On a recent Saturday night in Carrboro, six aspiring standup comics grabbed the mic at DSI Comedy Theater to take their stab at bringing the funny.
DSI (stands for Dirty South Improv) is a small space but a big success on the Triangle comedy scene. Established as a venue in 2005 by owner Zach Ward, DSI hosts comedy shows and classes every week - improv, standup and sketch comedy - along with the annual N.C. Comedy Arts Festival.
On Saturday, DSI will present the championship event of its annual Carolina's Funniest stand-up comedy competition. Over the last three weeks, a field of 36 contenders has been whittled to the final four, who will perform Saturday.
Two finalists were chosen May 8; the other two at a concluding semifinal last night, after press time. Winners are chosen by audience ballot, and the stakes are relatively high for a working comic: The winner gets $1,000 and will headline the 2012 N.C. Comedy Arts Festival.
Bringing the funny
Sherlonda Clarke, one of the two comics to make the cut for Saturday's finals round, opened the recent show with 10 strong minutes and clearly won the crowd's affection early on with gently funny bits on gender, race and perceptions.
Clarke began her standup career just over a year ago, after making a New Year's resolution to give comedy a go. An administrator at N.C. State University by day, Clarke took a five-week course in standup comedy before taking the stage.
"I always knew it was something I wanted to do, because there's a difference between being funny at the office and actually getting on stage," she said.
Clarke said she prefers to work "clean" - no curse words, no deliberately offensive topics - because that allows her to speak her mind to any audience.
"I love Sinbad and Jerry Seinfeld," Clarke said. "I'm a clean comic, and I like the idea of doing a performance where the whole family can come. I admire that - that's hard to do, actually.
"One isn't better than the other, and maybe it's because I've worked in education for so long, but comedy can be so powerful. What I'm putting out there into the world is important - how can I do that in a way that's clean and honest and funny?"
Ebb and flow ...
Standup comedy, as a cultural institution, tends to ride waves of popularity. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, stand-up clubs proliferated across America. In those days you couldn't wave a microphone stand without hitting an aspiring comic standing in front of a brick wall somewhere.
Comedy has since splintered, the down economy closing hundreds of clubs, and online culture creating new formats for both comedians and audiences. Aspiring funny people these days can get their voice out there with viral videos, websites and especially, podcasts. Veteran comic Marc Maron has won a huge following with his podcast, which digs deep into the raw nature of quality comedy.
"You can do things now locally and get national attention," said DSI owner Zach Ward. "You can do your show in Carrboro and get it out there to Chicago and LA and New York."
Shane Smith, the first semifinal's other winner, also delivered a strong set, with very funny bits on cats, Southern living and Walmart.
Smith does comedy on the side while running a graphic design business from home in Raleigh. Smith said he got serious about comedy when he got sufficiently fed up with a day job.
"I was working at a PR firm in Raleigh and just got tired of it and wanted to focus on doing stuff that I enjoyed," he said.
Smith began taking classes at Upright Citizen's Brigade Theater in New York, where he met DSI's Ward.
"I realized I could be doing improv classes in my own backyard," Smith said.
Smith cited a recent podcast with comic Paul F. Tompkins as being an inspirational moment in his act.
"A key part that stuck home with me, he said that for a long time in his career, he was just 'making the sounds of comedy.' He knew how to make people laugh, but he wasn't really saying anything important or personal.
"Right now, I'm telling people things I think are funny," Smith said, "but I'm not really revealing or engaging the way that I'm capable of.
"That's the main reason I keep going forward in standup, because I want to get to that point."