One comic, one microphone stand, one stool, four walls and a jumble of tables and chairs—this is the typical comedy club. No distractions. The focus is on that sole spot on stage and the mind at its center—a man or woman willing to be near naked on a stage and endure the insular, hierarchal, competitive business of stand-up comedy, as long as it means never having a boss or day job again.
The Dallas Comedy Festival kicked off on Tuesday night with a showcase of stand-up comedians. Rather than the traditional opener/middler/headliner triple bill of most comedy clubs, a showcase grants each performer about eight to 15 minutes to strut their stuff. It's a best-bits format, providing little insight into a comedian's skill with set structure, rhythm and pacing. On the other hand, if there's an act you don't like just wait, something new will come along next. I only fantasized about skipping out for some Uncle Uber's fries a few times.
The hit-or-miss nature of comedy showcases depends on an energetic emcee to lift the lows and channel the highs. Landon Kirksey filled the bill and provided terrific comedic asides and congenial ribbing of comedians between acts.
Justin Williams' angle was nerdy black guy with glasses, describing himself as a "militant Erkel" and "the least gangsta black guy you'll ever meet." Understandable, hailing from Kansas City. But if you closed your eyes and simply listened, too much of the set was mining the audience for cheap reactions to aggressive fantasies.
The evening's pervasive pot theme was launched by Fonzo Crow of Dallas. His boisterous homie party-boy act consisted mainly of celebrating intoxication and excoriating the dumbness of those who cross his path—interesting combo since the two are oft connected—but admitted at the end that he's just a tattooed married guy with kids.
Jason Salmon is a deep rural Texan gone to New York City, so rural he could boast that he had a relative eaten by an alligator. A borderline bubba maybe a bit too obsessed with his moustache, he had a great animated delivery with lots of vocal variety and a solid repertoire of funny faces.
The only female on the bill, Michele Benson seemed to be having a low-energy off night. She worked the Latino angle, focusing on boyfriend jokes. The Dallasite's sly creeper kind of humor needs more set time to develop.
Freddie Vasquez had the home crowd in his pocket, bursting onto stage and conducting his entire act in first-year Spanish—shades of Will Ferrell's Casa de mi Padre. The audience being forced to translate on the run made getting the jokes that much more rewarding. A truly fun guy.
Shane Estep, a Dallasite moved to Little Rock, has a sly and clever set that was exceedingly eclectic as he spun scenes and scenarios that didn't quite link up. But being primarily a comic writer, the wordplay was superb even if the delivery was not.
High-blood-pressure humor was on display with Jason James, whose long-tangented stories usually concluded with Tourettey verbal explosions. Loved the bit about jerk drivers with Christian Ichthys symbols on their cards: "You have just lost your Jesus fish driving privileges."
Cris Lehman of Dallas, looking every bit the stoner with the type of knit cap that belies being too unmotivated to wash one's hair, took the evening's pot references to another level. Another crowd favorite, he had an understandable fixation on fast food, but zinged with his bits on fellatio and Mr. Potato Head. It's the kind of skillfullness that gained him a recent Funniest Comic in Texas win.
Aaron Arynapur of Denton/Dallas turned in his usual solid set, mining his adjustments to married life, like wives that make you order dishes they, not you, want to eat, and honestly pondering why his craft-happy son gets to come home covered in glitter but he can not. Loved the new material stepping away from the domestic scene, like a solid four minutes of indignation on youth that didn't recognize who Paul McCartney was at the Grammys, and a gall bladder attack after a day at the State Fair that ended him up in surgery. Turns out if you lose weight people don't much care how you do it.
The final set with Paul Varghese of Dallas started slow but built steam as he went beyond ridiculing human stupidity to poke deeply at American entitlement, comparing our pallid expressions of displeasure with political leadership to countries that riot in the town square. Bad as it may be, nobody flees the U.S. for Syria or Uganda, while in other countries people accumulate "frequent flee-er miles."
◊ Stand-up continues at 8 tonight, in the second day of the Dallas Comedy Festival.