Competitive Comedy

My First Comedy Contest

Summer is a notorious slow season for stand up comedy. Nobody wants to go to a grubby comedy club when the sun is shining. This goes doubly for us squirrely, vitamin D-starved Minnesotans. The long summer nights make for an additional challenge because, for some reason, stand up comedy isn’t meant to see the light of day. This is why most comedy clubs are designed like casinos: no windows, no clocks, no hope. My home club, Comedy Corner Underground, looks like a torture basement.

This time of the year also means many clubs are holding their annual comedy contests, where amateurs and professionals alike compete for the adoration, and more typically the resentment, of their peers. The first comedy contest that I performed in was the 2016 Funniest Person Contest held by Acme Comedy Club in Minneapolis after I started stand up comedy in the spring of that year. I wasn’t any good, but I was starting to build a work ethic, performing a couple of times a week at local open mics. In May this endeavor was sidetracked when I was struck by a car while riding my bike.

Just as I was starting to dedicate a lot more time to writing and performing, I was completely derailed by my accident and subsequent injuries, surgery and recovery. My evenings went from doing stand up every night to sitting alone in my one bedroom apartment outside of downtown Minneapolis, waiting for my bones to heal in the summer heat. I was laid up until the Fourth of July and when the boot came off, I was only worried about making up for lost summer time. Stand up comedy was not on my mind.

No more stand up for this leg.

I forgot that I had signed up for the Acme contest back in the spring. After my injury, I postponed my contest date from June to late August, the very last night that the contest was running. Now it was late August and my contest night was looming. The thrill of performing stand up comedy can evaporate instantaneously if you are not prepared, so I went to a couple open mics that week to brush up on my objectively bad material. I was not looking forward to doing my set, I was having a panic attack.

But when I stepped onto the stage at Acme that night, my preparation kicked in. I told my jokes and they did well (a sensation that I was not used to). I held the stage with confidence. I improvised a line. I was actually having fun. The crowd was actually having fun.

An odd sensation that I remember from my first couple years of stand up is a complete lack of control of the performance. Often times, being on stage felt like a fugue state. Riddled with self-doubt, I was standing on the edge of a cliff, speaking out over the void, ready to tip in for any reason. That night was the first time that I knew I wouldn’t fall in. I was crushing.

I was ramping up for my dismount, when suddenly the mic went dead. One foot hung over the void. I kept talking, praying for the glitch to correct itself. It didn’t. A voice from the house P.A. system, “You went over your time. You gotta watch the light.” I plummet into the abyss.

At every comedy club there is a red light mounted somewhere in front of the stage that flashes to communicate to the performer that their time is expired. “Running the light” is when you ignore this indicator and keep performing and eating up time. The practice is outlawed and universally despised by bookers, clubs and comedians alike.

I don’t think I will ever recover from the depths of that moment. It was as if the first time I felt comfortable on stage, somebody had pulled my pants down to show the crowd my small penis and shriveled testes. I was mentally and spiritually destroyed. I sat at the bar afterwards, listening in pain as other comics crushed on the stage from which I had just limped. The manager sidled up next to me to tell me that if I hadn’t run the light, I most certainly would have won my contest round that evening. I ordered another drink as she walked away.

There isn’t a happy ending to this story. Stand up comedy is a medium that can scar you like this at any moment. You never know when your next big bomb is around the corner, and although you can learn to cope with it, I’ve heard that you never get over the sting. “You’re only as good as your last set,” is the sad mantra of many us. Sometimes a bad set is the only gas left in the tank to get you out to try to do better.

I tell this story because it is indeed contest season and at the beginning of next month I, Grant Winkels, will be hosting the Funniest Person in Minneapolis Contest at Sisyphus Brewing. Not only do I perform regularly at the Comedy Room at Sisyphus Brewing, I work as the assistant brewer there too. Since July, Sisyphus has been hosting live, socially distanced comedy shows. The room (original capacity 100) is run at less than half-capacity and masks are required. It’s a bit risky, but it’s worth it to help a place that employs me and serves an integral purpose for the Twin Cities comedy scene.

If you or anyone that you know may be interested in trying their luck with 3 minutes of material, send an email to to sign up before September 21st.

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