other," he told the audience. And this contest has some work to do, too — it uses the same audition process as Last Comic Standing (preferring appointments over open calls), which gives an advantage to comedians who know the system and the Carolines staff; and the name, well, the name of the contest, "New York’s Funniest Stand-Up," is about as much of a misnomer as Grammy’s Best New Artist. Actually, it’d make more sense if they called it New York’s Best New Stand-Up, because even if the stand-up has worked for years, he or she is new to the New York City scene and industry and at least that separates that title from the many great and funny stand-up comedians who live in the city. That said, it’s great that the Carolines-produced festival addded the contest to its lineup, because it’s one of those events that helps make this week in NYC comedy more special and unique than any other week.
Want to know who I think New York’s funniest stand-up is? Want to know how everyone else did in the contest? Keep reading…
If you were in the room, you’d be hard pressed to say that anyone had a stronger set and connected better with the audience than Mike Vecchione. Vecchione had multiple applause breaks, which no one else last night could boast. He killed. That was thanks in part to Nate Bargatze, who went up before him and opened up the audience. DC Benny also connected strongly, but why shouldn’t he have? He was the veteran stand-up in the lineup among relative rookies. OK. Let’s go back and begin from the beginning. Judah Friedlander hosted and did as well as you could with a distracted Wednesday night club crowd.
1) Esther Ku bit the bullet. She opened with a topical bit about her Korean parents confused why they were calling Barack Obama "black" all the time, because in Asian-speak, they say black as barack. Get it? Got it? Good. Audience liked her "Jesus is our super" joke, though her execution started to fizzle near the end.
2) Nate Bargatze took that warm-up and ran with it. Even when he misfired on his opening line playing off of the offstage DJ, DJ Wiz, noting that stand-up is the only job where three seconds into it, you can suck. Landed a good NYC-related joke about how finding a parking spot is tougher when your friends are passengers in the car. Topical: Noted that the Great Depression must have been depressing…just look at the photos from the 1920s! I enjoyed hearing his bits about his wife waking up late at night, asking "Nate, is that you?" as well as his argument for cooped-up chickens over free-range, his enjoyment of the 2 percent of us that aren’t monkey DNA, and his frustrations with the Madden NFL video game.
3) Mike Vecchione went up next and just was solid from start to finish. Got an applause break for his routine about looking like a cop. Got more applause when his bit about Preseident-elect Obama getting arrested for dogfighting produced audience weirdness. Also advocated putting the homeless in toll booths, where they’ll get tiny homes and get to ask people for change all the time. "Bronze medal countries" got a big laugh, too. And his joke about the $700 billion bailout for banks and how it makes his ATM transactions awkward now is…just…very relatable and strong. As I noted earlier, he killed. Hard to see how someone would top this set.
4) Jordan Carlos played off of Obama’s win by saying of his own appearance, "A nerdy black man is running the world now, so you better obey me." He worked the crowd with a guy he thought was also "nerdy black" but turned out to be "undercover Indian." His gentrification joke didn’t quite land, but the audience liked his deconstruction of Justin Timberlake’s "My Love" and his dream of a swirly child better. He also tried reciting Dickens on Scrooge. "I guess none of you read Dickens," Carlos told the crowd. He told me later he had fun, despite not winning.
5) Julian McCullough won. And yet. He opened with remarks about the contest, noted he was the only comic "who can’t go eight minutes without a beer" onstage, and said he was "ballsy" for telling a new joke in a contest that might be racist. His bits about mistakenly taking an express train to Harlem and seeing that homeless subway guy on a JetBlue flight both hit home with New Yorkers, though. The new, possibly racist joke? Texting his one black friend to congratulate him on Obama’s win, then asking him for "two bags."
6) Hailey Boyle. A larger-set woman with an attitude against "skinny bitches" who acknowledges that through constant crowd work and also has a black boyfriend. Remind you of anyone? Boyle opened with her acknowledgement that she’s from Alaska, apologizing for Sarah Palin and saying "I love my country, but I love abortions more" joke.
7) Reese Waters opened by playing off of Carlos and telling the audience member in the front tables that "you really do look like a black nerd." Waters took the guys asking for spare change or cigarettes and expanded it out to asking for bites of a hot dog and other things. He also talked about growing up poor and/or cheap, veered into growing up in D.C. and how crime and schools are bad there, asked how fans can pay to boo at sports events, but wondered if they’d do the same to their exes. His closer ended small, rather than big.
8) DC Benny gave a very New York City club comedy set, opening with a bit about how Times Square has become Disney-fied, but will probably revert back to darkness, with Disney folks. A joke about mistaking a heroin addict in the park for a guy doing Tai Chi (reminds me of the guy who teeter totters on my block but won’t fall down). Extended bits about a British guy (with accent) trying to get his bicycle on the NYC subway system, and a wild cab ride that turns into a challenge/race hits home with both New Yorkers and tourists. He also jokes about being Jewish with a black wife, and having dinner with the in-laws. DJ Wiz assisted him last night with a punchline scratch. It’s all very solid.
9) Myq Kaplan. I’m a fan of Kaplan, a new New York resident (moved here from Boston at the end of the summer), and he did what he normally does to open, which is to callback to other acts. Liked his bit about books that become movies that, in turn, force the books to look more like the movie (using Fight Club as his example). Audience wasn’t really on his side, though, until his Final Destination bit.
10) Stone & Stone. They did their two-man shtick, and the audience began tuning out.
11) Geno Bisconte brought up the rear and realized right off the bat that the audience was done. Bisconte went with quick rat-a-tat-tat jokes and audience insults, some of which seemed completely arbitrary — not that you’d know that if you couldn’t see who he was poking fun at.
So that was that.
But back to the essential question: Who is New York’s funniest stand-up? What do we mean by that? Do we mean the funniest stand-up who works the clubs but isn’t yet a headliner? Or do we mean the funniest comic in the city? Plenty of very funny people did not participate in this contest. They didn’t need the money. They didn’t need the title. They have plenty of work already. But. What if they did?
Who is New York’s funniest stand-up comic working today? I’d like to hear what you think. Please place your nominations in the comments below. I’ll accept stand-ups, too, who don’t live in the city proper (for example, Chris Rock lives in New Jersey, as does Patrice Oneal, while Louis CK may live outside the city limits) as well as those who recently made homes here (Ricky Gervais lives in the city now, as does Paul F. Tompkins). So, I want to know: Who is New York’s funniest stand-up? The nominations are open!