In Los Angeles’ cutthroat comedy scene, it practically takes a miracle to break through and get noticed. More than 100 comics sign up weekly for just 20 spots at the Comedy Store’s open mic, while comics line up for hours ahead at the Laugh Factory and Improv for their shot at the stage. The Ice House in Pasadena almost exclusively works with talent established elsewhere.
Thus, the Ventura Comedy Festival (VCF) has stood as a beacon of hope for hundreds of Southern California comedians in the nine years since its inception. More than 100 comedians are accepted into preliminary rounds, which narrow the field down to six who compete in the semifinals Aug. 19-21, and subsequently the finals at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 24.
The VCF, whose home base is the Ventura Harbor Comedy Club, provides a great way to get noticed as well as bragging rights. But more impressively, it offers $4,000 in cash prizes, divided among the top seven comics. Determined by a combination of established judges and audience votes, the first place winner gets $2,500, second place $600, third place $500 and fourth through seventh places, $100 each.
“This has already proven to be a launching pad,” says Ventura Harbor Comedy Club owner Randy Lubas, who launched the club in 2007 with
fellow comic Andres Fernandez. “The second year, I discovered remarkable comedian Olivia Harewood. I found her to be so unique and interesting that I began managing her.”
“I just got her booked as a staff writer on The Late Late Show with James Corden just two weeks ago,” he adds. “James P. Connolly was seen by people at my festival by people at Sirius XM radio and they produced his comedy CD. Others have gotten work all over the place off the bragging rights of having won one of the prizes.”
The fest has an eclectic array of events aside from the competition, as only four shows of the 17 in the overall schedule are part of the contest. On Tuesday, Aug. 20, 30 comedians will perform their best three-minute sets in the hopes of being cast on one of the biggest shows on network TV, while a comedy and drag show featuring LGBT performers will take place on Wednesday, Aug. 21. Warrior Women United will sponsor the World’s Funniest Females show on Aug. 23. An all-ages comedy magic show will be performed on Aug. 24, with nationally known comic magician Tom Ogden as the featured performer. Nationally acclaimed conservative comedian Evan Sayet performs “Evan Sayet: A Squad of One” on Aug. 25.
One young comic hopeful who has already cleared his first preliminary round is Ryan Joseph, who started performing in Seattle two years ago but hit the Los Angeles scene six months ago. A fan of Louis CK, Chris Rock and Bill Hicks, he’s getting noticed at the Comedy Store and Pasadena’s Ice House for his incredibly twisted material that’s especially reminiscent of bad-boy comic Anthony Jeselnik.
“I like to do really dark, sick humor but deliver it in a really stupid manner,” says Joseph. “I project this stupid character that can talk about
these things, and it’s easy to laugh at him because he’s obviously very ignorant of things; if I don’t nail that persona, that joke doesn’t go over well.
“At Comedy Store, I was followed by a guy joking about being raped by his uncle and he asked why doesn’t [the joke] work? Maybe because you come off like your real self! But I was honored he asked that of me.”
Joseph had prior experience in drama and acting, but had always enjoyed “getting a rise out of people,” so he took the bait when a friend challenged him to go up and do better than the comics he was snickering about at a Seattle open mic. He writes constantly, and has already had the dark-comics’ honor of having an audience member yell at him or walk out (or both) at the Comedy Store and the Ice House. But his most controversial performance took place recently at a bar.
“I drove a woman out of the room, it was an amazing feeling,” says Joseph. “I felt like finally, I’m a comic now. It was a bar with 10 people in it. I was getting laughs but I knew it was a bad idea there, with no stage, standing by the bar with a microphone. I had said, ‘I’m here playing pool with my girlfriend so I can beat her in public.’ Other people said it was great, including my actual girlfriend, Jenny, but she was having a meltdown outside and her friends were trying to keep her from me.”
The Ventura Comedy Festival runs Aug. 19-25 at the Ventura Harbor Comedy Club, 1559 Spinnaker Drive, Suite 205, Ventura. Ticket prices vary, but there is a $39.99 all-access pass. Visit venturacomedyfestival.com.