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Saturday, September 19, 2020

Seattle International Comedy Competition takes Bellingham

Contestants in the Seattle International Comedy Competition made their last semi-final stop in Bellingham. // Photo by Kenzie Mahoskey

By Emily Erskine

Red velvet chairs, historic sconces and a brightly-lit stage hosted one comedian after another at the Mount Baker Theatre Saturday night. From 32 starting contestants to ten semi-finalists, the Seattle International Comedy Competition made its last stop of semi-finals week right here in Bellingham.

Ten diverse contestants each claimed the stage for 10 minutes with the goal of earning a spot in the top five.

This Pacific Northwest-based competition celebrates 39 years this fall. Each year, the winner of the Seattle International Comedy Competition wins not only a cash prize of $5,000, but the honor of being chosen as number one out of hundreds of other talented comedians from across the world.

The competition begins with judges narrowing down hundreds of candidates from all over the world to just 32 contestants. The contestants are then split into two groups of 16 people each, with each group assigned a different week. The top five performing contestants of each group are then selected to move onto the semi-finals.

This year, the semi-finals competition began on Tuesday, Nov. 13 on Bainbridge Island. From there, contestants worked their way to Edmonds, Olympia, Longview and finally, Bellingham.

According to Associate Executive Director of the Mount Baker Theatre, Amy Guerra, the competition organizers wanted to visit Bellingham because of the theater’s grand architecture.

“This has been going on for 39 years that they’ve been touring around the region, but it’s the first time they’ve been to Mount Baker Theatre,” Guerra said. “And they were really excited to have our big mainstage.”

According to Guerra, of the 1,517 seats in the Mount Baker Theatre auditorium, roughly 1,200 were sold before the start of the show.

The ten contestants that performed were Phillip Kopczynski, Landry, Drew Dunn, Harry J. Riley, Bo Johnson, Will Mars, Chris Mejia, Robert Peng, Zahid Dewji and Dan Quinn.

A performer does stand up against a red curtain at the Mount Baker Theatre
Performers filled the Mount Baker Theatre with laughter during Seattle International Comedy Competition semi-finals. // Photo by Kenzie Mahoskey

With five different cities in seven days the contestants mostly stuck with the same routines for every show, except for comedian Landry who said he tried to change his routines based on the audience and on what the contestants had joked already about before his turn.

“I try to read the crowd,” Landry said. “We’ve had some diverse rooms. In Seattle, everybody’s pretty young and there’s a lot of hipsters and city people. And then we go to an island and it’s just a bunch of savages, or a lot of retired people.”

Landry said he has been performing comedy for roughly 15 years. He said he wasn’t very good at it at first but stuck with it because of his self-proclaimed stubbornness and desire to succeed. During his performance, Landry’s material covered mostly jokes about the elderly and his aspirations for aging.

“Every venue draws a different group of people,” Landry said. “I like college towns, I do like to have some younger people in the crowd.”

Peter Greyy, host of the show and director of talent for the competition, said each night, the contestants were given a score by a panel of selected judges based on how well they performed. On top of their judging score participants had a chance at an audience “encore point,” where the audience was encouraged to cheer for each comedian after their set. If the cheering and clapping continued beyond a five-second countdown, then the comedian received their encore point.

The points each comedian earns over all five nights are then averaged, with their lowest score dropped, Landry said. After the scores were calculated, the finalists were announced after MC Auggie Smith’s 20 minute stand-up routine.

In 1997, Smith placed second in the competition and said he has had an abundance of success in his comedy career ever since due to the highly regarded nature of the competition.

Smith captivated the audience with pretend rage over minor inconveniences. No stand-up style was off-limits for the show. It was apparent that each contestant has their own unique comedy methods they are dedicated to. For instance, contest Robert Peng relied heavily on self-deprecating humor.

Peng is from Vancouver, B.C. and began his stand-up comedy career only two and a half years ago by performing at a comedy club called Yuk Yuk’s in Canada.

“When I heard about this show I knew it was a pretty big deal and a big opportunity for me,” Peng said.

According to pamphlet given out at the event, the show disburses over $15,000 in cash prizes to contestants and talent executives from CBS, NBC, and more view the event.

“Everybody’s completely different,” Landry said. “It’s so diverse, this line-up. Some people are dead pan, some people are very physical, some people are angry, some people are happy. It’s just so many different kinds of comedy.”

Contestant Phillip Kopczynski was one of the more physical comedians at the show, with skits in his performance demonstrating his wife attacking a dog and mimicking parents from his son’s Boy Scouts troop.

“People are performing their hearts out. It is wild,” Kopczynski said. “I am more tired from these 10-minute sets than I am from a 45-minute headline set, it’s crazy.”

Kopczynski took first place in both last night’s performance and the entire weeks total performance. He said he has been pursuing stand-up for about six years, even though he’s always had a love of comedy. He said he now runs a business that does conveyor maintenance for distribution companies and stand-up on the side.

Kopczynski said he tries to limit his “on the road” time for comedy to only twice a month so he can spend more time with his family in Spokane.

“I didn’t tell anybody when I was first doing stand-up,” Kopczynski said. “My wife didn’t even come see me for the first year and a half, and back then I was doing five to seven open mics a week.”

Kopczynski explained that his wife was terrified that he would fail or embarrass himself, but that no matter how nervous he was, he could never stop performing because it is his passion even if it is a difficult job.

“I wish every day that I could wake up and not want to do stand-up anymore,” Kopczynski said. “But I just love it so much. The entire process of it.”

The other four comedians continuing onto the finals are Landry, Drew Dunn, Harry J. Riley and Bo Johnson. Finals week begins Tuesday, Nov. 20, in Seattle and will continue until Nov. 25 where the winner will be announced at The Comedy Underground in Seattle.

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