Comedians wonder how 2019 Laughing Skull Comedy Festival contest can exist in Atlanta without any black women

On Thursday, the Laughing Skull Comedy Festival announced the 60 comedians participating in the 10th annual stand-up comedy contest in Atlanta this May, and it didn’t take anyone too long to wonder what was wrong with that picture.

As stand-up Samantha Ruddy posted on Twitter today:

But the festival doubled down when confronted about it yesterday on Facebook, writing:

To keep judging fair for all, the top 60 are chosen EXCLUSIVELY from the scores of a panel of judges based on delivery, material, originality, professionalism, and overall impression. Once all the videos are watched, the names are removed and the numerical scores are used to designate which comedians are invited. To not use this system for every single submission would jeapordize the fairness to ALL 1,000 comedians who applied. To intentionally place someone in the top 60 who did not score as highly as the other top 60, merely because he or she is of a certain ethnicity or gender would not be fair to all applicants – including that individual. Festivals do not go out and find talent that do not submit – that is not the nature of a festival. There are a good number of comedians who, if they had submitted, would have certainly scored high enough to attend. We are not a popularity contest, we do not judge on tv credits, but instead on the tapes we receive. Multiple late night television sets were submitted and did not make the top 60. We were aware that less than ten black women applied, because we were equally surprised at how few chose to do so when receiving submissions. But this fact has nothing to do with the tapes that were submitted, the scores received, and the final outcome. There is a pool of local talent of every gender and ethnicity who will be hosting shows who may not have submitted. Moving forward, please choose to congratulate all the hard working men and women who were selected for this festival. We will not be responding to any further negativity. Thanks to all who submitted, and we look forward to your tapes next year!


What’s the point of having a comedy contest if you’re not going to have the best contestants in it?

Is it just to make money?

That’s the sense you might get from the increasing list of contests around the country. Yeah, sure, charging a submission or application fee helps pay for overhead. It also has nothing to do with how funny someone is. Yeah, sure you’d like to think that the funniest people could afford a $25 or $35 or $50 fee to get into a comedy competition. You’d also like to think that’s not necessary to enter the contest. It should be about how funny you are, right?

Back when the San Francisco Comedy Competition started in 1976, it, and eventually a sister contest in Seattle in 1980, were the only games in town. And it showed in the level of competition. Particularly in San Francisco. It helped, of course, that the Bay Area provided a home base for such future legends as Robin Williams and Dana Carvey. But look at some of the other finalists from years gone by. Sinbad and Ellen DeGeneres finished 1-2 in 1985. Ten years later, Doug Stanhope beat out Dane Cook. Other former finalists and winners included Mark Curry, Nick DiPaolo, Louis CK, Carlos Alazraqui, Marc Maron, Patton Oswalt.

Although Preacher Lawson won the Seattle contest in 2016, just before breaking out big-time the following summer on America’s Got Talent, I cannot tell you too much about recent winners or finalists from either Seattle or San Francisco.

Perhaps that’s an indirect consequence of the digital comedy boom. Too many aspiring comedians. And now also so many comedy festivals and contests across America. Many of them not so much curated as they are dependent upon submission/application fees.

Laughing Skull boasts that its participants “perform for the industry’s top bookers, manager, agents, and packed audiences,” with testimonials from the bookers for Just For Laughs New Faces and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

When Janelle James saw the absolute lack of black women in this year’s Laughing Skull contest, she wondered what happened. Plenty of comedians clued her in that this isn’t a new thing to wonder.

Atlanta native Shalewa Sharpe, recently seen performing on HBO’s 2 Dope Queens, noted “this is my “home club” and yet they’ve never managed to accept me into their li’l festival. last year they hit me with the NOPE on the same day as all of that fallon black panther stuff so i didn’t really feel it, but ugh.”

And Dulce Sloan, a past runner-up in the Laughing Skull contest and current correspondent for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, added to that: “I have always wanted a full explanation as to why Shalewa has never been in this festival. She should have gotten before I did. Period.”

Perhaps festivals such as Laughing Skull and others have sent an indirect message to black women not to bother.

“Never applied but I also stopped applying for fests like… 3 yrs ago & my life is so much better,” said Rebecca O’Neal.

James took over the name and format of the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival last year in Brooklyn, and curates the programming herself. Tig Notaro does the same for her annual Bentzen Ball in D.C. If I ever hosted a version of The Comic’s Comic as a live event, I’d want to curate the entire lineup and ensure it’s the best I could get for those dates.

Victor Varnado saw all the back-and-forths on Laughing Skull and wrote an open letter with his own solution. In short: “Add Black Women To The Laughing Skull Festival Lineup.”

Here is a FAQ where I try to anticipate and diffuse any reason you might say “no.”

Why should we listen to you, Victor Varnado?
You do not have to listen to me.

The submission period is over. We were fair. People can submit next year. Why should we go out of our way to add to the lineup?
It costs you nothing but a little time and effort to add some funny black women to your lineup. The upside is that it will show that you have goodwill toward the community and will most likely sell more tickets. I believe people will respond to your fest going out of their way to do something nice. I noted that in your comments you said: “festivals do not go out of their way to find talent that did not submit.” They do. At least the big ones do. 
Sundance for one does it all the time. I was scouted by South By Southwest in 2011 for a film I directed and did not submit. I even run a festival and we regularly reach out to people who have not submitted. I am not saying that you have to do it because other fests do, I am saying that it’s not unusual.

Everyone who complained was overly negative and often rude. Why should we capitulate to that?
I agree that sometimes it feels like it sucks to respond with kindness when you feel that you have been attacked without provocation. I can see in your writing that at the heart of your response you are saying “hey, we tried hard to be fair” and it may feel like people are not giving your fest any credit for that. I get that but I think you also don’t want to be known as the fest without black women.

We will be shamed in front of our peers if we acquiesce. Why should we be weak?
In my eyes, you would be strong. There’s a lot wrong with how people deal with each other and too few people try to do something practical to make it right. Currently, you are holding your ground and nobody is getting exactly what they want. You want to have a great festival and to make as many people happy in and around that festival as you can. Those that have been vocal want black women represented in the lineup. The surprise is, EVERYONE wants both of those things and you have the power to make it happen.

I hope you do something. You have nothing to lose. Please reach out to a few funny black women and add them to your lineup. If the only thing holding you back is that you don’t want to spend the time it will take to make these changes I would be happy to help you find the resources.

Love, your best pal,

Victor Varnado

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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3 thoughts on “Comedians wonder how 2019 Laughing Skull Comedy Festival contest can exist in Atlanta without any black women

  1. So the black women invited will know they are only there because of this affirmative action? I think people are not very good at understanding probability. If you have 1,000+ applicants and fewer than 10 black women, applicants – the outcome that happened is completely reasonable – even likely- mathematically.

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