Sean Kent predicts he'll be the winner of this year's San Francisco International Stand-up Comedy Competition. - www.seankent.com

Stand-up comics place their stakes

The annual San Francisco International Stand-up Comedy Competition could be compared to an endurance course. Its contestants go through arduous rounds of performances in clubs, colleges and casinos — even retirement centers and rowdy "one-nighters." "The schedule reflects what the business is like," says the competition's producer, Jonathan Fox. "The comics have to travel and do shows every night. The cream tends to rise to the top during the process."

The competition kicked off earlier this week in a cabaret-style lounge at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco.

"We like to perform one night in the city before we take the show on the road," Fox says. The contestants will perform throughout California and make a stop this weekend in Medford.

Alex Koll, Kevin Shea and Sal Calanni from San Francisco; Shawn Felipe from Honolulu; Derek Sheen from Seattle; Jimmy Ouyang from San Diego; A.J. Finney from Kansas City, Mo.; Sean Kent from Austin, Texas; and John Hastings from Toronto will take the gloves off at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30, at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford.

Shanti Charan, a fresh face on the Bay Area comedy scene, will be the only female contender. She won first place in the Rooster T Feathers Comedy Club's 2011 Comedy Competition and took third in the 2010 San Jose Improv Comedy Competition.

Don Frost, the stand-up that took first place in the 2011 Portland Comedy Contest, will host the Craterian show.

It's funnyman Kent who predicts he'll be the winner of this year's competition.

"I jokingly made that bold statement to Fox, and he posted it on the contest's website," Kent says. "It will haunt me forever if I don't win. That being said, I am still guaranteeing victory."

Each year, hundreds of stand-ups audition to compete in the San Francisco International Stand-up Comedy Competition.

"Out of hundreds, we chose 32 to compete this year," Fox says. "Then we whittled them down to 10 for the semifinals."

Kent won three of the five preliminary rounds and he came in second at another. He's a past winner of the Seattle comedy competition, and says he knows how the process works.

"You have to go on stage and be the best comedian you can," Kent says. "You know not to let it get you too high or too low emotionally.

"The stand-ups who do best are either really confident or don't expect to win but have a carefree attitude. That reflects in their performances. The ones who struggle are those who are too emotionally attached to the outcome."

Kent has worked in Hollywood for 15 years and has made a living as a stand-up on the road for 11 years.

"If you win the San Francisco competition, it will do great things for you," Kent says. "I got in it because it is the granddaddy of competitions. It's the most prestigious in the country."

The competition was founded in 1976 by Frank Kidder of the San Francisco Press Club.

"That was when the legend began, because Robin Williams came in second," Fox says.

So who came in first?

"A guy named Bill Farley came in first," Fox says.

The story goes that during the final round at Joe Nobrica's Showcase in San Francisco, television stations overloaded the electrical circuits at the club and the place went dark. Farley whispered into the microphone, "When the lights come back on, everyone yell, 'Surprise!' "

"It was a brilliant ad lib," Fox says. "I think he won $100, but he didn't bear the brunt of beating out Robin Williams. I think it actually drove him out of the business."

Fox, then a program director for the press club, later began producing the competition with his wife, Anne, and their sons, Jake and Shane.

"We're under a lot of pressure," Fox says. "People want to know when the new Robin Williams will arrive."

Stand-ups in the 2011 competition are vying for a total of $15,000. Beyond the money, many of the finalists emerge as stars.

The 1977 champ, Dana Carvey, went on to "Saturday Night Live," and runners up Ellen DeGeneres (1985) and Mark Curry (1989) landed their own television shows. The 1993 finalist, Patton Oswalt, landed a role on "King of Queens," and 1995 saw the debut of Dane Cook.

"Two of our finalists from 2006 have television roles," Fox says. Mike E. Winfield and Mo Mandel have roles on NBC's "The Office" and "Free Agents," respectively.

The 2010 champ is Auggie Smith.

Tickets cost $22, $25 and $28; $15, $18 and $21 for ages 18 and younger. Call 541-776-3000 or see www.craterian.org.

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